Elsdon Parish and Rochester Ward
Between the mid-17th and mid 19th centuries, Rochester was one of the constituent wards or townships in the vast parish of Elsdon. The inconvenience for worshippers of having such a distant parish church had been acknowledged by the mid 17th century. In a Survey of Church Livings held at Morpeth in 1650 it was declared
That some part of the said Parish (of Elsdon) being twelve myles distant from the said Church, it is ffitt a Church or Chappell be erected at Rotchester.
The recommendation was never carried out, but it is an intriguing thought to imagine a chapel installed in the middle of High Rochester fort, perhaps set in the middle of green overlying the Roman headquarters building!
Hodgson writing in the early 19th century, lists the seven townships which made up the parish of Elsdon, comprising Elsdon itself, Otterburn, Monkridge, Troughen, Woodside, Rochester and the small extra-parochial Ramshope (Hodgson 1827, 82-3). These arrangments are illustrated by the Elsdon Parish tithe map of 1840. Each of the townships maintained its poor separately, according to the terms of the 1662 Poor Law Act, which designated 'every Township or Village' in northern England as the unit for poor-rate assessment and collection (cf. Winchester 1987, 27).
Six of the townships were labelled 'wards' and formed integral parts of the parish. The remaining one, Ramshope, was extra-parochial, for reasons which are unclear, although anomalies of this kind can often provide useful clues regarding the development of local settlement patterns and communities, and might therefore repay further investigation. Elsdon, Otterburn, Monkridge, Troughen were long established communities which had probably formed townships since the medieval period (although they were perhaps not the only settlements in the lower part of the valley which functioned as townships in that period).
Woodside too fell within the zone of medieval settlement, comprising the valley of the Grasslees Burn and its tributaries. Rochester, probably settled in the first half of the 16th century, may have marked the limit of permanent occupation in the Redesdale at that stage. The small township of Ramshope, by contrast, was still just listed as a shielding ground or summer pasture in the early 17th century surveys (1604 survey, 83, 104 (where it is labelled Ravenshoulme); 1618 rental, 334). It was probably settled in the mid-late 17th century and consisted of only a single house and seven inhabitants in 1821 (Hodgson 1827, 154-5).
Although the townships or wards recorded in the 19th century were for the most part based on longstanding settlements, which may once have been the centres of territorial townships, there is no indication that they existed before the mid 17th century. The wards are not recorded in the 1604 Border Survey, which instead lists a great number of ‘places’ or ‘parts of the manor’ within the constituent parishes of the Manor of Harbottle.
These ‘places’ were in most cases no more than hamlets, groups of farms or individual farmsteads and represent the kind of small, territorial township typically found in upland areas in the medieval and early modern eras. They were clearly much smaller than the six 18th-19th century wards. The latter, by contrast, were established specifically to administer poor relief, following the 1662 Poor Law Act which had enabled ‘every Township or Village’ in northern England to serve as a the unit for poor-rate assessment and collection (Charlton 1987, 98-9; cf. Winchester 1987, 27). Each of these new wards was henceforth responsible for the maintenance of its own poor and setting a separate poor rate.
In other words the 19th century townships did not result from the collective labours of a medieval farming community, but rather were mid 17th century creations designed to facilitate the provision of poor relief.