Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Society of Past Overseers, Westminster


There are several parochial Clubs in the metropolis; but that of the important parish of St. Margaret's, Westminster, with "Past Overseers" for its members, has signalized itself by the accumulation and preservation of an unique heirloom, which is a very curious collection of memorials of the last century and a half, exhibiting various tastes and styles of art in their respective commemorations, in a sort of chronology in silver.

Such is the St. Margaret's Overseer's Box, which originated as follows. It appears that a Mr. Monck purchased, at Horn Fair, held at Charlton, Kent, a small tobacco-box for the sum of fourpence, from which he often replenished his neighbour's pipe, at the meetings of his predecessors and companions in the office of Overseers of the Poor, to whom the Box was presented in 1713. In 1720, the Society of Past Overseers ornamented the lid with a silver rim, commemorating the donor. In 1726, a silver side case and bottom were added. In 1740, an embossed border was placed upon the lid, and the under part enriched with an emblem of Charity. In 1746, Hogarth engraved inside the lid a bust of the Duke of Cumberland, with allegorical figures, and scroll commemorating the Battle of Culloden. In 1765, an interwoven scroll was added to the lid, enclosing a plate with the arms of the City of Westminster, and inscribed: "This Box to be delivered to every succeeding set of Overseers, on penalty of five guineas."

The original Horn box being thus ornamented, additional cases were provided by the Senior Overseers for the time being,—namely, silver plates engraved with emblematical and historical subjects and busts. Among the first are a View of the Fireworks in St. James's Park, to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1749; Admiral Keppel's Action off Ushant, and his acquittal after a court-martial; the Battle of the Nile; the Repulse of Admiral Linois, 1804; the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805; the Action between the San Fiorenzo and La Piémontaise, 1808; the Battle of Waterloo, 1815; the Bombardment of Algiers, 1816; View of the House of Lords at the Trial of Queen Caroline; the Coronation of George IV.; and his Visit to Scotland, 1822.

There are also—Portraits of John Wilkes, Churchwarden in 1759; Nelson, Duncan, Howe, Vincent; Fox and Pitt, 1806; George IV. as Prince Regent, 1811; the Princess Charlotte, 1817; and Queen Charlotte, 1818. But the more interesting representations are those of local circumstances; as the Interior of Westminster Hall, with the Westminster Volunteers, attending Divine Service at the drum-head on the Fast Day, 1803; the Old Sessions House; a view of St. Margaret's, from the north-east; and the West Front Tower, and altar-piece. In 1813, a large silver plate was added to the outer case, with a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, commemorating the centenary of the agglomeration of the Box.

The top of the second case represents the Governors of the Poor, in their Board-room, and this inscription: "The original Box and cases to be given to every succeeding set of Overseers, on penalty of fifty guineas, 1783." On the outside of the first case is a clever engraving of a cripple.

In 1785, Mr. Gilbert exhibited the Box to some friends after dinner: at night, thieves broke in, and carried off all the plate that had been in use; but the box had been removed beforehand to a bedchamber.

In 1793, Mr. Read, a Past Overseer, detained the Box, because his accounts were not passed. An action was brought for its recovery, which was long delayed, owing to two members of the Society giving Read a release, which he successfully pleaded in bar to the action. This rendered it necessary to take proceedings in equity: accordingly, a Bill was filed in Chancery against all three, and Read was compelled to deposit the box with Master Leeds until the end of the suit. Three years of litigation ensued. Eventually the Chancellor directed the Box to be restored to the Overseers' Society, and Mr. Read paid in costs £300. The extra costs amounted to £76. 13s. 11d., owing to the illegal proceedings of Mr. Read. The sum of £91. 7s. was at once raised; and the surplus spent upon a third case, of octagon shape. The top records the triumph: Justice trampling upon a prostrate man, from whose face a mask falls upon a writhing serpent. A second plate, on the outside of the fly-lid, represents the Lord Chancellor Loughborough, pronouncing his decree for the restoration of the Box, March 5, 1796.

On the fourth or outer case is the Anniversary Meeting of the Past Overseers' Society, with the Churchwardens giving the charge previous to delivering the Box to the succeeding Overseer, who is bound to produce it at certain parochial entertainments, with three pipes of tobacco at the least, under the penalty of six bottles of claret; and to return the whole, with some addition, safe and sound, under a penalty of 200 guineas.

A tobacco-stopper of mother-of-pearl, with a silver chain, is enclosed within the Box, and completes this unique Memorial of the kindly feeling which perpetuates year by year the old ceremonies of this united parish; and renders this traditionary piece of plate of great price, far outweighing its intrinsic value.[16]

[16] Westminster. By the Rev. Mackenzie S. C. Walcott, M.A., Curate of St. Margaret's, 1849, pp. 105-107.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866