Beadle, sometimes spelled “bedel,” is a term derived from the Latin word bedellus or the Saxon word bydel. Beadles in the Anglican Church, the church that Jane Austen‘s father was rector in, were described in England as parish constables, whereas in Scotland it described someone who assisted the minister during divine services. One description of an English beadle claimed that he was a “petty officer of police that may be said to have merged from the ancient parish crier.” Perhaps, the most famous beadle was the fictional Mr. Bumble who could be found in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. Mr. Bumble oversaw the parish workhouse and orphanage in a country town that was more than 75 miles from London.
Beadles were appointed by the vestry and part of their job was to attend the vestry, execute the vestry’s orders, and inform parishioners about where and when the vestry would meet. Additionally, parish beadles were subordinate to the churchwardens, overseers, and constables, which meant the beadle’s job was multifarious. He kept order in the church during services, served as town crier delivering news, dispersed noisy urchins, strolled the parish, solved squabbles between parishioners, took drunks to the round house (jail), and, at Christmas time, knocked on each parishioner’s door and delivered the Bellman’s verse.
Beadles supposedly never rested and were one of the most important people in the parish’s local administration. They worked from sunup to sundown and from Sabbath to Sabbath, with Sunday being their most active day. Early Sunday morning the beadle appeared at his post as he was “obsequious to the important churchwarden and pompous overseer.” It was the beadle’s job to help the churchwarden keep order in the church and the church yard, and, on Sundays, after marshaling the children into their places and ensuring the churchwarden and overseer were duly installed in their pews, the beadle seated himself at the end of an aisle, a spot reserved expressly for him. Additionally, once Sunday School was established in the 1780s (as this was the only day children did not work at the factory), the beadle was the person responsible to lead “the procession of the pauper parish children from church to the school.”
Parish beadles were also responsible to ensure people obeyed the sabbath as it was believed infidels “hate all religions equally … [with] the root of their quarrel being at all religion and virtue.” In the 1820s various clergymen gathered together to “devise some means of bringing about a better observance of the Sabbath.” At the time they claimed there was a “prevailing mode of spending the sacred day, in steam-boat excursions, in public gardens, in taverns, in carriages, on horseback; in a word, any where and any how, except attending divine worship.” William Hogarth, the English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist, drew a picture showing how one parish beadle agreed with the clergyman: He is raising his cane against wicked youth, “who, with a gang of Sabbath-breakers, [were] gambling on a tomb-stone in the church-yard [during a divine service].”
The parish beadle did not just lead the way to Sunday school or cane wayward and misbehaving youths, as he also had a duty to maintain law and order within the parish and to resolve squabbles between neighbors. One nineteenth-century painting by David Wilkie shows a parish beadle resolving a complaint. Apparently, itinerant foreigners created such a nuisance with their noisy music and trick performing pets, it annoyed the neighbors and they called the parish beadle. When he appeared, he was resolute in his duty and determined to restore order. In Wilkie’s painting he was shown to be determinedly walking the offensive itinerants to the round house despite their objections that they did nothing wrong.
In 1834, The Universal Songster — a compilation and chronicle of songs from early times to the 1830s — noted that “the vocal chant has at all periods and every where predominated,” and one of their most catchy and mirthful tunes published was The Beadle of the Parish. It took aim at the beadle’s proud view of himself and showed the extent a parish beadle went to enforce the law and keep the Sabbath holy.
“I’m a very knowing prig,
With my laced coat and wig,
Though they say I am surly and bearish.
Sure I look a mighty man,
When I flourish my rattan,
To fright the little boys,
Who in church time make a noise,
Because I’m the beadle of the parish…
Wherever I come nigh,
How I make the beggars fly,
My looks are so angry and scarish:
Like other city fools,
I do business in the stocks:
When whatever is lost I tell,
For you now I bear the bell,
Because I’m the beadle of the parish…
I’m an officer, don’t laugh,
But indeed I’m on the staff;
And all say I do pretty fairish:
On a Sunday strut about,
And keep the rabble out;
The churchwardens march before,
Just to open the pew-door,
Because I’m the beadle of the parish.
Stuff away—Merry day;
Drink about—See it out;
There will—Snacks for me,…
Why sounds, I’m the beadle of the parish.”
-  Pyne, W. H., The World in Miniature, 1827, p. 137.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Burnet, Gilbert, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, 1826, p. 257.
-  Bristed, John, Thoughts on the Anglican and American-Anglo Churches, 1822, p. 149.
-  Ibid.
-  Pyne, W.H., p. 147.
-  The Universal Songster, 1834, p. v.
-  Ibid., p. 191.