The earliest form of Local Government known in Jamaica was called the Vestry system, patterned after the form of Local Government that existed in England at the time. It was introduced by the Governor Sir Thomas Modyford between 1662 and 1663.
The name is derived from the fact that Local Authorities were governed by the body known as the Vestry, comprised of Lay Magistrates and the Crown Clergy of that particular parish. The main functions of these Vestries were to support the Clergy, maintain the churches, offer relief to the poor and maintain the few roads that existed at the time, as well as maintain public order.
The Vestry system lasted for 200 years until its abolition in 1886, following the Morant Bay Rebellion. It was replaced by a system of the Municipal and Roads Boards, whose membership was nominated by the Governor. The major change in the Vestry system which took pace during the 200 tears of existence was in regard to the number of parishes. When the system was first introduced in 1664 there were seven parishes, and these gradually increased to a total of 22 by the time of its abolition. Law 22 of 1867 reduced the number of parishes to 14.
The loss of elected representation by the Local Government system in 1866 cannot be said to have been a blow to democracy. The Vestries operated in the interest and for the benefit of the planter class. By the 1850s their rule had become corrupt and efficient. The conduct of the Vestry in St. Thomas was partly responsible for the Morant Bay Rebellion.
Elected representation was restored to Local Government in 1886 with the creation of Parochial Boards which combined the functions of the Municipal Boards and the Road Boards.
The twenty-year period between the abolition of the Vestries and the establishment of the Parochial Boards had seen a significant increase in the responsibilities of Local Government. Among the functions that were extended to local authorities at that time were:
- Public Health in 1867
- Public Markets in 1874
- Fire Services in 1875
- Water Supplies in 1875
Later, abattoirs, building regulations, public beaches, sanitation and public cleansing and street lighting were added.
The parish structure established by Law 20 of 1867, the extension of the functions during the period between 1866 and 1886, and the creation of the formation of Parochial Boards in 1866, together created the modern Local Government System as we know it today.