Parish administration originated in the manor courts (Court of Barons for free-tenants, Court of Customary for the unfree and Court of Leet for criminal jurisdiction). The lord’s power rested originally on force, restrained by public opinion, which had hardened first into custom and then into local law that the King’s new circuit courts would enforce. A whole variety of social changes over the centuries altered the system, so that by the time the first Tudors ascended the throne in the fifteenth century, the manor courts had already ceased to be important. Gradually the Church began to have a powerful influence, tithes were introduced, and it was not surprising that the inhabitants began to meet in the Vestry after which name the meetings began to be known. By 1819, the Vestry meetings, in total, were administrating ten times, in present day money, the money administered by present Parish Councils. After various attempts at reform, (the Sturges Bourne Act creating the Select Vestry, the Poor Law Act 1834 and others), the great step of creating Parish Councils was made.
The Local Government Act of 1894 introduced by Gladstone’s government after considerable opposition, created parish Councils. They were the first parish institutions to have a civil origin and status, with the Church being excluded from formal participation.
Harwell Parish Council held its inaugural meeting on 4th December 1894, in the National School Room, long since demolished, opposite the present Cemetery. Mr EB. Day was elected as the first Chairman along with six Councillors: Messrs J. Day, G. Perry, G. Harris, J.T. Prior, J. Lay and D. Boshier. Mr H. Burnham was appointed as the first Clerk to the Council, Assistant Overseer and Collector of Rates. The next two meetings were held in the Wesleyan School Room behind the Wesleyan Chapel.
Until the Second Great War, the Council was run by the farmers and the principal businessmen, the Chairmen after Mr ED. Day being Mr J. Day, Dr R. Rice and Messrs H. Tyrrell, J.S. Greenwood, J.E. Pryor, C. Fuller, S. Caudwell and K. Woodall. The presence of the aerodrome and later the Research Establishments changed this; the Chairmen from 1945 to 1985 were Messrs R. Campbell, J.E Hill, A. Brinkley, P. McNiven, W.A. Stuart, G. Cuzens, B. Metcalfe and A. Wood, all except two being associated with these Establishments. There had only been eight Clerks up to 1985; following Mr. Burnham were Messrs C. Fuller, G.E. Napper, H.C. Morse, WJ. Smith, B.L. Defries, C.S. Lees and W.B. Woollen.
The first rates precept was for £25, equivalent to £10,000 in 1984. The first few years saw great activity, with the Lighting Act being adopted in 1894 and a number of oil lamps were erected. The Burial Act came in 1896; the churchyard was closed, the first part of the new cemetery purchased, and responsibility for the churchyard maintenance taken over by the Parish Council in 1903. The Allotment Act came in 1895, and the present allotments were purchased and Mr G. Harris appointed as the Warden. The Recreational Ground was purchased in 1922, with half the money coming from public subscription. A fire brigade formed with Dr R. Rice as its captain, and the Baths & Washhouses Act was adopted in 1926, when the old sewage beds were converted into a swimming pool.
Although various projects were embarked upon between the wars, there was a further burst of activity in the period after the Second World War, when the Recreation Ground was extended and developed, a new pavilion and hard tennis courts built, a bowls club re-established, the cemetery extended, four bus shelters erected, and a large electrical street lighting scheme installed throughout the village. Expenditure in 1983-84 was over £21,000. The size of the Council has been increased over the years from six to eleven; and in 1985 meetings were held monthly with subcommittees once a week.