George Fieldstaff (c. 1789-1864)

George Fieldstaff was someone who benefited from the Old Poor Law as a labourer who was employed for his strength but also as a supplier of accommodation.  Unusually, for histories of the Old Poor Law, he spans the boundary of pauper-ratepayer.

He was baptised George Fieldstead in 1796, the son of James and Sarah Fieldstead, but all later census entries suggest that he was up to ten years old at the time of baptism.  The family’s surname is given variously as Fieldstad and Fieldstid before finally settling on Fieldstaff in the 1820s.  George married Elizabeth Bacon in 1820 and the couple had at least two children (Elizabeth and William), but he became a widower in 1824.  He then married Maria Brough (born c. 1786), who was herself a widow, on 17 January 1825, for which event neither spouse signed their name.  The second marriage produced at least one daughter, Martha, although not until 1835.

Censuses later describe Fieldstaff as an agricultural labourer and hawker, but after the death of his first wife he needed to turn to the parish for help and spent time as an inmate of the Uttoxeter workhouse.  By 1829 he was being employed in the workhouse brickyard, presumably cutting clay or hefting bricks in the manner of an industrial labourer, because he was paid for his work in May 1829.  In July 1829 was prosecuted at the Staffordshire quarter sessions for refusing to work while in the house but was paid again after he had resumed work in September of the same year.

Census labels notwithstanding, the most characteristic and persistent aspect of his employment history (discernible at this distance) is his keeping of a lodging house.  George Fieldstaff had escaped the workhouse by 1832, as between August 1832 and March 1833 Uttoxeter parish paid repeatedly to lodge itinerant people at his house on Smithy Lane, later Smithfield Road.  He charged three pence per night for an adult and one penny for a child.  By 1834 he was paying poor rate on the property as an occupier, on the basis of a presumed rental value of £1 15s per year.  This value was downgraded for subsequent years to less than half this sum, namely 13s 4d.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust: G. Cruikshank, police raid a lodging house at night, 1848,

This level of rent value does not suggest that the Fieldstaffs offered a high standard of accommodation.  Lodgers from 1841 onwards were occasionally listed as women of independent means, but this might have been disingenuous or even sardonic as most of the occupants of the house were labourers, or even beggars.  At the time of the 1861 census, George and Maria were playing host to their grand-daughter Mary Ann Fieldhouse (who should properly have been identified as Mary Ann Hughes), but also housed eleven boarders aged from their teens to the seventies, born nearby (Ashborne) or much further away (Ireland).

Fieldhouse’s eldest daughter Elizabeth decamped to Burton on Trent with brazier Thomas Hughes and although they probably did not marry, they had numerous children together.  They may have been itinerant workers themselves for a time, as the birthplaces of the children are given variously as Ashby in Leicestershire, Stafford, Rugby, and Cheadle as well as Burton.  Maria ‘Fieldstaff’ baptised 1839 was probably the oldest illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth and Thomas (rather than the youngest daughter of George and Maria), because when she married she gave her father’s name as Thomas ‘Ewers’, a brazier (thereby claiming mother’s common-law husband as her father for the purposes of marriage registration).

George Fieldstaff was buried at St Mary’s church in Uttoxeter apparently aged 75, and left no will.  His only known descendants arise from the union of his daughter Elizabeth with Thomas Hughes, and who took the surname Fieldstaff-Hughes.

Sources: Staffordshire Record Office Q/SB 1829 M/20a; D3891/6/34/2/32 overseers’ voucher 1829; D3891/6/34/6/27; D3891/6/35/2/29 overseers’ voucher 1830; D3891/6/38/3/6 overseers’ voucher 1832; D3891/6/39/8/52a overseers’ voucher 1833; D3891/6/70-75 Uttoxeter poor rate books 1832-1838; 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses; baptisms of 9 November 1796,  27 March 1821, 11 December 1823, 13 May 1835, 30  August 1839, Uttoxeter, and 1860 Roman Catholic church, Burton on Trent; marriages of 2 November 1820, Milwich, 17 January 1825, Uttoxeter, and 1863, Burton on Trent; burials of 30 August 1824 and 23 August 1864, Uttoxeter;; with thanks to Dave Marriott for information about Smithy Lane/Smithfield Road.

Coining it, in and around Darlaston

Darlaston’s history is intimately connected to the history of metal-working, particularly  the manufacture of gun-locks and other mechanical components.  We were startled, though, to find such expertise put to felonious ends, and the constable of Darlaston (Thomas Partridge) drawn in to give evidence against the accused.

In 1819 three men were tried at the Staffordshire Assizes ‘for having, at the parish of Darlaston, in the county of Stafford..traitorously made and counterfeited a certain piece of coin to the likeness of a shilling’.  Joseph Wilkes, Thomas Earp alias Reddall and John Duffield stood trial for their lives, since coining was a capital offence.  Witnesses were able to show that Earp had been apprehended with a parcel of metal blanks hidden inside his umbrella, and that Wilkes had taken possession of the dies or ‘stamps’ used to convert the blanks into counterfeit coin.  Duffield was the organiser of the scheme.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust: an eighteenth-century illustration of a machine used in coining

The three men were working within a midlands network of counterfeiters, and were not apparently inhibited or deterred by the prosecution or execution of members of the circle.    John and Mary Bissaker of Warwick pursued a career in coining, and when John was executed in 1800 Mary carried on (narrowly avoiding execution herself in 1807).  It was Mary’s arrest and prosecution in 1819 that prompted the transfer of dies to the Darlaston men, and Mary’s execution that signaled the movement of the trade from Warwick to Darlaston.

But perhaps the most surprising part of the story is still to come.  When the three defendants were found guilty, Mr Justice Richardson initially sentenced them all to death; yet ‘the prisoners begged loudly for mercy; and the learned Judge was much affected.’  The astonishing result of this spontaneous appeal was that Richardson rescinded the death penalty for both Wilks and Earp, leaving Duffield as the only perpetrator paying for his crime with his life.  Surely this established a problematic precedent for this particular Judge, and for consistency of sentencing, even if it was expressive of candid humanitarianism?

Sources: The Times, 10 August 1819, p. 3; I.M. and M.K. Baker, ‘John Duffield of Darlaston and his descendants’,, viewed 28 June 2018

Morris Brothers, Aldridge and West Bromwich

Written by Denise, posted by Alannah

Intrigued when examining two Poor Law vouchers for Aldridge, Staffordshire, which mentioned the trial of “the three Morrises”, my research revealed two brothers were both transported in 1819 to Australia for 7 years for Larceny (Theft).

Included in the description of costs claimed by Constable James Wakeman in a voucher (receipt): “Prosecution of the Three Morris’s” are various journeys and duties commencing 7 Jan 1818, including: taking Thomas Morris at Aldridge, executing two search warrants, attending his prosecution at Shenstone, using a chaise to take the prisoner to Stafford Prison, bringing the prisoner home from [West] Bromwich, journeys of witnesses, a journey to “West Bromwich and Wednesbury to take Mrs Morris”.

Included in the invoice for legal costs incurred on 13 March 1818 by attorneys Messrs Croxall and Holbecke, were costs “Instructions for Brief and preparing same against Thomas Morris on the prosecution of Samuel Boden, the like against Hannah, Thos and John Morris on the prosecution of Sophia Rogers…” and then on the same date “attending at Stafford conducting these prosecutions when Thomas and John Morris were transported”.

My research revealed Thomas and John Morris were born and baptised in West Bromwich, Staffordshire in November 1793 and October 1790 respectively to Hannah (nee Sheldon, 1764-1823) and James Morris (1765-1836).  There were at least four other siblings, Elizabeth, Mary, James and Anne, in the family with ancestors that can fairly easily be traced back to the seventeenth century.

Reports in The Staffordshire Advertiser revealed Thomas was tried at the Stafford Lent Assizes in March 1818 for the theft of a goose and a gander, whilst John and their mother Hannah were tried for “various other felonies”. Hannah was acquitted but John was found guilty of the “theft of wearing apparel” and was sentenced to 7 years Transportation along with brother Thomas.

It seems unlikely that the brothers were sentenced to transportation on first offences but with criminal records at that time usually only quoting names, and not ages or addresses, it is not possible to confirm what other offences might have been committed.  Transportation for 7 years seems to be the customary, albeit harsh, sentence for those convicted of larceny.

They remained at Stafford Gaol until being removed, along with 19 other convicts under sentence of transportation, to the hulks (holding prison ships) at Sheerness, Kent.  They did not leave England until 14 June 1819 when they sailed to Australia on the “Malabar” with 168 other convicts, arriving at Sydney, New South Wales, on 30 October 1819.

Various convict records describe the two brothers: Thomas was 27 years old, a locksmith and was 5ft 5 ½” with a “dark pale” complexion, black hair and hazel eyes. John was 29, a pistol maker, and shorter at 5ft 3 ½”, with a “dark pale”complexion, brown hair and grey eyes with a blemish in the right eye.

They appear to have served out their sentence in Sydney and remained there when granted Certificates of Freedom in March 1825, with Census records indicating they were living together in Market Street, Sydney, in 1828; Thomas was now a gunsmith and John a barber.  There are no apparent records of Thomas marrying or having a family although John secured permission to marry a Bonded Convict (still serving her sentence) in 1829, Catherine Richardson, who had also been sentenced to 7 years Transportation for “Coining” (passing counterfeit coins), arriving on “Competitor” the previous year.

Catherine died in 1842 and there are no records of their children, although John seems to have fathered a daughter with an “Anne D” according to other ancestry trees in 1850.

Both brothers stayed in the Sydney area, Thomas dying aged 56 years in 1850 and John in 1868, aged 78 years.  It is unlikely that they would remained in contact with their family in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, so would have been unaware that father James died in 1836 and their mother, Hannah, in 1823. Their only brother James seems to be more law-abiding, residing with his wife and family in West Bromwich and employed as a pistol filer until he died in 1860.

Sources of Information:

SRO D120/A/PO/102, Aldridge Overseers’ Vouchers dated 15 Mar 1818

SRO D120/A/PO/103, Aldridge Overseers’ Vouchers dated 1818

England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975

England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892

New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788-1842

Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868

New South Wales, Australia, Convict Applications for the Publications of Banns, 1828-1830, 1838-1839 New South Wales, Australia, Convict Records,  1810-1891

Australia, Marriage Index, 1788-1950

1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy)

New South Wales, Australia, Historical Electoral Rolls, 1842-1864

New South Wales, Australia, Certificates of Freedom, 1810-1814, 1827-1867

Australia, Death Index, 1787-1985

Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922

Ancestry Family Trees

Top Trumps explained

The game of Top Trumps depicting people found by the Small Bills project arrived on my doorstep yesterday, and in less than five minutes my son was demanding an explanation of the different categories of score.

Like similar games, each card has a subject (in this case a woman, man, or child associated with the Old Poor Law) and scores in five categories. The scores are frequently assigned approximately or randomly rather than according to a system or to strict data – at least that has been my assumption when playing these games with my children. Therefore the scores are not rigid indicators of research, but either approximations or entirely made up (to ensure a good range of scores across all of the characters).

‘Life Story’ provides a score out of five and notionally indicates the extent to which we can know the details of someone’s life. The East Sussex diarist Thomas Turner is the only one of our people who left such a lengthy personal document, so in honour of this fact he is the only person with the top score of five. Everyone else gets between one and four, based loosely on how well we can hope to research their biography, and find out details of their lives.

Agency is given as a percentage, and alludes to the range of action open to each person. The dead pauper Charles Aldritt has an agency score of zero, whereas the litigious Cumbrian businessman Charles Thurnam has the highest score (95%) in recognition of his willingness to throw his weight around.

Surname rarity has a greater measure of system behind it. I looked at the prevalence or otherwise of each surname according to the website https// and then converted the rankings into a score out of 1000. This process awards Ann Tomsat the highest score of 995, and gives Elizabeth Wilson just 10.

Persistence refers to the number of decades (out of ten) where we might hope to be able to trace the person in historical records, including but not limited to the vouchers. I had to tinker with this set of scores a little, so they do not necessarily represent what I know to be true or feel to be possible for all characters: the risk was that, otherwise, many people would have had a score of just one!

Finally Poverty Rating ranks the cards from one to thirty based on the severity of their poverty relative to each other. In this category the Staffordshire child Nancy Wilkes gets a score of 29: I was very pleased with the illustration for this card!

More information on some of the people featured in the Old Poor Law Top Trumps can be found in the blogs on this website.

Robert Chicken, publican and butcher (1794-1847)

As a small child one of my favourite card games was Happy Families. As soon as the Carlisle volunteer group found Robert Chicken among the overseers vouchers for Dalston, therefore, I knew I wanted to write about him. He was also the initial inspiration behind our own card game.

He was baptised in 1794 in Kirkbampton, the son of John and Mary Chicken (nee Skelton). In July 1823 he married Elizabeth Chambers at Great Orton, and the couple went on to have three children: John, Robert, and Dinah. He married a second time to Elizabeth Rayson in 1833 and had another son Thomas. Indicating their level of prosperity, the family kept one male servant/apprentice and a female servant in 1841.

Chicken was a victualler and publican in Dalston parish. By 1829 he was running the Waggon and Horses inn at Hawkesdale at Bridge End. At some point the establishment was renamed the Bridge End Inn, and under this name has survived into the twenty-first century. In the nineteenth century Hawkesdale was a small but arguably elite township, the latter claim confirmed by the residence of the Right Reverend Bishop of Carlisle at Rose Castle, Hawkesdale.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust: engraving by R. Cooper, 1822, Publicans and food retailers were often portrayed as stout and prosperous.

Chicken supplied the parish of Dalston with meat (beef, mutton, and offal rather than poultry) and other consumables in the period 1834-37, including one and a half gallons of ale for a funeral. The meat came from his shop in the Shambles, Carlisle, rather than directly from the inn. Chicken has been illustrated in the Top Trumps game of this project using an image of a butcher’s shop, but it seems likely that butchery was not the foremost part of the family business. They identified in censuses and directories with the innkeeping part of the concern and we only know about the early history of the butcher’s shop because it is cited in an overseer’s voucher. The property in the Shambles was given up by the Chicken family in late 1846, towards the end of Robert’s life.

Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and its collection of portraits by John Dempsey: This image depicts Billy Bean, a butcher’s carrier, of Scarborough 1825

Robert died at the relatively young age of 53. His second wife Elizabeth outlived him by over thirty years and died in 1883. She remained in the parish of Dalston and at first continued the tavern business: she employed her step-daughter Dinah as a barmaid in 1861. By 1871 and at the age of approximately 75 she was still living in Hawkesdale but had given up the inn to another female proprietor, Sarah Rayson, who was presumably her younger sister or niece. Elizabeth lived in Green Lane with her son Thomas, a brewer’s traveller, ensuring that two of Robert’s children had some occupational connection to their father’s main trade. The mother and son were immediate neighbours to an elderly mother-and-daughter couple who lived on parish poor relief, but this was not to be the fate of the widowed Mrs Chicken. Elizabeth herself became an annuitant, meaning she bought into a fund for her support in old age, and lived only with a female servant by 1881.

Image courtesy of archival volunteer and regular blogger on this site NMDEA

After Robert’s death in 1847, one Joseph Chicken can be found as an innkeeper in Dalston. In all likelihood he was Robert’s younger brother, who also acted as one of Robert’s two executors. Joseph kept the ‘Indian King’, combining it with work as ‘station keeper’.

Sources: Carlisle Patriot 4 December 1846 and 24 December 1847; White, Cumberland and Westmorland Directory (1829); Mannix, Cumberland Directory (1847); SPC 44/2/47/10 Dalston overseer’s voucher paid to Robert Chicken 1837; census for Dalston 1841-81.

Elizabeth Parrock (d.1787), midwife

The history of midwifery in the eighteenth century in England is a story of a traditionally female occupation being colonised by male medical practitioners. In 1700 deliveries were nearly all conducted by women, whereas by 1800 deliveries to prosperous families were conducted by men. Doctors and surgeons charged more for their obstetric services than their female competitors (typically 10s 6d or £1 1s per child by men, compared with 2s 6d or 5s per child by women), so women continued to deliver only the poorest expectant mothers.

Wellcome Images

The success of the ‘man-midwife’ can be attributed to a number of social and intellectual developments. The introduction of delivery by forceps in the first half of the eighteenth century, a technological refinement not used by female midwives, probably accounts for some of the increased popularity for trained men. They could achieve a successful delivery in difficult circumstances. Men could claim authority and expertise from studying human anatomy in ways not open to women.

Elizabeth Parrock, a Staffordshire midwife, probably trained for her role in the same way as most eighteenth-century women, by practising among her friends. Female midwives emerged when women accustomed to attending births as a friend or relation acquired a wider reputation for their ability to manage the birthing room. In most deliveries where the baby presented normally (head down, facing their mother’s spine) the midwife’s task was to reassure the mother and give advice, while allowing nature to take its course. The two women would probably be surrounded by the female friends of the mother, and collectively the group would keep fathers out of the room.

If the birth became abnormal, due to the malpresentation of the baby or the distress or excess bleeding of the mother, midwives had few techniques at their disposal to achieve a good outcome. Long experience might have taught them how to ‘turn’ the baby in the womb, but the only other option was to call in a surgeon to do something drastic. Women rarely if ever survived a caesarean section before the second half of the nineteenth century.

Dempsey Portraits
Depicting Mary or Elizabeth Leagrove, a gaol attendant in Ipswich, 1823

We don’t of course know what Elizabeth Parrock looked like. The image above is the one we have used to illustrate her in our card game for the project. We do know that she was earlier called Elizabeth Floyd, and was married to George Parrock at Bilston, Staffordshire in 1752. The couple had at least three children, baptised in Bilston and Wednesbury 1756-1760. Elizabeth, therefore, fitted the typical profile for a midwife, being a woman with children of her own but whose children were mature, allowing her to leave her household to work. We know from the overseers’ vouchers that she charged the lower sum for her deliveries, 2s6d per child, for her work in Wednesbury in the 1780s. She was the only woman recorded in the Wednesbury vouchers so far as a midwife, paid for the delivery of just three babies, yet her association with midwifery was strong enough to ensure she was described as a midwife at the time of her burial. The vouchers similarly show that her husband George Parrock was employed by the parish to mend shoes.

Elizabeth is unusual because we can know something about her working life other than her name. Most women who worked as midwives left no records of their business at all, so parish payments for delivering pauper babies is one of the few ways to see them in action. She is also unusual in that female midwives were typically paid immediately after the child was born and did not need to issue receipts, whereas male midwives allowed parents to owe him the money: consequently relatively few female midwives crop up elsewhere in our project database, with only one named midwife per county so far.

Sources: Staffordshire Archives D4383/6/1/9/1/14/20, D4383/6/1/9/2/80, Wednesbury St Bartholomew overseers’ vouchers; marriage of 29 June 1752 Bilston; burial of 4 June 1787 Wednesbury St Bartholomew.

The Beadles of Winchelsea

The Winchelsea poor-law records have been edited for publication by Malcolm Pratt and appear as volume 94 of the Sussex Record Society series. This book includes relatively few of the overseers’ vouchers surviving for Winchelsea – there are hundreds – but nonetheless contains riches for the project. It provides lots of evidence about men who took a parish salary to help implement the poor law.

Parish Beadles have a reputation for having been hard-hearted and officious, for which Dickens’s Mr Bumble is somewhat to blame. The word ‘Bumbledom’ was widely used in the second half of the nineteenth century to characterise pomposity and rigidity in public office. Harry Seacombe’s performance in the musical Oliver! in 1968 has cemented this popular view and it has to be said, whatever his behaviour in the role, his costume was fairly faithful to beadles’ uniforms of the period.

Beadle, Winchester, 1823: one of the 52 portraits painted by John Dempsey, now showcased by the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, at

But the Winchelsea beadles employed in the 1820s do not fit this stereotype at all. Instead, they were paupers themselves. John Chester was removed to Winchelsea under the provisions of settlement law in 1822, and was resident in the workhouse during the following year. He went on to serve as parish beadle 1824-6 for four shillings per week paid out of the poor rates, until his neglect of duty proved a nuisance to Magistrate Henry Powell.

Chester’s successor may have been better at the job, but endured a similar lifestyle. The tasks of beadle were taken up by Henry Tilden, which in 1826 included delivering notices to quit rented properties. The Winchelsea workhouse accommodated Tilden until the time of its closure in 1831. From then onwards, the beadle’s salary was agreed at six shillings per week if he would ‘keep himself’. On Tilden’s death in 1835 aged 77, he was buried at the parish expense.

One of the vouchers that was printed in Pratt’s book offers an additional touching sidelight on the inclusion of Tilden among the parish poor. He was listed in a bill of 1830 as one of the men benefiting from the services of George Haisell, hairdresser, paid for shaving the adult male paupers and cutting the hair of the children.

Sources: M. Pratt (ed.), Winchelsea Poor Law Records 1790-1841 (Sussex Record Society, 2011).

Thomas Village, workhouse governor (c.1785-1866)

If it takes a village to raise a child, did it also take a Village to run a workhouse? This is clearly a rather clumsy play on the surname of the Darlaston workhouse governor in the 1820s, but it also raises a more serious question about the tenor of workhouse life.

Thomas Village was allegedly born in Birmingham in 1785 or 1786, but his baptism has not been found. He first emerges in genealogical data in 1810, when he married Ann Osborn (also in Birmingham). Thereafter, and despite their unusual surname, the couple do not resurface once more until their appearance in the Darlaston overseers’ vouchers. It seems possible that they did not have any children, as they were both in their mid-30s at the time of marriage and no relevant baptisms appear in the 1810s.
The surname ‘Village’ is now more prevalent in South Africa than in any other country, with a relative concentration of people in Limpopo.

By 1823 the Villages were master and matron of the Darlaston workhouse, catering for between 25 and 30 inmates. Thomas undertook other work on the parish’s behalf, including making journeys on poor-law business and holding sales of goods taken from Darlaston residents in distress, although whether for non-payment of the poor rate is not specified. This suggests that Thomas was also the salaried overseer, also known as assistant or permanent overseer, for Darlaston.

This experience of workhouse management led to future employment for the husband and wife team, while the New Poor Law extended the scale of workhouse management experiences: in 1841 Thomas and Ann Village were the master and matron of the Erdington Union workhouse, in a building formerly used as the Erdington parish workhouse. At that time they were responsible for 123 other residents ranging from those in infancy to one nonagenarian.

They earned enough to retire before the 1851 census, when they were described as a ‘retired plate worker’ and ‘former dressmaker’ respectively. Familiarity with textiles was probably a significant plus for a prospective institutional matron, but it is less clear why a background in metal-working was indicative of success for a master. Ann died in 1862 at the romantic address ‘Shakespeare Cottage’ and Thomas died in 1866. They were both buried in the Warstone Lane Cemetery, Birmingham.

How responsible might Thomas and Ann Village have been for setting the tone of institutional life in their workhouses? Research on autobiographical sources for later in the nineteenth century suggests that staff could be central to establishing an atmosphere of either intimidation or of homeliness. The Erdington Union was known in the later nineteenth century for a rather uncompromising attitude to poor relief, but this does not mean that the Villages pursued harshness as a policy in earlier decades.

There is one shred of evidence for the relationship between the Villages and the resident poor: when Thomas Village died he was worth less than £100 and the sole executrix of his will was one Mary Ann Skelton, spinster of Darlaston. She was not known to be a relative of either Thomas or Ann. Instead, she had been a resident of the Erdington workhouse in 1851 who became the household servant of the couple in their old age and certainly by 1861. Who knew that a former and future pauper might act as executrix for a Governor? Mary Ann Skelton was in the West Bromwich Union workhouse in 1871 and 1881 and probably died in West Bromwich in 1891.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the relationship between the Villages and Skelton was cordial, but the only time she is known to have lived outside a workhouse from 1851 to her death was with them as a servant in 1861, and Thomas trusted her in a legal capacity above (for example) his surviving sisters (Mary Village 1790-1871 and Elizabeth Village 1799-1869) or any nephews and nieces by his other siblings. Whatever social distance was imagined to exist between workhouse staff and their charges was not necessarily strictly observed, and arguably narrowed in later life.

Sources: D1149/6/2/8 Darlaston overseers’ vouchers 1823; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 census; marriage of 5 March 1810; National Probate Calendar; Birmingham Daily Gazette 18 December 1862;

Unexpected consequences of working the poor at Ninfield

One feature of the Old Poor Law which attracted criticism was the practice (adopted by some parishes) of using the able-bodied poor as a pool of cheap labour. People who did not have enough work might be sent around to different employers in a parish to be given occupation (with a daily wage being paid partly or wholly out of the poor rates). Alternatively the workhouse poor might be sent out of the house each day and allocated to specific employment where their pay was then given to the parish. These types of work for the poor were often deprecated, for reducing the wages of the non-parish poor and/or for giving some employers unfair access to cheap or free labour.

Ninfield parish is important for our project, but not just because it has some surviving overseers’ vouchers. In fact the number of vouchers is minimal, unusually for East Sussex, but it did have a very rigorous approach to setting the poor to work. From at least 1821 and possibly earlier, the poor of Ninfield workhouse were listed and systematically allocated to work for parish landowners, in direct proportion to the value rate-payers’ parish property. In other words, wealthy residents could expect to be given paupers to employ, and were required to pay a going rate for the work completed. This ‘pay’ was collected by the parish officers to offset the cost of accommodating the workhouse inmates.

Who were the workhouse poor, and what work did they do? Ninfield was determined to make the most of its human resources, and typically included children in the work rota. The workhouse population was dominated by ‘boys’ rather than adult men or girls/women, which may have reflected a parish policy of control (ie to house young, unoccupied and potentially-disruptive males). Work included hop-picking, sometimes allocated to girls, and bark-shaving (which could be very heavy work).

This must all have made an impact on the poor who needed to seek relief in Ninfield, but it probably made an impression on others including the parish officers. One overseer in particular seems to have taken his experiences in Ninfield and applied them elsewhere with dramatic effect.

Thomas Abell was a small-scale farmer who took on the job of paid overseer of the poor in Ninfield in 1825: he later took on the same job in Brede. It seems likely that he transplanted the strict work ethic of his first parish to his second, and to have added some severity of his own. We know this because his habits in working the poor (and their consequences) featured in the British press in the autumn of 1830.

British Museum Prints and Drawings 1948.0214941 Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

The newspapers ran a lot of stories in 1830 about the exploits of the fictional ‘Captain Swing’ who was credited with inspiring rural labourers to riot against their working conditions. Paid overseers of the poor were particularly targeted by rioters, and Thomas Abell was one of the men who felt the backlash. He was said to have worked the poor in Brede in punishing and degrading ways, such as compelling them to drag a cart (loaded with wood) to a wharf some miles away: therefore we can see why, when rioting reached the parish, Abell was forcibly put on the Brede parish cart with a noose around his neck and hauled to the parish boundary by a determined group of poor women.

Abell might have richly deserved this humiliating treatment, but in the longer term the linkage of records at Ninfield with the later newspaper reports gives us further insight into the careers of parish officers, which have been opaque for so long: violence at Brede had its origins in another parish’s determination to work the poor.

Sources: The Keep, PAR 430/12/1/1, Ninfield vestry book 1821-3; PAR 430/31/1/3-4 Ninfield pauper ledgers 1821-7; PAR 430/31/3/1-3 Ninfield workhouse work books 1825-7; PAR 430/31/7/1 Ninfield overseers’ notebook 1828-9; PAR 430/37/4/1-2 Ninfield workhouse inventories 1829; Morning Post 11 November 1830 (and other newspapers thereafter).

Assistant overseers in northern England: connections east and west

The project’s research into salaried overseers, called assistant or perpetual overseers in the contemporary terminology, took us to the Durham County Record Office. The chapelry of Lamesley in County Durham holds a very unusual collection of sixty five letters, all written in May or June 1831, in relation to the same post for this sort of job. Thirty one men wrote on their own behalf, while others wrote references or testimonials in support of their application.

This flurry of administrative activity was sparked by an advertisement, placed in newspapers for Durham and Newcastle on Tyne, for an assistant overseer. The terms of employment were stringent: in exchange for £60 per year, the appointee was asked to live in the chapelry, have no other occupation, and to offer securities of £200 against the risk of malpractice in office. The candidates would undergo ‘election’ on Friday 10 June at 3pm.

What does this have to do with the project’s focus on Cumbria (including selected parishes in former Westmorland)? The appeal of this post was felt far and wide, attracting applications from Liverpool and other places some distance west and south of Lamesley. An application from Brough in Westmorland came from one George Pearson, who in comparison to some of the applicants wrote rather a good letter in terms of both handwriting and details of his occupational background.

Pearson described himself as a married man of 34 years old.  He had been a clerk to Mr Blackett at his colliery works, left Mr Blackett in 1819 to be clerk to the London Lead Company, and remained there for eleven years.  He gave up that employment owing to ill-health, and on recovering began teaching in a school at Brough ‘as an occupation rather than to make a living by it, there being over many schools in Brough before I began’.  He claimed to be well-versed in accounts, to have property exceeding the requisite security bond, and to command references for his religious and moral character. He named referees including a banker, a reverend, and four others including Mr Blackett. 

Wellcome Images: detail of clerks from ‘Hudibras addresses a lawyer who sits in an elaborately decorated pew next to shelf of books; two clerks sit beneath’. Aquatint by Merigot, 1799, after William Hogarth.

Pearson’s letter went on to ask about the duties required of the post-holder, and his chances of success.  He gave an unusual account of his faith, in that he was a member of the Methodist Society but an attender at Church, to the extent of being a churchwarden at Longmarton and establishing a large Sunday School there (where the teachers were nearly all Methodists, apparently). 

His application looked quite professional, but struck a plaintive note: the salary on offer at Lamesley was less than half of the total he had commanded at the London Lead Company, ‘but such is the competition for situations and so numerous are applicants’ that during the previous year he had visited Liverpool, Newcastle and other places with ‘the best’ recommendations but without success. 

But Pearson’s story doesn’t end there, because he spent some time considering his position and eventually withdrew from the appointing process at Lamesley. He explained his reasons in a letter, and in doing so gives us extra insight into the recruitment of assistant overseers. He wrote on 7 June ‘as all the ratepayers have a vote in the election and have been canvassed by different parties, several of whom may be every way eligible, the choice will probably fall on one who belongs to the neighbourhood and is connected by friends with the parish: the chances of success for a stranger would in consequence, I fear, be so slight as not to warrant the expense I should incur in coming over’. Who knew that you had to ‘canvas’ for ratepayers’ votes to secure a post as assistant overseer this early in the nineteenth century? There was a contested election for the assistant overseer of St Chad’s in Lichfield in 1843, where it is evident that canvassing had taken place, but this was under the ‘New’ poor law of 1834 (where the Guardians of each Union had to be elected, so a culture of electioneering for poor-law offices was more pervasive). And Pearson was not simply making a false assumption because at least three other applicants either refer to their own ‘canvas’ or that of other candidates.

The letters in the Durham archives provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of the job application as a genre of writing, but they also offer us detailed guidance on the tensions and opportunities for aspiring assistant overseers. A single post could be hotly contested, drawing interest from beyond county boundaries. Lamesley is plainly not in the modern county of Cumbria, but its evidence in this respect will form a key component in our writing about the holders of assistant overseer posts.

Oh, and the job? It went to a Mr William Wren, who lived in Lamesley and had already been an assistant overseer in a different location during ‘a most arduous and difficult period’. But that is another story.

Sources: Newcastle Courant, 21 May 1831; DCRO EP/LAM 7/174-240.