The parish of East Hoathly comprised around 350 inhabitants at the time Thomas Turner was writing his diary and boasted two shoe menders: Thomas Davey and Robert Hook. There was enough work for both to make a living: the inhabitants of the parish seem to have been hard on their shoes. There appears to have been no rivalry between the two men. In February 1756 Thomas Davey brings Turner a new boot to try on “being 1 of a pair I have bespoke near 12 months of Robt. Hook”. Perhaps there is a note of complaint here at the delay in making the boots.
While Thomas Davey was a friend of Turner, often visiting his house of an evening, Robert Hook knew Turner as a member of the small group of village dignitaries and tradesmen who ran parish affairs. Hook served as surveyor of the highways in 1756, and as headborough during 1758. In 1757 at the end of Hook’s term as surveyor, he asked Turner to help draw up the accounts to be presented to the Justices of the Peace. This necessitated Turner meeting him at Jones’s, the local inn, and Turner’s record of the evening contains a condemnation of “that most detestable poison called gin!”
In February 1758, in his capacity as headborough, Robert Hook accompanied Thomas Turner to “take up” Mary Hubbard, the servant of Thomas Osborne Senior, to persuade her to swear the father of her illegitimate child. The year before Hook was also involved in the pursuit of George Hyland, who led the parish officers a merry dance over his reluctance to marry Ann Durrant, having fathered her child, until enough inducements were offered.
Hook wrote a clear hand, submitting long bills annually to the parish Overseers for shoe repair and shoe making. His tone is informal; he refers to children only by their family name e.g. ‘young Trill’, or ‘young Bristow’. This may be because the father’s name was the important one and his wife and children mere dependants, or an indication of familiarity and social cohesion within the parish.
Robert Hook died in early 1775 – the last item on the invoice paid after his death is on February 10th. Besides shoe mending, this final invoice itemises the supply of ‘poals’ and bundles of laths for Thomas Sinden’s house, which suggests that Robert Hook possessed or cultivated a parcel of land, which would have supplied the wood, or that he acquired the wood by trade.
Robert Hook was married with at least two children that we know of. In 1758, his daughter Mary described as “a poor wild girl” had a trial as maid in Thomas Turner’s house but this did not work out and one month later “Molly Hook went away.” Mary Hook would have been twelve or thirteen at the time. In 1767 Mary married William Start, or Sturt, a member of another East Hoathly family. A William Hook was taken on as an apprentice to Hook in 1773, but it is not clear whether he was Robert’s son, or a relative. Robert Hook’s family remained in the village after his death, and his son, another Robert Hook, was also involved in parish affairs. In 1782 he obtained a settlement certificate on behalf of Elizabeth Overing from the Uckfield magistrates. This second Robert Hook, who was also a cordwainer, died in 1824 at the age of 70 and is buried in the Friends Burying Ground in Lewes.
 The Diary of Thomas Turner 1754-1765 (1984), David Vaisey (Ed) Page 79
Although Thomas Turner served East Hoathly well as a shopkeeper , providing many goods which the parish distributed to the poor, he occasionally behaved in an “unseemly manner” and here is some evidence to support this view!
On Christmas Day 1758 Thomas Turner wrote ‘Oh may we increase in faith and maintain and keep the good intentions we have this day taken up.’ His good intentions did not come up to expectations! As years went on, feasting at East Hoathly increased during the Christmas period. Thomas , the rector, Mr Porter and neighbours took part in behaviour which could only be called debauchery! Apparently, for weeks after Christmas Day, they met at each other’s homes to play ‘brag’, eat and drink to excess, dance and shout and play pranks which included carrying the ladies ‘pick a back’ and dragging each other out of bed, which bordered closely on ‘indecency’. Shame on you Mr. Turner!
Bibliography : Fleet, Charles. Glimpses of Our Ancestors in Sussex ; Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, reprinted 2009.
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//:forebears.io 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.
In early 1782 Benjamin Brinkhurst died, leaving a widow and three children. Charles Vine charged the parish 12s 6d for making his coffin on 15th February. John Burgess supplied 4 quarts of beer “for the people at Brinkhursts”, which may have been part of the provisions for the funeral. Benjamin was buried on the 17th February.
Benjamin was originally from Wartling, and after moving to East Hoathly, worked as a labourer for John Vine, starting in September 1760. He married Ann Dalloway in April 1762 and gained the right of settlement in East Hoathly in 1769.
Benjamin and Ann had three surviving children: Benedicta (born 1771), William (1773) and John (1776). Two children born to the couple in 1763 and 1764 had died young. When Benjamin died Benedicta was eleven, and William and John nine and six respectively.
The family had received help from the parish prior to Benjamin’s death, but would be more reliant on its help after the death of the breadwinner. During the period immediately before and after her father’s death it was Benedicta who collected the family’s groceries from Thomas Turner’s store, perhaps because her mother was nursing Benjamin. Subsequently Widow Brinkhurst was usually named as the recipient by Turner in his invoices.
Turner supplied candles and soap to the family. He supplied foodstuffs: cheese (4 lbs at a time), butter and sugar, as well as condiments – salt and pepper. For flour the family went to Charles Fielder the miller, getting through 4 gallands (sic) every week to a fortnight. They ate mutton, which seems to have been the staple meat of the poor of the parish, and this Benedicta obtained weekly from the butcher, Richard Fuller. Fuller’s bill to the Parish for the first part of 1783 itemises weekly supplies of mutton to Benedicta from the 1st February to the 15th April.
In the bills which survive it is startling how often the Brinkhurst boys had their shoes mended, (in common with other children in the parish). In one of his bills Thomas Davy remarks plaintively that he had mended William’s shoes “several times”. There is only one instance of Benedicta’s shoes being mended in the surviving bills, in April 1782.
If the boys were provided with new shoes once or twice a year, their feet must soon have outgrown their footwear, and that, and the active life they led, would help to explain the frequent need for repair.
In December 1786 when Benedicta was fifteen, and the boys thirteen and ten, the children’s’ mother Ann died, and the record of her burial on 15 December was annotated “pauper” (not the case for her husband). She seems to have been ill for some time as Mr Paine the surgeon had supplied medicine worth 13 shillings the previous September.
After that the boys became “parish children”. They lodged with parishioners who fed and housed them, and the parish was billed for their keep. The Mr Turner, who was responsible for William may have been Thomas Turner himself.
At the beginning of February 1786 Benedicta received a new pair of shoes, costing 4s 6d. She was rising 16 at this date, and it seems quite old for a child at that time to be dependent, and not expected to be at work.
Village inhabitants were usually provided with a set of clothes prior to looking for a position. That there is no record of Benedicta being outfitted other than with shoes may be because the records have not been transcribed or are incomplete. In contrast, there are bills for a waistcoat for Benedicta’s brother John in the spring of 1790, followed by a hat and hose later in the year, and in 1791 when he reached the age of 15 he was provided with a pair of shoes and nails, presumably a preliminary to starting to look for work.
Benedicta may have left the village to find work, but the boys stayed on in East Hoathly as parish children, continuing to provide the shoe menders with work.
Benedicta re-surfaces in the records at the age of twenty four, living in Lewes. In July 1795 her marriage banns were read in the parish of All Saints Lewes. Benedicta married Stapley Ade, a cordwainer, of St Michael’s Parish Lewes, on 26 July 1795. Her husband was forty eight years old to Benedicta’s twenty, which makes one wonder how she met him. Maybe he had been her employer prior to their marriage (although they were recorded as living in separate parishes). Their first child Ruth was born on December 25th in the same year, which indicates that Benedicta was already pregnant when the couple married.
The couple had five children: Ruth (born 1795), George (1797), Mary (1801), and John (1803) and Alfred (1808). Only the oldest two lived beyond infancy. The fifth child, Alfred Stapley Ade, was baptised in September 1808, and buried on 5 March 1809. Shortly after, on April 16 1809 there is a burial record for Benedicta, whose age was recorded as thirty six years, although her birth in 1771 would make her thirty eight.
We don’t know a great deal about Thomas Woolgar, we don’t know exactly when or where he was born or when and where he died, but what we do know is that he was living somewhere in the village of East Hoathly in the county of Sussex during the year of our Lord 1775 when the surgeon Mr Nathaniel Paine amputated his leg.
At this time East Hoathly was a village of approximately 395 souls in the east of the county supported by a largely agricultural economy and the occasional patronage of the Pelham-Holles family from their estate at Halland.
There is not much detailed documentation about the effects on local families of failed harvests in 1773 and 1778 or the outbreak of Smallpox early in 1774 that led to the death of 12 persons buried in the Lewes parish of St John sub Castro, Lewes. But we do know that the proprietor of the small store in East Hoathly, Thomas Turner and his wife, who already had four healthy living children and a relatively comfortable lifestyle, suffered the deaths of three male children in 1774, 1775 and 1776.
It may be surmised that these were not the most healthy of times and for Thomas Woolgar to have survived life threatening surgery without any of the advantages of modern medicine and hygiene, is possibly not just due to the skill of the surgeon but an indication of his underlying robust constitution as well as the pre and post- operative care he was given. Some of the parish receipts identify Thomas as ‘Master’ Woolgar which suggests he also had youth on his side in making recovery from the operation.
It is documented that the parish shared the expenses of the amputation and Thomas’s subsequent care with the Lewes parish of St John sub Castro. This was an unusual arrangement since the costs of medical care usually fell on the patient’s parish of legal settlement. Perhaps the amputation was the result of an accident that occurred during Thomas’s employment in East Hoathly. Whatever the reason no clue was left in the parish records as to the reason for these shared expenses.
Thomas’s on-going care was undertaken in East Hoathly including subsequent dressings of the wound and medicines. He was also provided with wine and ‘liquor’– no doubt to help with pain relief. The aptly named surgeon Mr Paine, who also lived in the village, checked on Thomas’s progress and dressed the wound on at least one occasion.
Exactly when the operation took place is not recorded but the surgeon’s itemised bill , including the professional fee of three Guineas for the amputation itself, medicines, treatments, indicates that 13 April 1775 was the likely date.
Where Thomas was living in the village is not clear but interestingly parish relief appears to have been available to Thomas from an earlier date. On 7 January 1775 he received a generous quantity of ‘liquer’ from Thomas Turner’s general store and 2 ‘rollers’ – bandages often used to immobilise injured body parts e.g. sprains, torn muscles; a sponge and ‘rags’ which were probably strips of cloth which could also be used for binding an injured limb. From then on there was a regular supply of fuel , food , drink and household items for Thomas that comprehensively addressed his personal care needs suggestive of a man who had precipitously become unable to provide for himself and had quite possibly suffered a serious injury to a limb which required significant pain relief.
Throughout January, February and March he is supplied with the ingredients of a high protein diet including some of the more expensive cuts of mutton, beef, veal, butter, sugar, oatmeal, rice, nuts, cheese, condiments. Vegetables, eggs and milk would no doubt have been available to him from the village farms.
Thomas’ hygiene appears to have been an ongoing priority and he is provided with copious supplies of soap and candles. It is not however until April 13 that there is a clear indication that surgery has been undertaken and dressings, medicines and treatment are all billed by the surgeon. At this point Thomas Turner provides Thomas Woolgar with a rented bedpan and candlestick and the quantity of candles is increased, no doubt to ensure there is enough light to properly wash and dress Thomas’ wound.
On 19 April James Marchant is paid 4 shillings for having shaved Thomas on eight occasions. The last Overseers’ receipt paid on behalf of Thomas is dated 21 April 1775 and is for the attendance and services provided by the surgeon, Mr Nathaniel Paine.
Financially the parish supported Thomas throughout these first three months of 1775 providing cash, goods and services, costing a total of £28.2s. At today’s prices this approximates to £4,600 suggesting that East Hoathly was a parish with a settled community who could afford to take its responsibilities for relief of the poor quite seriously and in Thomas’ case they did not stint.
Thomas Woolgar then, sadly, disappears from the records as mysteriously as he arrived. His name is not unequivocally identified in the parish registers of East Hoathly or St John sub-Castro as having been born, baptised, married, or buried.
Only our imagination and a tiny bit of circumstantial evidence can help us at this point.
Being optimistic and assuming that Thomas made continued recovery, there is record of a Thomas Woolgar being apprenticed to a Mr John Cave, Mercer in the nearby village of Fletching in 1777.
However, I can’t imagine that a young man who had suffered a catastrophic injury, in all likelihood whilst working the land, would recover sufficiently in two years to enter the rather ‘genteel’ trade in fine cloth, silks and linens and there is no record of him having any claim to residence in Fletching.
In the parish registers of St. John sub Castro there is entry of a Thomas Woolgar and his wife Alice having two children, Charlotte born 22 March 1757 and Charles born 16 October 1758, who were both baptised at the church by a Mr Lepla on 6 May 1759. If this Thomas Woolgar is our mystery man, and assuming he was about twenty-five years old when his daughter was born, he would have been about forty-three years old in 1775 when the accident, or infection that necessitated his leg being amputated had occurred.
I think it unlikely this is our Thomas. I can’t think what he might have been doing living in East Hoathly, separated from his wife and children at age 43 and probably working the land when he suffered the serious accident eventually necessitating amputation of his leg. Additionally, there is no mention of parish support to his family.
There is an entry of a burial at the Church of St. John sub-Castro on 16 August 1786 “Woolgar Poorman” If this is our Thomas he has survived a further 11 years after surgery. Of the three mentions, this seems the most possible. However, lots of questions arise .What could have happened to Thomas in the intervening eleven years; if he continued to need support, who gave that; where did he live; if this is our Thomas why is the entry in just his family name when the parish had previously shared the costs for his care and would have known him as Thomas.
I personally am very unsure that any of these mentions relate to the circumstances for our Thomas.
Perhaps he will have to remain our Mystery Man. Written and researched by Jean Irvin
 calculator derived from CPI of Office of National Statistics
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.
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).
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.
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).
In the 19th century, the fear of a pauper’s
funeral, as expressed in the poem The Pauper’s Drive, was real, and
prompted the setting up of burial clubs and specialist insurance policies. In 18th and early 19th
century East Hoathly, by contrast, overseers’ accounts and vouchers suggest
that the poor could expect a certain level of dignity in their passing-on at
the expense of the parish ratepayers.
Care began with laying out the body, often, though not exclusively, by women. Widow Slarkes performed the laying out of John Streeter in July 1777 and received the same attention from Dame Roase when she herself died ten months later. The usual payment was 2s 6d. The examples found of laying out all relate to adults suggesting that, unlike most children, they did not have relatives to perform this service for them. In the 18th century, the same women were often also paid to attend on the day of interment and to travel to get an affidavit to prove that the shroud being used was made of woollen. This was a hangover from an Act of 1667 which was aimed at protecting the woollen industry, and which remained on the statute books until 1814, although it was rarely enforced after 1792.
The accounts also mention the supply of shrouds and coffins
for funerals of the parish poor. The
shroud for Sinden’s child (Ann aged two) cost 2s in 1774 and for Dame Thomas 5s
in 1776. By 1821, when the burial in
woollen laws no longer applied, the parish was buying calico for shrouds. In 1822 the coffin for Cornford’s child, James,
who was buried on 4 March aged 3 weeks, cost 3s, while the adult coffin
supplied for James Sinden set the parish back £1 4s 0d. There is little detail about the nature of
the coffins, although thy were likely to have been quite basic. There are references to one coffin being
‘plained and oyled’ and to another being made of elm. In the 1820s pillows were provided for the
Other elements of funerary equipment are also mentioned,
although less frequently. A pall – the
cloth spread over the coffin – and napkins were supplied in 1781 and palls
appear to have been hired in the 19th century at costs between 2s 6d
and 5s. There are also occasional
references to bearers for carrying the coffin to church and to supplying their
There were also fees to be paid for the funeral ceremony and
the accounts show that these too could be covered by the parish. They included the clergyman’s fee for the
service – 1s 0d in the late 18th century, 2s 6d by the 1820s – and
the clerk’s fees. Although most entries
do not detail the individual services for which the clerk was being reimbursed,
there are several which suggest that they included digging the grave and
tolling the bell.
A case study of Widow (Mary) Gasson, who was buried on 23
August 1821, serves as an example of how the parish intervened at the end of a
pauper’s life. Mary was clearly ill in
early August as there were payments for her nurse and to Mrs Washer and Widow
Susans for attending to her, totalling 8s 6d.
After her death, Mrs Washer was paid 2s 6d for laying her out. Philip Turner supplied 6 ½ yards of calico
for a shroud costing 4s 4d, and was reimbursed 3s 6d for the use of a
pall. Thomas Rich supplied the coffin at
a cost of £1 8s 0d. Six bearers received
1s each to carry her to the church, the clerk 3s 6d for the burial and the
priest 2s 6d for the service. Finally,
beer worth 3s was provided for the funeral, so she did not go to her rest alone
and unmourned, and there is plenty of evidence that other pauper funerals were
similarly provided for in East Hoathly.
Several pauper inventories survive for East Hoathly together
with evidence that the parish officers sold the goods after death. This was certainly the case for Edward Bab/Badcock,
who was buried in 1767 ‘upwards of 93 years old’. The parish clearly felt entitled to sell off the
goods of paupers to reimburse them for the poor relief that they had paid out
even though this wasn’t strictly legal.
However, there could also be a kinder story behind this policy – of the
parish providing poor relief so that the pauper didn’t have to sell or pawn
their goods during their lifetime in order to scrape by and of giving them the
dignity of a decent funeral.
Elizabeth Overing was probably the Elizabeth, daughter of
John and Mary Overing, who was baptised in Wilmington on 21 September
1746. Her parents had married in
Wilmington in 1740 and she had three siblings also christened there: Thomas
(1741), Mary (1743) and John (1745). Her
father died in 1773, leaving a will which reveals that he was a bricklayer and
glazier in Wilmington who held several copyhold properties of the manor of
Wilmington. The will acknowledged all
four children and left £3 a year for Elizabeth but only after her mother’s
Things seem to have gone wrong fairly soon afterwards as she was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, colloquially known as Bedlam, on 17 May 1774 by Wilmington parish. Originally founded as the Priory of the Church of St Mary of Bethlehem near Bishopsgate in 1247, Bethlem was being referred to as a hospital to house the insane by 1403. Patients came from across the country and were often poor. In the 17th century it moved to new premises in Moorfields, and it was to this incarnation of the hospital that Elizabeth Overing was admitted. It was usual for new patients to spend about a year in the hospital’s general ward after which, if they were not cured, they were assessed as to whether they were ‘fit’ to receive the hospital’s charity in the incurable ward. Elizabeth Overing was discharged ‘not fit’ on 19 May 1775.
She returned to Wilmington and by 3 September 1775 she was the subject of a removal order from Wilmington to East Hoathly. The order records that Mary Overing, Elizabeth’s mother, was examined as to her daughter’s settlement. Since Elizabeth would by now have been 29, this suggests that she may not have been considered able to answer for herself. East Hoathly appealed the removal order at Quarter Sessions in October 1775 but the order was confirmed. There is no explanation as to how she had gained a settlement in East Hoathly but gain it she did. From this time, Elizabeth appears regularly in the East Hoathly overseers’ accounts, where payments record her maintenance by John Tampkin and John Watford at 3s 6d a week, later increasing to 5s.
By November 1781, Elizabeth was beginning to prompt
additional activity: John Burgess, innkeeper, incurred expenses in travelling
to Uckfield on business concerning her, probably with the local
magistrates. By January 1782 the process
had begun to admit Elizabeth Overing to Bethlem Hospital once more and the
timeline can be traced from the East Hoathly accounts and Bethlem archives.
John Watford’s maintenance payments for her ended on 12
January 1782, which was the original date for her planned admission to Bethlem. Instead, she was conveyed from Uckfield to
Hoxton, where she was maintained by a Mr Robert Harrison from 12 to 26 January at
10s 6d a week. A London Fire Insurance
Policy register places a Robert Harrison, gentleman, in a business property
near the Jewish burial ground in Hoxton in 1781. The burial ground was next to Hoxton House,
one of a number of mad houses for private mental health patients situated there
at the time. Hoxton was also known for
its houses to which London parishes could send their poor if they did not run
workhouses, a system known as farming. It
may be, therefore, that Elizabeth was accommodated in one or other of these institutions
until Bethlem was able to accept her.
Meanwhile, on 17 January, Robert Hook, shoemaker, obtained a settlement certificate for Elizabeth Overing from the Uckfield magistrates, acknowledging East Hoathly as her place of settlement and this was lodged with Bethlem Hospital when she was finally transferred there from Hoxton and admitted as an incurable on 26 January 1782.
The parish appears to have appointed representatives to act on its behalf since on the same day of her admission, a bond was entered into between the Bethlem authorities and two residents of the City, Robert Morphett, hosier, and Frederick Smith, gentleman, stating that they had requested Elizabeth Overing’s admission to the hospital as an incurable and obliging them to pay 2s 6d per week for her board and to cover clothing bedding and funeral expenses. That these expenses were passed on is clear from the East Hoathly vouchers, which show that the parish paid deposits of £4 1s 0d towards her board and £3 3s 0d towards her bed, bedding and funeral if she were to die at the hospital. In 1789 the parish seems to have changed its local representatives as a second bond was taken out with the Bethlem authorities, this time by John and Thomas Russell, carpenters. By now the weekly fee had gone up to 5s.
Invoices for expenses were regularly passed on to East Hoathly. For example, in the year ending 28 December 1784, the parish was invoiced £6 10s 0d for board and £2 15s 0d for clothing, which included shoes and stockings, a gown, petticoat and undercoat, shifts, caps, aprons, handkerchiefs and buckles, provided at Bethlem’s standard charge. In the year ending 31 December 1793 the costs had risen to £15 2s 2d for board with £2 10s 11d for clothing, a rise of almost 100% in nine years though the sums involved were not, in terms of board, any higher than the parish had been paying Tampkin and Watford.
Nothing else survives to indicate how Elizabeth was treated at Bethlem. However, we know that patients were held in cells in the wings of the hospital off long galleries. Until 1770, when the practice was ended, these galleries were open to visitors and the inmates were something of a tourist attraction. At least Elizabeth did not have to suffer that indignity. However, witness statements given to the Committee on Madhouses in England in 1815 reveal that many patients were kept in bed, especially women; that some patients were found naked and covered only by straw on the floor of their cells; that there was inadequate medical supervision; and that some were kept in chains. The Matron reports that she had 66 women in her care, four or five of whom were restrained. She continues:
One of the female patients has been confined a long time, chained by the leg, as much as five or six years, I have been told; and we have another constantly chained by the hands, that came in about two months since, two of the other blanket patients are only chained at times. I have them loose, to walk about occasionally.
In August 1815 Bethlem’s patients were transferred to new
premises in Southwark (on the site of what is now the Imperial War Museum)
because the old building was considered beyond repair. Elizabeth did not live to see it: she died on
2 June. Her burial place has not so far
been identified. It was not generally
the responsibility of the hospital to bury its deceased patients and it did not
have its own dedicated burial ground.
Her burial is not recorded at either Wilmington or East Hoathly.