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 December 1827, the parish of St Clements in Hastings decided that it was ‘absolutely necessary’ to appoint an assistant overseer. This salaried official would be asked to take over all of the day-to-day drudgery associated with relieving the poor, namely to relieve all paupers, pay all bills, superintend the management of the poorhouse under the governor, removal all paupers and do all the other duties of a managing overseer. This freed the annually-elected overseers to do the really important work of collecting the poor rates.
Candidates for the office wrote to the parish in early April asking to be considered, but they had been pipped to the post by the interim ‘internal’ candidate. Mr Solomon Bevill had been provisionally appointed in January 1828. He remained in post subject to annual reappointments until 1833 when (presumably) declining health prompted him to retire. Bevill died in 1834, leaving goods and property to his children and grandchildren.
Thus far, Bevill’s story fits with the outline for a number of assistant overseers around the country. Men of apparently declining fortunes or towards the end of life secured this sort of post to provide an income in otherwise lean years. What is surprising is the additional detail we can glean from genealogical and other sources about the career that was coming to an end in Bevill’s case.
He had been born in the mid-eighteenth century and was therefore in his late 70s when he took on the parish job. Solomon Bevill was married to Lydia Blackman in 1775. In their early lives, the family members were sufficiently poor to warrant the attention of parish officers: Solomon, Lydia and their daughter Elizabeth were the subject of a settlement certificate issued in 1777. Thereafter their fortunes lifted: Solomon Bevill the elder acquired property in Hastings, and either he or his son, Solomon Bevill the younger, became Comptroller of the Port of Hastings. Most intriguing of all, one of the Solomons (I’m assuming the elder) can be found listed as the commander of a privateer in 1812, during the war against America. A letter of marque was made out to this name as the Commander of the ship Eclips out of Hastings, owned by Thomas Mannington.
Elderly though he may have been, Bevill certainly brought something of a swashbuckling approach to parish affairs. At first appointment, and without asking the vestry, he summarily pulled down the wash house attached to the parish poor house and began rebuilding it with contractors of his choice. The tone of the vestry minutes in recording this realisation is, though, quite conciliatory rather than reproachful or outraged. Presumably Bevill’s long history in the town, or his age, conferred a protective veneer.
Sources: The Keep, East Sussex Record Office: PAR 367/12/2/8, Hastings St Clement Minutes of the Vestry concerning the poor 1827-33; PAR 367/12/5 Hastings St Clement vestry minute book 1823-58; PBT 1/1/78/562; National Archives HCA 25/206.
East Hoathly is a small village located in the English county of East Sussex. It lies just over four miles south east of Uckfield, off what is now the major route running south east towards Eastbourne and the coast. To the north and east the landscape is dominated by the rolling hills of the High Weald and to the south the South Downs. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the parish encompassed some 2,000 acres of woodland and mixed agricultural land together with numerous ponds. Most of the parish was divided into small farms occupied by tenants renting from local landowners including the wealthy and politically influential Pelham-Holles family.
During the eighteenth century the village was clustered around the conjunction of roads in the centre of the parish, small groups of houses together with the church and several businesses formed the heart of this small village. The parish, however, also incorporated a scattering of hamlets, including Grays, Whitesmiths, the Nursery, and part of the Halland estate. By 1801 the whole of the parish contained only 56 domestic houses, occupied by 76 families. Over the next forty years the number of houses doubled, so by 1841, 119 houses were recorded in the parish. During the same period, 1801-1841, the population of the parish rose from 395 to 607. In 1841 only 31 out of the 607 inhabitants were recorded as having been born outside of the county, suggesting a reasonably stable population with relatively few in-comers.
The church and the rector were central to village life, but the clerical living was not particularly generous. By 1872 it was worth only £261 per annum. In addition, the church was in increasingly poor repair and in 1856 it was demolished in favour of a new building. From 1752 to 1794 the rector was Thomas Porter. Porter had followed his brother, Richard, into the living and remained there until his death at the age of 74. He also held the nearby living of Ripe. According to the diarist Thomas Turner, Porter was an outgoing-man fond of entertaining his neighbours, and was often the centre drinking parties that went on into the small hours of the night. At the same time, Porter was apparently assiduous in performing his clerical duties, although these were admittedly light. There were no more than a dozen baptisms a year during the eighteenth century and sometimes as few as four. Marriages remained fairly constant at two to four a year, while burials amounted to less than a dozen per year. Porter was also diligent in pursuing his extra-clerical business, acquiring significant parcels of land and property in the area.
While in many ways East Hoathly was an unremarkable rural parish in southern England, it is notable as the home of Thomas Turner, shopkeeper and prolific diarist of the mid-eighteenth century. Turner was twenty-one when he first came to the parish in 1750. He married Peggy Slater in 1753 and the first of his surviving diaries date from 1754. Turner initially came to the parish in order to run a small general shop. At first he rented premises in the centre of the village, purchasing the property shortly after 1765. But Turner was much more than just a shopkeeper. He threw himself into parish life and administration. His meticulous accounting was put to good use in service of the village. He briefly kept the local school and later became both a churchwarden and overseer of the poor. He also acted as occasional surveyor, assisted the local tax collector, wrote wills, gave advice and acted in law on behalf of many of his neighbours. All of this was carefully noted in his diaries, together with vivid accounts of the everyday life of the parish. The last surviving volume ends in July 1765.
Other than the church, the parish supported the general shop run by the Turner, a small private school and at least two public houses, one of which was the King’s Head. The overseers’ vouchers, however, make it clear that several businesses and craftspeople were operating in the parish, including shoemakers and cobblers, a butcher, a miller, carpenters, builders and blacksmiths, together with tailors and seamstresses. These were augmented by local petty officials: for instance the excise officer, postmaster and schoolmaster, most of whom had dealings with Thomas Turner in his capacity as churchwarden or overseer of the poor. In the early nineteenth century there was a slight drift away from the agricultural occupations that dominated the parish workforce, with a growing number concerned with ‘trade, manufacture or handicrafts’. The numbers recorded in this census category grew from 15 families in 1801, to 35 families out of 97 in 1831.
Halland House and the Duke of Newcastle
The largest house in the parish belonged to Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle. Halland House and its estates, straddled the parish boundary with Laughton and acted as the Duke’s family seat in Sussex. By the later 1760s, however, the Elizabethan house was very dilapidated and was partly demolished. What remained, continued to be used as a generously sized farm house.
Through most of the eighteenth century there were regular public open days or celebrations at the house, where both the local gentry and parishioners of all classes enjoyed the hospitality of the Duke of Newcastle and other members of the Pelham-Holles family. Thomas Turner recounted in his diary,
About four p.m., I walked down to Halland with several more of my neighbours, in order for a rejoicing for the taking of Cape Breton, etc., where there was a bonfire of six hundred of faggots, the cannon fired, and two barrels of beer given to the populace, and a very good supper provided for the principal tradesmen of this and the neighbouring parishes,
Despite the attendance of notable members of the aristocracy, judiciary and political allies of the Duke at such events, Turner commented in his diary that the celebrations ‘might be more properly done by distributing something to the poor.’ Charitable donations by the aristocracy were commonplace in the eighteenth century and often distributed through the local overseers of the poor including gifts of food and fuel. Thomas Turner was assiduous in noting their distribution in East Hoathly.
The ‘Old Poor Law’
In common with many small rural parishes East Hoathly did not maintain a workhouse and cared for its poor in the community. Pensions were paid to a small group of regular, often elderly or otherwise infirm paupers. Food stuffs, clothing, footwear and fuel formed regular components of parochial support.
The parish also provided medical care and medicines for the needy poor. A local apothecary or surgeon provided treatment and dispensed medicines when called on to do so by the overseer of the poor. Occasional ad hoc payments were made for specific items and small sums given to the itinerant poor. At least one parishioner was supported in Bethlem Hospital, an institution for the ‘insane’ poor in the City of London. A number of illegitimate children and babies were maintained by East Hoathly parish. These infants were boarded out locally (often with members of the child’s extended family) and subsequently placed in some form of apprenticeship. In addition, the parish ensured that repairs were made to cottages and other dwellings that housed their impoverished men and women. At least one cottage, at Scallow Bridge on the outskirts of the village, was used to house the poor. This ‘poorhouse’ was owned by the parish and accommodated two families, in 1834 William Hutson occupied the lower dwelling and William West the upper. Both paid an annual rent of one shilling. Labouring work was given to the able poor particularly when these cottages or the church required maintenance.
In the year ending Easter 1776 East Hoathly raised £199 through the Poor rate. By Easter 1803 this had more than doubled to just over £418. Of this, £358 was spent on relieving the poor and a further £13 on the removal of paupers, overseers’ expenses and legal costs. In 1803 the parish was permanently caring for 22 adults, 3 children under 5 and a further 13 children between the ages of 5 and 14. In years of extreme stress, particularly when the harvests failed, many more agricultural workers were thrown ‘on the parish’. In 1801, after two consecutive years of crop failure, men from East Hoathly joined those from the neighbouring parishes of Chiddingly, Framfield and Buxted in order to march to Lewes. This hungry crowd of nearly 300 demanded that the Sussex Bench order some form of poor relief for themselves and families. It is difficult to say if a parochial ‘wage subsidy’ was adopted in East Hoathly but, in common with many other Sussex parishes, it seems likely.
 For a fuller biography see David Vaisey. 2004 “Turner, Thomas (1729–1793), diarist and shopkeeper.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 14 Aug. 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-48266.
 Thomas Turner, The Diary of Thomas Turner, 1754-1765, ed. David Vaisey, New edition (East Hoathly: CTR Publishing, 1994), 161.
 Sussex Weekly Advertiser, 24 Feb. 1801 and 21 Apr. 1801. Cited in Griffin, Carl J. The Politics of Hunger: Protest, Poverty and Policy in England, C. 1750-C. 1840. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.
Like many parishes in the second half of the eighteenth century, Ringmer had a small workhouse to accommodate the poor. Unlike many such houses, it has an interesting array of surviving sources, even before we start to unfold the overseers’ vouchers.
The overseers’ accounts for Ringmer contain sporadic (if not consistent) evidence about the occupancy of the house and its layout/contents. The number of peepill/peapell in the workhouse in 1766, for example ranged from 17 to 34 inhabitants at any one time, always including a count of two for the master and mistress. An series of inventories surviving for 1790-1806 indicate the structure of the building, which was described as a poorhouse in 1790: at that date it had a governor’s room, Kitchen, back kitchen, brewhouse, bakehouse, pantry and storeroom, plus beds in a ‘chamber’ and in the ‘garret’. There were thirty occupants at the time suggesting there was little attempt to separate the inmates (men from women, adults from children) at this date.
There is also evidence of the way in which the house was managed. In 1758 John Pring was a salaried master, paid thirty shillings per month for his custodianship in looking after the workhouse. This means that Pring did not have a personal interest in recruiting more workhouse poor, since he was paid a flat rate rather than per head of the pauper residents. By 1773, though, the parish had changed its approach to workhouse management. In that year the vestry made an agreement with Jos Peckham, a cordwainer, to keep the poor in the workhouse at the rate of two shillings six pence per head per week. From this sum Peckham was charged with feeding the poor, and washing or mending their clothes, but not with the purchase of new clothing. In additional recompense, Peckham could keep whatever earnings or benefit from the labour of the poor he could extract. This second sort of contract encouraged workhouse masters to fill their house to capacity, and find a form of productive work for the paupers to perform. We have no record yet of what the paupers thought of the masterships of either Pring or Peckham.
Sources: The Keep, PAR 461/31/1-3, Ringmer overseers’ accounts 1754-1821; M. Diggle, ‘Ringmer Workhouse 1787-1806), Sussex History 1:8 (1979), 15-18.