Parish Workhouses up to 1834

English workhouses have their origins in sixteenth-century European ideas, when anxieties about vagrancy and unemployment prompted the generation of compulsory work schemes.  The first experiment in this vein in the British Isles was founded at the former palace of Bridewell in London during the 1550s, where food and lodging were offered in exchange for labour.  Provincial towns opened their own ‘bridewells’ from the 1560s onwards.

Bridewell Hospital: a ruined corner of the courtyard and staircase, with a vignette of a room. Engraving by B. Howlett 1813 after T.H. Shepherd: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/epp3bkxn

The Elizabethan poor laws of 1598 and 1601 incorporated the idea of setting the poor to work, to be funded by an annual local tax.  Parishes were permitted to acquire a stock of materials for employing paupers.  In the case of textiles, for example, a parish might buy wool and then insist that poor people spin it into yarn in exchange for a small cash payment or other benefit.  Most parishes that tried to apply this policy quickly found it too expensive to maintain.  The money earned from selling the finished produce, such as spun wool, rarely covered the costs of the materials.  The law had not specified a location for work, and parishes did not try to supply a single workplace for this activity.

The second half of the seventeenth century saw the rise of a new ideology, that of setting the poor to work at a profit.  It was thought that proper management of the right sort of work would not only cover costs but also remove the need to raise a local tax.  This encouraged some towns to apply for an individual Act of Parliament to become a Corporation of the Poor.  Corporations allowed multiple urban parishes to work together to raise a tax and run a large institution collectively.  Bristol was the first town to take up this option, and Exeter was the first place to construct a large, purpose-built workhouse. 

It soon became apparent to Corporations that it was not possible to render the workhouse poor self-supporting.  The sorts of people who required relief – the young, the elderly, the sick or disabled – were often not well-placed to undertake work of any kind.  Nonetheless, the hope of finding the right formula for making the poor profitable remained beguiling, and parishes continued to establish workhouses on this basis throughout the eighteenth century.  A workhouse policy was promoted early in the century by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, or SPCK, and the process of opening a workhouse was made easier by a general Act of Parliament in 1723. This Act allowed parishes to buy, rent, build or collaborate with each other to run workhouses.  The Act also introduced a new element to the use of workhouses, because it enabled parishes to insist that poor people enter them, if they wanted to receive parish poor relief (rather than receiving cash or other benefits in their existing homes).  This workhouse ‘test’ was applied inconsistently, with some places never making relief dependent on workhouse entry and others trying to impose the rule sporadically. Nonetheless, it became a very important precursor to the insistence on delivering relief only in workhouses, that dominated ideas from the 1820s onwards.

Regulations for the workhouse at Dymock, Gloucs: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ma25kafs

By 1800 it was no longer thought feasible to make the workhouse poor generate a profit, but a new goal emerged to render the poor as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Benjamin Thompson, an American known to history as Count Rumford, devised a workhouse diet based around soup that yielded the maximum number of calories for the lowest possible cost.  After 1815 and the economic disruption that followed the Napoleonic wars, sentiments towards the poor became more harsh.  Selected parishes made their workhouse as punitive as possible: Southwell in Nottinghamshire followed this policy, and became a model for the ‘reformed’ workhouses established after 1834. 

Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/w3tavr7h

Many parishes made use of workhouses in the approximate century 1723-1834 but not all of them were influenced by these ideas about workhouses, or applied them consistently.  A parish might begin with the intention of delivering all poor relief in the workhouse, and setting the poor to work, but would typically lose enthusiasm for both of these requirements.  Instead workhouses became places to accommodate the elderly poor, and offer nursing to them at scale, or to give homes to the young and orphaned poor before they were apprenticed at parish cost. By 1776 there were around 2000 workhouses across England, with some in every county.  The majority were fairly small-scale, housing 20-50 people, and did not have stringent rules.  Some paupers even used them flexibly, seeking admission to their local workhouse in winter or in times of unemployment or sickness and moving out as opportunities came their way for independence. 

Detail from ‘A Consultation’ by C.J. Winter (1869), after Rowlandson: Wellcome Images, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/d2xacjzt

Therefore, it should be no surprise that this project has already revealed a number of different parish approaches to workhouse management.  Volunteers in Staffordshire have contrasted the Uttoxeter workhouse, which set adult men to work in a brickyard, with the Tettenhall workhouse that held around 30 residents at one time who tended to be elderly or very young.  Cumbria volunteers have studied parishes with or without workhouses, and archival volunteers in East Sussex working on East Hoathley have encountered no workhouse so far.  This level of variation is what we would have expected, but the vouchers allow us to look in much greater detail at the way workhouses operated for their resident poor and for their local economies.  Even when there was no work in workhouses, they represented an important component of parish relief.

The parish of East Hoathly

East Hoathly tithe map, 1839. East Sussex Record Office: TDE 48/1.

East Hoathly is a small village located in central East Sussex. It lies just over four miles south east of Uckfield, off what is now the major route running south eastwards towards Eastbourne. 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 century 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.

East Hoathly tithe map, 1839. East Sussex Record Office: TDE 48/1.

During the eighteenth century East Hoathly contained only a handful of houses, largely clustered around the conjunction of roads at the centre of the parish. The church lay just to the south-west of this centre. However, the parish also incorporated a number of small hamlets with a scattering of houses including: Grays, Blackboys, Whitesmiths, the Nursery and Halland. 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 Rector

Country Characters No 7, Vicar, Thomas Rowlandson, 1799. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, PID:
digcoll:3996479.

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, and was often the centre drinking parties that went on into the small hours of the night. At the same time, Porter was also 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. But by the nineteenth century, this had risen to between ten and twenty per year. Marriages remained fairly constant at two to four a year, while burials amounted to less than a dozen per year. Porter was also quite diligent in pursuing his extra-clerical business, acquiring significant parcels of land and property in the area.

Thomas Turner (1729-1793)[1]

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.

Occupations

Other than the church, the parish supported the general shop run by the Turner, a small school and at least two public house, one of which was the King’s Head. However, the overseers’ vouchers make it clear that several other craftsmen and women 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

West front of Halland House drawn in 1783 by S.H Grimm. BL Add MS. 5671 f.47 (no 82)

The largest house in the parish belonged to the Duke of Newcastle. The family seat, Halland House, was located in the hamlet of Halland, and straddled the parish boundary with the adjacent parish of Laughton. By the later 1760s the Elizabethan house was dilapidated and was substantially demolished. What remained, continued to be used as a generously proportioned farm house.

Through most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries 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,[2]

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.’[3] 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.[4] 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 village doctor besieg’d, Thomas Rowlandson. Wellcome Library no. 10978i .

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 and subsequently apprenticed, usually in an adjacent parish. In addition, the parish ensured that repairs were made to cottages and other dwellings that housed their impoverished men and women. 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.[5] 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.

Louise Falcini

[1] 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.

[2] Thomas Turner, The Diary of Thomas Turner, 1754-1765, ed. David Vaisey, New edition (East Hoathly: CTR Publishing, 1994), 161.

[3] Turner, 161.

[4] Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship and Patronage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 85–89.

[5] To the nearest whole English pound.

Ringmer Workhouse

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.