Elizabeth Overing, sent to Bedlam (1746- 1815)

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 death. 

View of Bethlem hospital from Moorfields
Most of Bethlehem Hospital by William Henry Toms for William Maitland in William Maitland’s History of London, 1739.

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.

Settlemnt examination, Wilmington in Sussex, 1775. East Sussex Record Office: QR586/19

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. 

East Hoathly Overseer’s Voucher, East Sussex Record Office: PAR378/31/3/19/18.

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. 

Bethlem Hospital, printed list of apparel for patients, c1790. East Sussex Record Office, Parish of East Hoathly, PAR378/31/3/21/24.

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.

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.

Senna and Prunes for Dame Trill

When parishes agreed to meet the costs of medicines for the parish poor, they might require medical practitioners to submit an itemised bill for the raw materials, procedures and travel involved in delivering treatment.  Many of the items were commonly known to contemporaries, but are less familiar to us: therefore when writers abbreviated entries for repeated supplies, they stored up a problem for twenty-first century readers.  It is notoriously difficult (and perhaps unwise) to try to decipher the abbreviated Latin prescriptions of physicians.  It is a little easier to understand the medical interventions involved when the original language was English, and/or the substances remain part of formal or informal treatments.

Eighteenth-century woman perched on public convenience.
National Portrait Gallery. ‘National Conveniences’, James Gillray, 1796. NPG D13021.

Dame Trill from East Hoathly had a problem we can recognise – she was constipated.  We do not know the background to her story; she may have suffered a dietary deficiency of roughage or, if struggling with piles, she might have found relief in additional stool softener.  Whatever the cause, the problem was stubborn.  The parish bought senna and prunes for Dame Trill repeatedly 1770-4, usually at a cost of six and a half pence per treatment.  Raisins were sometimes offered as an alternative to prunes.

Other treatments issued to the sick poor were more general.  The purpose of diuretic balsam is made clear in the name, in that it was designed to remedy the retention of urine, but the specific diagnosis is less easy to divine.  Medicines for the poor at this date still relied on humoural understandings of the body for their rationale.  Humoural medicine construed ill health as the imbalance of humours or fluids within the body.  The four humours of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile had a unique blend or balance for each individual, and the restoration of health demanded the removal of any humour that was overly prevalent.  For this reason vomits, purges, diuretics and bleeding were among the most frequently used medicines throughout the eighteenth century.

In addition to generic remedies there was a willingness by parishes to pay for the equivalent of brand-name medicines, known at the time as patent medicines.  Widow Cane of East Hoathly was given Hooper’s Pills in 1773.  The patent for this medicine was first issued in 1743  and was one of the most successful and long-lasting products of its type, being sold well into the twentieth century in England and elsewhere.  It pledged to tackle female ‘irregularities’ and so was assumed by some customers to be a viable solution to an unwanted pregnancy.  It is important to say, though, that we don’t automatically suppose that this was the purpose of the parish in buying the pills for Widow Cane!  This medicine also offered to treat stomach problems, hysteria, and menstrual concerns: perhaps Widow Cane was menopausal?

Lists of medicines and treatments for the parish poor have presented a problem to historians thus far: how are we to use them, if we cannot work out the ingredients of items listed simply as pills, powders or mixtures, and if the recipients are not always obvious?  This is one of the problems this project is hoping to address.  Do get in touch with the project team if you have any ideas about how we might use these intriguing vouchers to ask historical questions.

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.

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