The Beadles of Winchelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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