Saturday, 10 August 2013

Part 7: Attitudes to the Poor and Rights of Settlement in Eighteenth-Century Thames Ditton.

On Friday 9 August 2013 I sat down to write my concluding blog on the issues concerning poor relief and settlement in eighteenth century Thames Ditton. The news channel played in the background and I watched the BBC report on the Home Office’s much criticized scheme whereby vans are to be driven through London calling on illegal immigrants to leave this country.[1] There is truly nothing new under the sun.

Just as the mobile poor were the subject of much debate and legislation during the eighteenth-century, so governments across the globe are currently preoccupied with the economic and social issues surrounding international immigration. Housing the poor remains a concern: in March this year BBC headlines announced that ‘Councils are to introduce a residency test to stop immigrants gaining immediate access [to council housing].’[2] Likewise, issues concerning the selection of those who can remain and those who should be removed continue to dominate headlines: ‘Immigration spot checks at railway stations across the country are to be investigated by the equality watchdog for possible unlawful discrimination.’[3]

This blog is not written with any political intent but one cannot avoid observing the similarities in the subject-matter that preoccupies the government and press today, as it preoccupied their counterparts 300 years ago.

Returning to the eighteenth century, poor law legislation provided no criteria on how grants of outdoor and indoor relief should be determined, other than in general terms, and made no stipulations as to the level of relief or how often it should be paid. Instead, poor relief was administered by untrained church vestries who applied the general provisions of the legislation in a way that appeared appropriate to that parish, given its local economic circumstances, local politics and local experiences.
The duties of parish vestries, churchwardens and overseers of the poor in Thames Ditton appear to have been undertaken in a diligent manner. Despite any apparent lack of qualifications by the incumbents to those posts, the rates were assessed, accounts audited, relief distributed and the workhouse managed. (See, Administration of the Old Poor Laws:

Householders in Thames Ditton took an understandable interest in the fairness of the rates assessed and were not reluctant to question the overseers and, if necessary, enter an appeal against their assessment to the justices of the peace. At a vestry meeting in April 1739 it was agreed that twenty-two people should be excused from payment of the full rate assessed, either because the individuals concerned had been overcharged or because they were deemed too poor to pay. On another occasion, an appeal was made to the Kingston justices following which a further fifteen residents were excused payment of the full rate.

The overseers of Thames Ditton managed settlement and removal issues in such a way as to protect the interests of the parish, balancing the desire to attract sufficient labour to support the local economy against the need to minimise the cost of poor relief. Extant settlement examinations suggest that single women tended to be selected for removal from the parish, particularly where there was a child to support, while married men of working age with a family were allowed to remain in the parish. (See, The Right to Settlement in the Parish of Thames Ditton:
In comparing the rising cost of poor relief in Thames Ditton with that occurring nationally, the parish seems to have fared fairly well with an average of five per cent of the population in receipt of some form of relief in contrast to a national average of eight per cent. Thames Ditton benefitted from its position on the outskirts of London and, having a fairly mixed economy, it does not appear to have suffered some of the hardships experienced elsewhere in the country. As a result, overseers of the poor were able to maintain the parish rate at around one shilling in the pound between 1723 and 1782. Nevertheless, weekly pensions for those seeking relief yielded an income below subsistence level and the poor would have needed to find other means to subsidise the cost of living through casual labour or use of common land.
Definitive evidence on wage movements during this period is imperfect: payments to labourers and agricultural workers were often made on a daily basis, fluctuating with the highs and lows of seasonal activities and winter shortages. Our understanding of income levels is further complicated when many labourers and casual workers had more than one source of income. It is likely that a labourer’s wage in 1690 was between £11-£15 per annum and was little changed by 1749, when an agricultural labourers’ wage was about one shilling day which, assuming a working year of 300 days, equates to a salary of £15 per annum.[4] In contrast, poor relief payments in Thames Ditton averaged 1s 6d a week, per claimant, which would have yielded an annual income of £3 12s: on those figures, poor relief payments clearly fell far below a living wage. Before the advent of the workhouse, a number of the poor, elderly and infirm parishioners lodged with other families in the parish. It is highly likely that the very poor resided with those similarly in need, with the payment of rent and a weekly pension directly to the householder being a motivating factor for taking in a lodger. (See, Obtaining Outdoor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Thames Ditton:

At different points throughout the period 1723-1782, pauper children were severally placed under the care of Mr Keel; placed with a gentleman of the parish who was able to provide work or training; or put out to work through an apprenticeship agreement entered into on their behalf. (See, Education and Pauper Apprentices in Eighteenth-Century Thames Ditton: After 1760 pauper children and adults would have been expected to enter the workhouse until such time as they were able to find either permanent or seasonal employment.

As considered in an earlier blog, advocates of the workhouse erroneously believed that community workhouses provided the solution for managing the spiralling cost of maintaining the poor. The theory was that parish workhouses might be run at a profit if its residents were set to work, thus relieving the burden on the parish rate. (See, The Parish Workhouse in Eighteenth-Century Thames Ditton:

A combination of the rising level of the poor rate and published accounts of the success of workhouses in other parishes was likely to have prompted the opening of the Thames Ditton parish workhouse in 1760. However, workhouses did not prove to be a long-term panacea against the costs of maintaining the poor. For those on the margins of poverty and subsistence-living, some payments of outdoor relief continued to be necessary even after the opening of the workhouse.

There are no first-hand accounts of what conditions were like in the workhouse at Thames Ditton but we know from the1760 articles of agreement with Mr Keel that (for a fixed rate of £180 per annum) he was required to provide fuel, candles and soap; clothes and shoes; meals in accordance with a bill of fare (see below); bedding; and all medicines and doctors as necessary. He was expected to take any pauper to hospital as might need it, whether they lived in the parish or workhouse, and to bury any pauper who died either within or outside the workhouse. Further he was required to provide any pauper placed as apprentice with 25 shillings or a set of clothes, pay all fees and expenses of taking a pauper in the parish before the justices for examination and any subsequent removal of the pauper up to a distance of 30 miles. The rising costs of maintaining the workhouse and high turnover of workhouse masters in Thames Ditton may explain why articles appointing John Summers as workhouse master in 1781 included additional provisions allowing him to set the poor to work and retain the benefit of any work done by them.
Workhouse Bill of Fare, 12 June 1786.[5]
Bread and butter or Cheese as the poor chooses and one pint of Beer
Bread, Mutton with Roots or Greens if in season or Peas Pudding And one pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread and Broth
Bread and Butter and one Pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread and Milk Pottage
Bread, Beef with Roots or Greens if in season or Peas Pudding And one pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread &Broth
Bread and cold meat or Rice Milk
Half a pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread and Milk Pottage
Bread, Beef with Roots or Greens if in season or Peas Pudding And one pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread and Broth
Bread and cold meat [and peas] pottage
Half a pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer
Bread and Milk pottage or Water Gruel
Suet pudding and one pint of Beer
Bread and Cheese or Butter And one pint of Beer

While workhouse diets were very plain, at least the inmates were provided with three meals a day, although the level of vitamin C would have been very low. The Thames Ditton workhouse had its own brew-house for making beer which would have been consumed by both adult and child residents, at a time when water quality was very uncertain.[6]

Alms-houses in Thames Ditton provided accommodation for six poor parishioners and, although little is known about the people who occupied those properties, it is unlikely that they were occupied by the most destitute of the parish. Allocation of a place in one of the alms-houses was made on the recommendation of the minister, churchwardens and overseers, allowing the vestry to exercise social control in the selection of ‘respectable’ paupers. Vestry minutes of May 1796 record the selection of Ann Bish to occupy one of the vacant houses. Her late husband had been a ratepayer of a property valued at £5 in 1795 and there is no record of either of them having previously claimed relief from the parish. Henry Bridge’s endowment for the alms-houses included the provision of £30 per annum, to be paid proportionally to the occupants. Vestry minutes of 17 April 1786 record that the cost of repairs to the houses was first deducted from the allowances paid to each of the six residents, in accordance with the terms of Henry Bridges’ will. Clearly, Mr Bridges intention was that his gift should take at least six of the ‘deserving poor’ out of the system of parish relief drawn from the poor rate.

The rising cost of the poor is reflected in an increase in the level of poor rates levied during the period 1723-1782 against the background of a fairly static population. (See, Thames Ditton, the Place and People: Not all disbursements listed in the overseers’ accounts were made to those with rights of settlement in the parish and one-off payments were made throughout the period to ‘several poor persons in distress’ or ‘a person with a pass’. These entries do not necessarily provide evidence of the benevolence of the vestry but are more likely to be indicative of an underlying problem for a parish located on a main route between the south coast and London.  However, the parish was protected against passing ‘scavengers’ who received relief under an Act of 1722, which declared that payment of the ‘highway rate’ would not confer settlement on its recipients.[7] It seems that the motivation of the parish vestry in granting or refusing relief lay somewhere in the middle ground, where the law was adapted by the parish according to prevailing economic conditions and seasonal variations together with real consideration towards those in need.

While I hope that this series of micro-studies on the administration of the poor laws in eighteenth-century Thames Ditton have been interesting and informative, they are not offered as a conclusive picture of experiences of poverty elsewhere in the country, or even in a neighbouring parish. It was parish autonomy in applying poor law legislation that makes each parish uniquely interesting.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please follow me using the link on right-hand panel.

[1] Home office 'go home' campaign probed by ASA (9 August 2013), accessed 10 August 2013.
[2] Keith Vaz warns of immigration 'arms race' (30 March 2013), accessed 10 August 2013.
[3] Immigrant spot checks: Equality watchdog investigates (3 August 2013), accessed 10 August 2013.
[4] Wrightson, K., and D. Levine, (1979) Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling, 1525-1700, New York, London: Academic Press, p. 41; Thirsk, J. (editor) (1985) The Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. V, part II (1640-1750), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 5.
[5] North Kingston History Room, NKHR ref. 2568/6/2-5, the weekly bill of fare for Thames Ditton being the same as provided in Kingston.
[6]. See Higginbotham, Peter,, accessed 3 August 2013.
[7] 9 Geo. I, c.7 (1722) Poor Relief Act.  .

No comments:

Post a Comment