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North Mymms people in Victorian times
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 5
The poor we will have always with us

The poor were the great majority of people who lived by their labour. Below them were the destitute, those who had no means at all and could not earn a living. Both were closely affected by the Poor Law. The poorest of the poor could be given outdoor parish relief, allowances in their homes, the extent of which varied according to the social policies of the day. The destitute received indoor relief by entering the workhouse, or sometimes outdoor relief if it was cheaper. For the ordinary poor there was charity for those in need provided they had deserved it by not having been given parish relief.

The paupers of the parish, i.e. those receiving either indoor or outdoor relief, appear anonymously in the government records. There were in North Mymms in 1767 twenty two paupers who were given "constant relief during the year" in the form of allowances, and probably others being helped occasionally. For the others there was the parish workhouse in Workhouse Lane, a house and garden called Baresfords occupying about a quarter of an acre, with accommodation for thirty inmates. It was furnished, or re-furnished, in 1766 when the churchwardens paid £l7.13.6d for "things bought into the workhouse" fetched from London. The cost of maintaining both the poor and the destitute in the parish which numbered about 700 persons, was £140 a year.

Charitable legacies began earlier on. In the 17th century Edmund Faldo of Brookmans, Sir Thomas Hyde of North Mymms Place and Martha Coningsby of Potterells each left sums of money to be invested for the deserving poor. Two ladies, Dame Lydia Mews, tenant of North Mymms Place, and Mistress Anne Hunter of Gobions followed suit in the 18th century, as did Joseph Sabine in the early 19th century. By about 1815 money had been invested in land to the extent of 65 acres 2 rods 10 poles, bringing in an income of £48 per annum which, together with £587.14.4d in Government stock, produced a total of £65.6.8d a year available for distribution. Sabine’s opinion of this amount was that it was "not of great extent", perhaps in comparison with other parishes.

The Regulations for these charities, with their clear exclusion of the destitute, may be summarised as follows:

  1. On Good Friday. Donation to servants or labourers in husbandry having more than 2 children, who have received no poor relief and have 1 year’s residence; preference given to the largest number of children under 18; good character required.
  2. On Easter Eve. Donation of provisions and money to widows over 40 who had not been in the workhouse; 12 months residence required.
  3. Widows’ Charity. Nomination by church wardens and overseers with a casting vote by the minister. For widows without relations or other income or property, but with credit and respectability. Weekly payments made during life unless the widows received parochial relief.
  4. Mrs Coningsby’s Charity. For ten persons selected by the church-wardens and the minister; provided that they had had no poor relief and had attended church regularly.
  5. Distribution of the Bread on Sundays. A list to be made of all the heads of poor families; names called in church in rotation; the ration for each in turn:- I loaf for 1-2 persons, 2 loaves for 3-4, 3 loaves for 5-6 in the family, 4 loaves for over 6 persons.
  6. Binding Apprentices from the Charity Funds. Two lists to be made:- (1) orphans or bastards or parish children (2) poor resident parents who had had no parish relief. One alternately from each list to be elected by a majority vote of the church-wardens and overseers of the poor. The master to be in trade within 20 miles of North Mymms; 7 years’ indenture; at each Easter the apprentice to show a testimonial from his master and a certificate of Sunday observance.
Help for the poor continued in this form throughout the 19th century.

In addition to this regular, established charity, the needy were occasionally helped by the churchwardens from the vestry funds. Most of them were residents but there was also a small group of outsiders to whom money was sometimes given. They were the "travellers", craftsmen such as hatters, feltmakers, weavers and compositors who were tramping for work. For example, in 1768 the church-wardens "gave to Travellers at different times 5s. 6d" and five years later "gave to the Weavers and other Travellers 5s. 0d". War casualties also sometimes benefited: in 1793 "to distressed Sailors 2s. 6d", in 1802 "A poor soldier whose wife had her arm broke 2s. 0d" and "a poor sailor 2s. 6d."

These alms from this particular source when given to residents were usually in particular cases of temporary distress. Thus in 1786 the churchwardens "gave Dame Knight and Widow Nicholls being very ill with a fever 6s 0d".; in 1797 "gave poor widow Wittimore 2s 6d"; in 1799 "to poor man having lost his property by fire ls 0d"; in 1801 "gave Ceo Collins very ill 3s 0d". These donations stopped short when Joseph Sabine became churchwarden in about 1805.

It was at this point that the poor law became more severe in the parish. The cost of providing for the poor had risen rapidly. By 1803, the year when the war with France was renewed, it had trebled to £455 a year since thirty years earlier. Inflation accounted for some of this increase though in fact the worst inflation came latter in the war. In that year there were no more than thirteen persons in the workhouse, costing £21 each per annum. But the number of persons who were permanently relieved in their homes had risen to as many as thirty-five, a not inconsiderable number in a population of 838. Some of them may well have been wage earners given an allowance to make ends meet, since the decision by the Berkshire magistrates at Speenhamland to subsidise wages from the poor rate had, by then, been acted on throughout the south of England.

In North Mymms a new regime for the poor began. It was due to the reforming zeal of Joseph Sabine, inspector general of taxes, secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society and much else, though it may also have owed something to the example of the Marquis of Salisbury who had established an economical and disciplined workhouse in Hatfield.

Sabine told a Parliamentary Select Committee of 1817 how he had effected economy and striven to discourage dependence on poor relief. In his position as churchwarden he had been able to halve the burden on the rates by abolishing some outdoor allowances and by cutting the expenses of the workhouse. He had found that the vestry was "too fond of exercising their humanity at the expense of the parish". The old and infirm in the workhouse were privatised by farming them out to a contractor who was paid 5s 0d per head per week for their maintenance. Sabine’s opinion, rather ahead of his times, was that the standard of living of these paupers should be "rather below" that of those who earned their living on 12s to 18s a week. He objected to a proposal by the vicar that they should have beer. He assured the Committee that people in distress did not show any reluctance to enter the workhouse.

Sabine also established strict control over outdoor relief. Widows with children who could not support themselves were granted weekly allowances of from 1s 6d to 3s per adult and ls 6d per child. These women and children worked at stone picking, haymaking and gleaning in harvest time. For this the women were paid l0d per day, the children from 4d to 8d. For the labourers with a family to support, their allowances were stopped however low their wages. The only relief allowed to them was clothes for the children and medicine. While it was possible for them to appeal to the magistrates over the head of the vestry led by Sabine, only three had ever done so. And, of course, those who received parish relief could not qualify for any of the parochial charities.

As Sabine’s reforms cut off allowances which had been given to eke out wages, the men were, in his words, "thrown back more upon their own exertions. They exerted themselves and they went on well". Normal hours of work had been from six to six in summer, from seven to five in winter. Now men worked by the piece instead of by the day, and worked longer hours. As he said, "they stay later at night" since, as he observed, they did not come to work before six in the morning.

After due exertion a man could earn from 12s to £1 a week on piecework at hedging and ditching, "wood work or ground work", instead of the basic wage of 12s. There were only four men for whom there was no work on the farms; they laboured on the parish roads at a lower wage. Those few men for whom no work could be found were sent by the vestry on a round of the farmers to see if they could be taken on. These roundsmen, as they were called, were paid only about 8s a week. Straw plaiting by the women and children helped out with the rent of £3 to £5 a year. The cottagers had no rights on the remaining small piece of common and very few of them occupied any land in addition to the cottage garden. They had to buy their fuel when the women could not go "a wooding", illegally.

Churchwarden Sabine continually visited the cottagers to see how they were fed and clothed. He found that those who could earn l5s to l8s were "very fairly clothed". Theft food was "chiefly bread; they have potatoes and greens in their gardens, and many of them have pork". "If wheat gets very dear some use barley". Wheat had, in fact, got dear. By 1817 the price of wheat had doubled since the start of the French wars, whereas wages had risen about half Such was the situation of the poor in those years.

Throughout the 19th century charity continued to be a safety net for those in need. The parochial charities have already been described. In addition there was sometimes the necessity of another kind of charity. This was the soup kitchen, "that useful institution", as the Hertfordshire Advertiser saw it three days before the Christmas of 1883. Throughout the eighteen seventies, eighties and nineties, and perhaps earlier, North Mymms set up a soup kitchen whenever severe winter weather put men out of work. Usually in Roestock, it was also available to families in Welham Green and Water End. Through the kindness of the gentry a quart of soup and half a quartern loaf were to be had for one penny. It was the main meal for many families. In a bad year, 1895, the soup kitchen was open on two or three days a week for several weeks. 1270 quarts of soup and 635 loaves were dispensed. The cost was £24. 13s 7½d of which the poor paid £5. l5s 3d in pence, the rest coming from the gentry.

The destitute persons in the parish led a different life. In August 1835 they faced a new future. The North Mymms workhouse was closed, the furniture sold, and the inmates removed to another place, the Hatfield Union Workhouse. This was the effect of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834; an Act foreshadowed by such reformers as Sabine and the Marquis of Salisbury. For this reason the inmates may well not have noticed much change in their regime.

There were twelve of them: John Haydon, Sam Flindell, William Pearson, Stephen Topp, Silvester Clayton, James Cooper, John Northage, Elizabeth Mitchell, William Collins, John Route, William Wackett and Ann Soodle. Of these, four were too old for work, two were partially disabled and out of work, one was infirm, three were too young to work, one was "an idiot" and one had been deserted by her husband. Of the three children, aged five to eight, two were illegitimate. The occupations which had brought the men to this pass were labourer,shoemaker and blacksmith. The blacksmith came out of the workhouse returned to North Mymms and died two years later. All twelve inmates, except one child, died within a few years. All of them were recorded as "well behaved" daring their short stay, except for Ann Soodle, the deserted wife, whose behaviour was "indifferent".

The inmates at Hatfield were fed on the following diet:

Breakfast Tea. Milk with oatmeal or rice. Dinner 2 and a half oz. cheese with bread except to those who have butter. Except Sunday when the meat is given with dinner. Supper 4 oz meat or 4 oz in soup for six days with potatoes. Suet pudding on the 7th day 12 oz each. Bread 15 oz a day each. Butter 8 oz a week each. Sugar 8 oz a week each. Tea 1 oz a week each. Meat one and a half pounds a week each and suet for pudding. Beer continued except for those under thirty years.

Despite the uprooting of paupers throughout Hertfordshire to be installed in the new prison-like workhouses where segregation of men, women and children was the rule, there was little opposition to the new poor law in the county. There was violent opposition in the surrounding counties but it occurred in only two places in Hertfordshire - Royston where the relieving officer was attacked, and Bishops Stortford where a workhouse building was set on fire.

During the hungry forties times were hard. The number of admissions from North Mymms to the Hatfield workhouse rose to twenty-eight in 1842, some persons went in more than once a year. By the mid-century admissions had become more normal at fourteen a year. Among those taken in in 1851 were the three children of Williams Rands of North Mymms, sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing a leg of mutton. Along with them was Ann Soodle again, destitute, with two children, guilty, according to the register, of "very bad behaviour". The rest were mainly old men.

There were, however, in that year another sixteen persons dependent on parish allowances at home and another six who were permanently sick or disabled and had medical tickets from the Guardians of the Poor in Hatfield. Altogether thirty-six persons relied on the poor law, out of a population of eleven hundred. They had all been workers of one kind or another. Five had been domestic servants, five straw plaiters, four agricultural labourers, two charwomen one a lacemaker and one a weaver. One of them was William Marlborough whose family had been in the parish for a hundred and fifty years. Such was the family’s decline from the status of yeoman in an earlier age.

Twenty years later times seem to have improved. There were only three admissions to the workhouse from the parish in 1871 and only eight paupers receiving relief in their homes, all old people. Among them was widow Sophia Brinkley, age eighty four, formerly a domestic servant like many of the inmates, who had been a pauper twenty years earlier. For the able bodied men in the workhouse there was a change of occupation. The Poor Law Inspector having recommended stone breaking instead of oakum picking, the Guardians bought five yards of stone and three stone hammers and built a covered shed for the work.

The depression in agriculture of the 1880s does not seem to have had much effect on the parish. Only a few North Mymms paupers were admitted to the workhouse, about five a year. The efforts by the Local Government Board, which had taken over the poor law, to reduce outdoor relief, thus obliging the elderly into the workhouse, do not seems to have been felt in the parish.

In the years before the first world war admission of parish people to the workhouse continued to be at the same low level. Some idea of the regime for those who did enter may be gained from the following duties of the porter in 1915:

5.45 am Ring Bell
5.45-6.20 Assist in preparing and serving breakfast
6.20 Ring breakfast bell and serve breakfast to tramps
6.20-7.00 Own breakfast
7.00 Ring work bell and set tramps to work
10.00 Discharge tramps
11.00 Cut bread for dinner
11.30 Assist to serve dinner
12.00-12.30 Ring dinner bell and take dinner
1.00 Ring work bell
1.00-2.00 Own dinner
4.00 Cut bread for tea
4.30-5.00 Own tea
5.30-6.00 Assist in preparing and serving tea
6.00 Ring tea bell
6.00-9.00 Take in and supervise bathing of tramps and cut bread for breakfast

From 1930 the care of the poor and the destitute was in the hands of the public assistance committee of the County Council. Workhouses were re-named institutions. The Poor Law was effective until 1947.

Peter Kingsford, 1986


Chapter 6 - The demon drink
Index - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Preface - North Mymms people in Victorian times
Photographs - from the book

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