Being Poor in Sussex 1600-1900

On the 10th October Elizabeth Hughes from the East Sussex Records Office gave us a talk titled “Being Poor in Sussex 1600-1900.

We learned that by the Act of 1601 every Parish had to set up a scheme for the relief of the poor.  The rules under the act continued with some modification for many years and Workhouses were not finally abolished until after the second world war.

Up to the Poor Law amendment act of 1834 Wadhurst had its own Workhouse close to where the Doctor’s surgery is now (Note 1).  After 1834 Wadhurst poor were compelled to go to the union Workhouse at Ticehurst which was situated on the Flimwell road about one and a half miles North East of Ticehurst

 As early as 1795, the English implemented new remedies for poverty. A minimum guaranteed income plan was adopted. Workers receiving low wages received supplemental income through parish funds, the stipend calculated by family size as well as wages. Public grumbling soon arose, however, about poor families and unmarried women having children just to increase their income.

 The money to finance the scheme was raised from land owners of the Parish according to the acreage and substance of their holdings

 Applicants for relief first appeared before the board of guardians who decided if admittance was warranted. If the board decided the applicant was sufficiently needy, he or she was “offered” a place in the institution. If the applicant declined, the board was absolved of any further responsibility. If the applicant had children or dependant parents, the entire family was presented for admittance if relief was accepted.

 Inmates led a regimented life in the House, especially in the early years of the New Poor Law (1834-1948). Everyone except the feeble and children less than seven years of age performed the same work for the same number of hours and ate the same basic meals. Work, although it was not necessarily designed as punishment, was often gruelling.  Married couples initially were not allowed to live together regardless of their ages, as the Commission wanted to prevent pregnancy for obvious reasons. This rule was later relaxed to allow married people at least 60 years of age to live together if they wished.

 Treatment of inmates varied from union to union and board to board. In some Workhouses, officers were very humane and high-principled; officers in other Workhouses more closely resembled the officious Mr Bumble of Oliver Twist. In some cases, unscrupulous officers who trimmed expenses siphoned the savings for themselves. Less money spent on food and coal meant more money in the administrative pocket. Hence, the standard of living varied considerably for inmates in Workhouses, depending on the benevolence of the local board and officers.

 Elizabeth Hughes showed us many Power Point slides of old documents and photographs relating to Workhouses and life within them.  For the most part these were disappointing since the writing was too small to be read by the majority of the audience and since Ms Hughes had no pointer it was not always easy to make sense of them. .

Note 1  Wadhurst Town in the High Weald by Savidge and Mason page 65

 Martin Turner

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