The Social History of Wealden Villages

Talk by Dr. John Kay, Wednesday 11th March 2015

We were treated to a professionally presented talk about the history of our region by Dr. John Kay, an amateur Social Historian.   He described that where people lived determined their prosperity and how the social structure of the villages developed.  The Wealden geology had a great impact on the type of farming possible. In early times the Downs were settled and proved the “easiest” to plough using, basically, a sharp stick. The heavy Wealden clay was fertile, if seeds could be persuaded to germinate. So the forested Weald was used for hunting, timber, coppicing and ironstone. Clearings were used as summer pasture but not permanently settled. Travel was difficult, especially for vehicular traffic, through the forested area. If possible rivers and streams were used.

In Medieval times a huge increase in population put pressure on clearance of the forest leading to the growth of the Wealden parishes. The iron industry developed with plentiful supplies of both ironstone and fuel in the form of charcoal. The Archbishop of Canterbury had the manor of South Malling which stretched across Sussex and included Wadhurst among its parishes.   In 1285 Wadhurst had a population that was a mixture of free tenants, villeins and cottagers, a population of some 1500. This matched the Doomsday Book population of the whole of South Malling Manor.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the end of the power of the Manors. Power was transferred to Magistrates who could be replaced if the need arose. All the powers of Manors were transferred to Crown Officials. Parishes became self-governing units of local government. The woodland was managed for the production of timber, coppicing, and charcoal production.   Iron manufacture increased and the parishes increased in prosperity. However in Georgian times iron smelting using coal was developed and the industry declined with land reverting to agriculture. Wealden farms were small and inefficient because of the soil. Diverse occupations were taken up including smuggling, and roads improved when Turnpikes were introduced. (Wadhurst High Street used to be one.)

Wealden parishes were managed from the Vestry by inhabitants, which didn’t mean someone who lived in the parish but someone who paid rates, in other words the more prosperous residents. The parish collected taxes of various kinds, maintained law and order, maintained the roads, was the employer of last resort and provided social care for the parishioners in need. The Parish Workhouses were just that, a suitable building.

Everyone had settlement determined by which parish was responsible for their care under the Poor Laws. Conditions included owning a property, being a parish official, living as an apprentice or being a resident servant for one year, a woman by marriage, and being born in the parish. If an unmarried woman from another parish was about to give birth, strenuous efforts would be made to ensure the child was not born in that parish, or that she got married to the father of the child: kidnapping of men, “shotgun” wedding etc. anything to avoid upkeep by the parish. Settlement records were kept by the parish in the form of Settlement Certificates, Examinations, Apprentice Indentures, Illegitimacy Records and miscellaneous paperwork. An undesirable from another parish might be served with a Removal Order and the resulting trial records give detailed life histories of people at the time.

In modern times our systems of Social Services are based very largely on the old parish system.

The New Poor Law transferred responsibility from parishes to Poor Law Unions which fostered a cruel and harsh environment which was intended to discourage malingering. The end of the Vestry saw the upkeep of roads, the care of the poor, police, etc. transferred to County Councils (1889) with local Parish Councils being formed.

The presentation gave an interesting and informative insight into how life was in Wadhurst in former times and how our modern Social Services developed.

John Preston