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by Rosa Young
St Neots Local History Society Magazine No. 42, summer 2000

For many centuries those people who found themselves poor and destitute relied on two sources of relief, the monasteries and the private benefactors.  The monasteries were committed to giving aid to the poor as one of the elements of their monastic rule, and each day the leavings from the monks’ table would be distributed at the gate of the abbey or priory to the paupers waiting there.  If there was very little food to be distributed the waiting throng would be given bread, a little ale and sometimes money.  At the gate of St Neots Priory, halfway along what is now the lane called ‘The Priory’, there would have been an assorted gathering of displaced villeins, cripples, widows, orphans and vagrants standing outside awaiting their ‘dole’ (share) of what was going.

Private benefactors sometimes gave money for the poor during their lifetimes, but more often the money was left in their wills.  This posthumous donation was thought to ensure their entry into Heaven!  Sometimes, instead of money, a plot of land was bequeathed, the income from which was to be used for the benefit of the poor, or the will would state that it should be used to grow wheat which could be made into flour and used to bake bread for distribution.  This bread is still distributed by custom in some parishes and is often referred to as ‘St Thomas Bread’ because it was given out on St Thomas’s Day, December 21st.

In parishes where there was no monastery and no wealthy benefactors the poor were often reduced to begging, and - as nowadays - not all the beggars were genuine cases.  In some areas begging was quite a profitable occupation and in 1350 a Statute of Labourers was passed in an attempt to discourage wholesale and unjustified begging.  It was phrased as follows:

“Item:  Because that many valiant beggars, so long as they may live of begging, do refuse to labour, giving themselves to idleness and vice and sometimes to theft and other abominations; none - upon payne of imprisonment - shall, under the colour of pitie or alms, give anything to such which may labour, or presume to favour them towards their desires, so that they may be compelled to labour for their necessary living.”

It need hardly be said that the statute had little effect!  There were said to be well-organised bands of beggars roaming the countryside throughout the Middle Ages, causing fear and consternation to the residents of the towns and villages that they descended upon, since they were often violent in demanding money and food.  It is popularly supposed that the old nursery rhyme ‘Hark, hark! The dogs do bark, beggars are coming to town ...’ originated at that period.

When, in the mid-16th century, Henry VIII abolished the monasteries, the poor were left without their main source of relief.  The parish churches were then required to provide support instead, raising funds from the wealthier residents to enable them to do so.  It rapidly became apparent that they could not rely on the indefinite goodwill of a few people, and the church rate was levied from all residents except the poor themselves, to enable regular payments of poor relief to be paid out.  There are records of such payments being made at St Neots from the mid-1600s, and these list those who paid and those who received.  Rates were charged at so much an acre for landholders and householders paid according to the size of their houses.  Those receiving relief were mainly widows and orphans, but there were a few men, probably those too old or infirm to work.  The records contain no reference to vagrants although there were plenty of them still about, so many in fact that they soon became a heavy burden on some parishes, and in the early 18th century it was decreed that vagrants seeking relief must return to the parishes of their birth to find it.  Vagrancy Passes were issued by local magistrates which enabled them to obtain minimal relief from the parishes through which they had to pass to reach their birthplaces, and the Hunts. Quarter Sessions records of 1782 to 1787 provide some interesting case histories of those applying for Vagrancy Passes, as shown by the summaries below:

“1782.  Pass to Loddon, Norfolk, for Charles Baker born in Ditchingham, Norfolk formerly Draper, Exciseman, Footsoldier and Schoolmaster.  Now reduced to ‘Wandering about and asking relief’.”

“1783.  Irish pass for Thomas Whalen, born Queens County, Ireland.  Served since 14 years old as a Marine in H.M.S. Portland and Britannia.  Now compelled by illness to beg.”

“1783.  Pass from Huntingdon to Dartford in Kent for Susannah Rawlings who, being ill, was to be conveyed in a cart.”

“1786.  Pass for Eleanor Howorth from Stanground to her legal settlement in the parish of Manchester, Lancashire.  Deserted by a blind fiddler.”

“1787.  Pass from Yaxley to Malton, Yorkshire for Mary Robinson, a Belfast woman apprenticed in Malton at 7 years old to learn glove-making, who had drifted into Huntingdonshire where she was ‘pretending to palmistry and fortune-telling’.”

The early poor relief had been paid to paupers in their own homes, but the provision of poorhouses or workhouses instead had been authorised for some time and by 1726 there was a workhouse in St Neots.  It is thought to have been situated near the gate to the Common at the northern end of New Street, and was probably simply a house rented by the churchwardens and supervised by the Guardians of the Poor.  It was later abandoned in favour of rented premises in Church Street, and the accounts for that period show that the inmates were mostly women and children who were making lace to sell, so providing part of the money required for their food and clothing.  They seem to have lived quite well, judging from the quantities of meat and other commodities recorded in the accounts, and were probably better off in the workhouse than many who were trying to cope on low wages outside it.

The wars of the early 19th century, however, laid a hard burden on parish authorities who found that they were required, in the aftermath, to provide relief for an unprecedented number of widows and orphans, plus numerous returning soldiers who had lost limbs and were unable to work.  Desperate measures were advocated, and in 1820 it was reported that one opinion was that:

“The advantages resulting from a workhouse must arise, not from keeping the Poor in the house, but from keeping them out of it; by constraining the Inferior Classes to know and feel how demoralising and degrading is the compulsory relief drawn from the parish.”

Can one imagine what indignation such a comment would arouse nowadays!  At the time, however, this was an opinion widely held and even echoed in the official Poor Law Report of 1834, which stated, with reference to workhouses:

“.... but in by far the greater number of cases it is a large almshouse in which the young are trained in idleness, ignorance and vice; the able-bodied maintained in sluggish sensual indolence; the aged and more respectable exposed to all the misery that is incident in dwelling in such a society, without government or classification, and the whole body of inmates subsisted on food far exceeding both in kind and amount not merely the diet of the independent labourer, but that of the majority of the persons who contribute to their support.”

As a result of the Poor Law Report, drastic measures were introduced in an effort to keep the poor out of the workhouse.  Larger workhouses were built and smaller, parochial ones sold off.  Several neighbouring parishes combined their resources to enable this building to take place, and St Neots Union Workhouse was opened in 1842.

As in all other such establishments the building was divided into four sections, each segregated from the others.  Women over 16 occupied one block, men of a similar age another, while the children were also separated into boys’ and girls’ blocks.  This meant that a poor family who were compelled to seek relief at the workhouse were immediately split up and condemned to lose sight of each other.  This must have been distressing for parents and the effect of segregation on the children is too painful to contemplate.

The work which the men were then required to do was deliberately designed to be menial and tedious, and hours were spent in breaking up stones or shredding lengths of rope into strands.  Those who did not do the necessary amount of work went without food.  Not that the food provided was anything to excite the taste buds, as the chart illustrating this article demonstrates.  The thought of suffering a boring diet week after week, month after month, must have been one of the factors which had the desired effect of keeping the poor out of the workhouse.

No-one who has read Dickens can doubt that in the workhouses of towns and cities conditions were appalling and that the inmates suffered squalor and deprivation, but the reports suggest that at St Neots Union Workhouse the authorities were a little more understanding.  Generally speaking the food, although unappetising and repetitive, was filling and relatively nutritious, the work was arduous but not excessive, and extras were allowed in the form of tea and sugar for the older folk and milk for children.  Nevertheless, in 1844 a man called Gillham made an official complaint to the Guardians regarding his treatment.

“I am a pauper in the St Neots Union Workhouse and am nearly 70 years of age.  I complain that I, whilst an inmate of this Workhouse, was not supplied with the proper allowance of meat.  On several occasions I am sure that I had not more than one ounce of meat.  I also complain that I did not have the tea, sugar or butter to myself in the way I consider I ought to have, and the other paupers have been treated in the same way.  I have seen the meat cut off the bone and the meat and bones chopped up and put in the puddings together.  I complain that the provisions the paupers ought to be supplied with are consumed by Mr Gibson’s friends at the Entertainments which he is in the habit of giving so frequently.  I complain that the vegetables which we ought to have are sent to some friends of Mr Gibson as presents.  I complain that on several occasions the meat was so ‘high’ that onions were chopped up to make it go down ...”

And so it went on, but although Mr Gillham’s complaints were supported by six other inmates, he was not successful in gaining redress.  Mr Gibson, the workhouse Master, claimed that Gillham was merely complaining out of spite.  According to him, the complainant had been given money by his daughter, had gone out and got drunk on it, and had then returned and verbally abused the Master, whereupon he had been confined to the workhouse from then on.  The Board of Guardians believed Mr Gibson, as he was supported by the Workhouse Porter, who was probably a participant in the ‘Entertainments’.

Nevertheless, this story shows that the inmates were allowed out on occasions and that there was no restriction on them receiving money from relatives.  As time went on the children in the workhouse were either given tuition by resident teachers or were sent to school at Eaton Socon, and the able-bodied men were hired out to local farmers to engage in work that was more congenial than picking oakum or breaking stones.  At special times such as Christmas the inmates were provided with more interesting meals and some entertainment for themselves.

By the end of the 19th century most of the inmates of the Union were old people who had been sent, as one local poet put it, ‘to die in the Union’.  The idea that to be sent to the workhouse was to be avoided at all costs had by then been successfully instilled into the poor, and that attitude persisted for many years afterwards.  Even after the introduction, in the 20th century, of old age pensions and unemployment benefit, leading to the abolition of workhouses, this feeling was still prevalent and many old people dreaded the thought of being sent to old people’s homes.  Since a good many of these homes had been converted from former workhouses, their reluctance was understandable.

The St Neots Union Workhouse was one of those buildings which was used as an old people’s home for a few years, but in more recent times it has become converted into flats and maisonettes.  It is to be hoped that the ghosts of its former inmates do not walk its corridors.

Nowadays the payment received by those who are unemployed is still often referred to as the ‘dole’, a word which is a memory of the share of charity which was given out back in the Middle Ages at the gate of St Neots Priory.


Relieving the Poor: Text
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