top of page


By C F Tebbutt

The largest of the books (of ancient documents relating to St Neots) recently bound (i.e. 1937) contains the accounts of the Poor Law Overseers between 1722 and 1733, and various minutes of the Vestry Meetings up to 1736.

The expenses of the Overseers are put down in great detail and are of interest in illustrating the life and habits of people in St Neots in the early part of the 18th century.  This was a prosperous time in England when food was cheap and much of the land in the hands of small yeoman farmers.  The landless agricultural labourer was unknown, as even the very poor had their common rights and could keep a cow or so.

We have evidence that there was now a workhouse and that rent was paid for it to Mr Pulleyn at £6-10-0 a half year.  The Pulleyns, I believe, lived at or owned Hall Place, and the traditional site of the workhouse was in Church Street, opposite ‘The Shrubbery’.  There were also alms houses but where these were situated I do not know.  The town were always doing small repairs to some of these houses which must have been thatched and had walls made of a mixture of clay and straw.  Many items occur as:

A bushel of lime and 10 bricks, 9d.; 100 nails, 6d.; 1 ridgetile, 6d.; 60 lath, 1s.

6 half deales, 3s.; 25 doubles poles, 5s. 2½d.; 1½ lbs nails, 6d.; 1lb sprigggs, 1d.

Mending the windows of ye Alms House, 1s. 2d.; John Holland and his boy 5 days’ work digging clay, 3 loads, 10s. 3d.

Straw to make clay at ye Alms Houses, 14s 8d.

Mr Gorham for thack ropes and spits and coal, £1-4-5.

It would appear that before 1727 the Workhouse was not glazed as the large sum of £2-3-0 appears for ‘glazing ye Workhouse’ appears in that year.

It is interesting to see how the poor were fed.  The staple diet was beef, bread and cheese, all bought in large quantities.  The bread was made on the premises, as was most of their beer.  Some of this latter was, however, bought.  Sometimes wheat was bought but more often flour.  The absence of potatoes is noticeable, they being hardly known in England, and indeed very few vegetables were in evidence.  A few extracts will show the chief diet and what it cost:

               For 58 lbs beef, 12s.

               For 13 bushels of wheat, £1-11-3.

               20 stone flower, £1.

               A calves pluck 9d.

               A bullock’s head and half with Roots, 1s. 8d.

               For baking 14 bushel of bread, 3s. 6d.

               For a heart and skirts, 10d.

               Bullock’s cheeks and legg and knuckles and 2 lbs of beef, 1s. 1d.

               6 lb Mutton, 1s 6d.

               56 lbs new milk chees, 17s. 6d.

               70 lbs new meal chees, 11s. 8d.

               100 lbs chees, £1-0-10.

               Legs of veal, 2s. 1d.

               2 sheeps’ heads, 7½d.

Porridge was also eaten:

               Porringers, 3d.

               1 peck Oatmeal, 7d.

There are also a few mentions of suet for puddings and pudding bags.  The few vegetables that occur are:

               Turnops, 2d., Carrots, 2d.

Various items of diet that come infrequently and in small quantities were probably luxuries for the old or sick.  They include:

               Sugar, 2½d.

               ½ bushel apples, 3d., 7 lbs plums, 1s. 11½d.

               Currants, 1½d.

               Herrings, 1d.

               Figs, 1d., Prunes, 1d.

               Trakel, 1d.

The winter’s supply of salt meat, no doubt often nearly putrid, was helped down by the vinegar, pepper, mustard (and possibly mace) bought.  The beer brewing entailed many expenses.

               For fetching ye water and brewing, 2s. 3d.

               To Mr Smith for harm for brewing Hops, 7d.

               4 bushel of malt, 10s.8d.

Beer that was supplied cost 10d. a barrel.  Milk was supplied in large quantities but butter a pound at a time (at 6d. a pound).

Clothes form a large part of the expense put down.  Cloth was woven by the weaver and made up by tailors.  New shoes and shoe mending are recurring items, as are new pattens and clogs.

               A pare of new shoes and 2 pare mending, 1s. 8d.; a pare of stays, 2s.6d.; 2 yards

linen, 1s. 6d.

               15 yards Liney, £1-4-0.

               A pare of pattins, 11d.

               A scuttle hatt, 8d.

A woman came in to do the washing, the usual entry being:

               Washerwoman, 9d.

               Beer for washerwoman, 6d.

Ashes were used largely instead of soap and were bought at 9d. a bushel.

To be continued

This article originally appeared in the St Neots Advertiser on 17th December 1937.  It was the second in a series and the first one was transcribed in Magazine No. 51, November 2002.

St Neots WH 18th Century: Text
bottom of page