THE POOR ARE ALWAYS WITH US

In all human societies throughout the ages some men have been poorer than others.

The poor and disabled, both physically and mentally were cared for throughout the ages in various ways. In Pre Reformation times monasteries and convents often cared for the sick, a good example of these are the leper hospitals found in many cities such as York , and nearer to home, Warwick. The elderly were segregated in various forms of accomodation, men often in ‘hospitals’ as retired soldiers, by Robert Dudley in the Lord Leycester Hospital at Warwick. Such institutions are found in other towns also. Alms houses are found in many small towns and villages for men and women. Local benefactors often provided almshouses, sometimes the church did so or as at Stratford local guilds built housing for the elderly poor.

The poor after the Reformation soon began to cause problems for local authorities, the breakdown of the feudal system too had an effect upon population mobility. People were no longer tied to the estate of the local lord owing labour to him for accomodation. The Black Death had made labour scarce. In the seventeenth century village depopulation to gain pasture for sheep had rendered many labourers homeless, as at Burton Dassett for example. Vagrancy increased as men searched for work and caused local authorities much trouble. Various Acts were passed over time to try and deal with the vagrancy problem. Local authorities appointed better off citizens to deal with troubles in their districts either Parish Guardians or Overseers of the Poor. They tried to find work for Paupers and vagrants in parishes so that the upkeep of such persons were not a burden upon the inhabitants. One Thomas Hanslapp found employment for paupers around Southam with tasks such as mending roads and repairing bridges. He also employed a professional stonemason, John Edmonds to repair the coping on the old bridge on the Banbury road.

However in the seventeenth and eighteenth hundreds the numbers of vagrants and poor became so numerous that a series of government Acts to deal with this problem became law. Finding employment for paupers. was problem as many of them were children or elderly. The poor had always been a problem since the Black Death, in the sixteenth century wages had risen and the numbers of the wandering unemployed rose. Initially small houses in villages were set aside for the wandering and poor but as their numbers increased such provision became too burden some for individuals and churches.

In 1795 the Speenham¬ land system was introduced in Southern England, This proposed that the local parishes rates should make up the wages to a minimum level for large families, but employers paid such low wages that the local authorities resented the burden thus imposed upon them. Government intervention became necessary. By 1833 a Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The Act stipulated that no able bodied person should receive money or help except through workhouse, conditions in such places should be harsh to discourage people wishing to go in them. Small villages should join in a Union and Guardians should be appointed to overseer the Workhouses.

Locally an early attempt was made to provide a Workhouse at Stratford upon Avon, in 1625. At the Trinity Sessions in that year the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor were ordered to levy monies to erect a house of correction, or workhouse "wherein to set the said poor on work and for punishing of those idle and lewd people that will not work within the said parish.". Levied on towns and villages within a five mile radius of Stratford upon Avon it was a much disputed process. However in 1799 the town did have a Workhouse. In 1834 after another Act many parishes were incorporated into the Stratford Union Workhouse which was built in Arden Street and is now part of Stratford upon Avon Hospital, it was comprised of 45 parishes from Alderminster to Ullenhall.

In 1799 prior to this the Workhouse provided a varied diet bacon, which could also provide some meat for the next day. On April 15th mutton was provided for 15 people, on the 24th 21 inmates were provided for. In May the inmates were given veal, during June and July the diet consisted of shoulders of mutton, beef with pudding. The next year 45 people were provided for, some in Shottery Hamlet. We have records of clothing provided for widows and breeches for boys. At inventories are also recorded for individual rooms

However before a person could be admitted to a Workhouse many questions were asked by JP's , and when the paupers place of birth, property ownership or employment for a year was established the individual could be removed to the legal parish of settlement. Often Overseers disputed having paupers returned to the legal place of settlement and people found themselves in places unconnected with their past, especially widows.

Various types of people were sent to workhouses apart from those classified as paupers there were servants, imbeciles, feeble minded, blind, deaf, dumb and very young children After the Act of 1833 conditions in Workhouses became much harder as required. Although the sexes were kept apart and bad, harsh employment, the children were given an education. Most towns in Warwickshire had Unions after 1833, these were.. Alcster, Aston , Atherstone, Birmingham, Coventry, Foleshill, Meriden Nuneaton, Rugby, Shipston, Solihull, Southam, Stratford and Warwick.

Southam Union Workhouse opened on April 14th 1836. The Union covered a large area Bishops Itchington Dassett, Chadshunt, Chapel Ascote, Chesterton, Fenny Compton, Gaydon, Harbury, Ladbroke, Lighthorne, Long Itchingbn, Lower Radbourne, Lower Marston, Southam, Stockton, Ufton, Upper Hodnell, Upper Radbourne.

A red brick building a short distance from the town was built, it comprised a main block with 2 wings and a mortuary, with accomodation for 180,1n 1841 the number of inmates was 64, 35 male and 24 female, Thirty four inmates were under 15 years of age, twelve adults were over 70.

At times 50 casual labourers waited for admission outside the Southam Union each evening. These paupers hid their money so that they would not be charged for bed and board. Each person admitted was bathed so that any hidden money was spotted. by the staff. Local lads held treasure hunts for any cash hidden by the vagrants. Male casuals were expected to tend the gardens or chop wood, women to clean or launder.

The Workhouse was strictly run, the staff included a Master and a mistress, a School Teacher. Church was attended on Sundays and services were also held in the Workhouse. There were also a Medical Officer and Chaplain for the Union. When children were old enough they were found work. Food was not very inspiring gruel for breakfast. Graffiti on wall read thus..

Southam I love thee not

Thou art but a dry bread spot

And yet to see the outer lines

men would not think thee so unkind

But get inside a different tale So my fate I do bewail.

A local resident recalls her mother telling that she heard the lads rounding the corner from Welsh Road West on Sunday mornings heading for church in their hodnailed boots. They sat on small pews behind the organ and had shaven heads.

Housing was scarce in 1945 so the empty Workhouse was used to house 12 families, known as The Dwellings. The building was demolished in the 1970's and the site is now occupied by the County Primary School.

The Workhouses are now gone , but at least the poor were cared for and given an education. If you are interested in this subject I can recommend a visit to Cassenhall Workhouse Museum in Norfolk, this gives a good insight into the lives of paupers in the past. By Mark Rock.


This article has been kindly written by Mark Rock

> Return to articles

Previous Articles Published before 2010
Article Name Author
> Twentieth Century Defences in Warwickshire Nimrod
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