Sunday, 28 July 2013

Part 5: The Parish Workhouse in Eighteenth-CenturyThames Ditton.

The Poor Relief Act of 1601 determined that every individual parish of England and Wales was responsible for the provision and administration of poor relief to those in need and  resident in that parish.[1] The Act included provisions concerning ‘necessary places of habitation’ for ‘poor impotent people’ and recommended that the able-bodied poor should be ‘set to work’. In order to deal with concerns about abuse of the poor relief system, whereby some itinerant poor sought relief from the more generous parishes, the Settlement Act of 1662 laid down rules for determining a person’s lawful place of settlement, from which they might apply for relief.[2]

Knatchbull’s Act of 1723 authorised individual parishes, or combinations of neighbouring parishes, to rent or buy accommodation to house their poor, and allowed for the running of each workhouse to be sub-contracted to a third-party who would feed, clothe and house the poor from the weekly parish rate.[3] The same Act introduced the ‘workhouse test’, whereby anyone who applied for relief could be compelled to enter the workhouse (where one had been established for that parish) and would be obliged to undertake work in return for relief. It is estimated that by 1732 about 700 workhouses had been established in England and Wales,[4] rising to 1,912 by 1776, each with between 20 and 50 inmates.[5]

In order to deter any casual claims on the poor rates, the Act further provided that any person who refused to enter the workhouse would be denied outdoor relief. By a self-determining act of destitution, only the desperate would seek to enter the workhouse. The workhouse test in this form continued until Gilbert’s Act of 1782, following which poor houses were restricted to the care of the old, the sick and the infirm.[6] 

Some advocates of the workhouse believed that they could be run at a profit for the parish through the industry of the residents, although there is little evidence of success in that respect. Others considered that the compulsory residence requirement in the workhouse would act as a deterrent, forcing the idle poor to seek work. Concerns with unemployment and poor relied are reflected in contemporary works throughout the century, such as Daniel Defoe’s, Proposals for imploying the poor in and about the city of London without any charge to the publick, (1713) and G. Thomas MP’s, A scheme for the better relief and employment of the poor; humbly submitted to the consideration of the Members of both Houses of Parliament (1765).

Children and the Workhouse.

Two specific policies were set out in the 1601 Act concerning parents who were unable to support their children. Firstly, overseers were obliged to set the children to work so that they might contribute to their own maintenance; and secondly they were to be put out as apprentices when old enough to be taught a useful trade or craft. The vestry of Thames Ditton were slow to open a workhouse and during the first half of the century provided outdoor relief for its adult poor and made separate provisions for pauper children. Between October 1725 and April 1728, the overseers’ accounts for the parish record payments of 10 shillings to ‘old Archer for taking care of the boys in the Gallery’. Accounts for May 1736 record payments to Mr Keel and his wife (later to Mr Howard) for the care of children. Entries in the overseers’ accounts for October 1750 name fourteen children living at Mr Keel’s, some of whom appear to have had at least one living parent who was also in receipt of outdoor relief. Table 1 below records the movement from outdoor to indoor relief between April and October 1750, and back to outdoor relief five years later. In April 1750 it appears that families were kept together and supported in the community by the payment of pensions. Six months later pauper children were separated from their parents and housed with Mr Keel. Five years on half the number of children were housed with Keel and the remained appear to be supported in the community, possibly under terms of an apprenticeship with the individuals caring for them.

Table 1: Children and poor relief, Thames Ditton.

Weekly pensions,
April 1750
Children at Mr Keel’s, October 1750
Child support in the community,
April 1755
14 children at Keels:        
7 children at Keels             10s 6d
Purton’s family      3s 6d
George and John Purton *
John and Elizabeth Weal
Weal’s girl                            1s
John Hart’s family 3s 6d
William, Henry, John and Hannah Hart
Mr Holland for Henry Hart  4s
Abraham Marling  1s 6d
Abraham Marling
Butler’s family      1s 6d
Thomas and George Butler
Mr Brooks 26 weeks       £1 6s
for Butler’s boy
Abraham Bignolds family      1s 6d
Issac Bignal
Mr Gardiner for Bignolds boy
5 weeks                                 5s
John Hambleton    1s 6d
Mary Hambleton   1s
John Humbleton
John Humbleton                   2s
Rusts family          3s 6d
Elizabeth Rust
Widow Rust and child          2s 6d
* Robert Purton was the only parent receiving a pension in October 1750

The articles of agreement concerning the appointment of Mr Keel as workhouse master in 1760 included the provision that the churchwardens and overseers of the poor would pay ‘the sum of twenty and five shillings for every poor child that shall be putt and placed out as an Apprentice’. Although only thirteen examples extant for Thames Ditton between 1725 and 1782, there are indications of apprenticeships and boarding out, particularly of young boys.

The parish workhouse.

Save for the occasional bad harvest, as occurred in 1740, the cost of poor relief remained relatively stable between 1720 and 1750 in parishes both with and without a workhouse.  While stable levels of poor relief were probably the result of low prices and full employment nationally, rather than good parish management, it created a false impression of the success of the new workhouses.

The Thames Ditton workhouse opened in August 1760, based in rented premises at a cost £8 per annum in 1760, rising to £12 per annum in 1770. The workhouse is estimated to have housed about fifteen people, based on an extant schedule of fixtures and fittings from 1781: 13 bedsteads and 13 featherbeds in various chambers; 10 chairs and 2 forms in the kitchen; 6 benches in the brew house. However, it cannot be presumed that every resident would have a bed to themselves, particularly if they were children.[7]

The immediate result of opening the workhouse was that the number of poor in receipt of a weekly pension ceased and few others continued to receive any other form of outdoor relief. Table 2 maps the rising cost of the poor to the parish, which may explain the decision of the vestry to establish a workhouse in 1760 in an attempt to reduce the cost of the poor through economies of scale. After bearing the initial costs of establishing the workhouse in 1760, the assessment for poor rates fell dramatically in the following year. Nevertheless, the cost of supporting the poor fluctuated from year to year in an upward trend, reaching its highest level by the end of 1784.

Table 2: Extracts from the poor rate books for Thames Ditton at intervals of five years.

Rate in the £
½ Year Assessment
Total Annual Assessment
Oct 1730
£ 96  8s 10d
£128 18s
£225 6s 10d
Oct 1735
£ 94  0s  6d
£ 94  14s
£188 14s 6d
Oct 1740
£126 14s
£115 19s
£242 13s
Oct 1741*
1s 6d  
1s 6d
£185 9s 3d
£185 0s 6d
£370 9s 9d
Oct 1745
1s 6d
£130 7s 6d
£170 10s 3d
£300 18s
Oct 1750
£112 2s 11d
£114 13s 1d
£226 16s
Oct 1755
£113 11s 5d
£149 14s
£263 5s 5d
Oct 1759
£151  4s 1d
£190 9s  9d
£341 13s 10d
Oct 1760**
£157  2s
£156 7s  3d
£313 9s 3d
Oct 1761
£117  9s 7d
£ 77 12s 0d
£195 1s 7d
Oct 1765
£109 15s  4d
£149 11s  1d
£259 6s 5d
Oct 1770
£122  8s 10d
£ 81 19s  9d
£204  8s 7d
Oct 1775
£128  3s 10d
£174  8s  9d
£302 12s 7d
Oct 1780
£132 10s  3d
£179  7s  6d
£311 17s  9d
Oct 1784
May 1785
£188 16s
£183  7s  6d
£372 3s 6d
* Poor harvest 1740.
**Workhouse opened in August 1760.

No records survive regarding individual residents in the workhouse. Prior to the opening of the workhouse thirty poor people were in receipt of a weekly pension in Thames Ditton and, for reasons already given, it is likely that the workhouse accommodated only half that number, some of which would have been the children formerly resident with Mr Keel. Maybe a sufficient number of the poor preferred to support themselves in the community rather than face the indignity of entering the workhouse. However, as time went on that the overseers for the parish were inclined to provide outdoor relief to some, rather than increase the capacity of the workhouse. The accounts for 1785 record an average of fifteen people in receipt of a weekly pension and another twenty people receiving a one-off payment.

There is little evidence of any employment undertaken by residents in the Thames Ditton workhouse. The premises leased in 1768 included an orchard and out buildings and an inventory of the premises used in 1781 contained a ‘Brew House’ (probably for the benefit of the inmates) but there is no mention of any tools or equipment which could have been used for their employment. The terms of Keel’s contract as master of the workhouse required him to keep the poor in the same manner as Mr Plummer, master of the Kingston workhouse. Plummer was a tailor and it is possible that he provided work for the paupers in Thames Ditton’s workhouse in combing and spinning wool.[8]

There was a fairly high turnover of workhouse masters in Thames Ditton (see Table 3 below) which seems to provide evidence of the difficulty in managing the workhouse within the annual budget and the failure of any master to generate a profit through workhouse industry.

Table 3: Workhouse masters in Thames Ditton.

Workhouse masters
Thomas Keel
£180 p.a.
Mr Wilsher
£180 p.a.
Mr Wilsher
£75 (or £300p.a.)
1765 ¼ year April to Sept
Thomas White
£83.6.8 (or £200p.a.)
1766 for 5 months
Mr Collyer
£50 (or £200p.a.)
1766 for 1/4 yr
Wm Collyer
£66.13.4 (or £200p.a.)
1767 4 months to April
Wm Collyer
£195 p.a.
Wm Collier
£150 (or £200p.a.)
1770 ¾ year
Christopher Collier
£40 (or £160p.a.)
1770 1/4yr
Christopher Collier
£190 p.a.
Thomas Jones
1775 – 1776
Christopher Collier
£180 p.a.
Thomas Jones
£180 p.a.
1779 and 1780
Richard Parkhurst
£180 p.a.
John Summers
1781- 1783
James Collins
£180 p.a.
James Collins
£52 10s (or
1785 per 1/4yr

For a fixed rate of £180 per annum, the1760 articles of agreement required Keel to provide fuel, candles and soap; clothes and shoes; meals in accordance with a bill of fare; bedding; and all medicines and doctors as necessary. He was required to take any pauper to hospital as might need it, whether they lived in the parish or workhouse, and to bury any pauper who died either within or outside the workhouse. Further he was expected to provide any pauper placed as apprentice with 25 shillings or a set of clothes, pay all fees and expenses of taking a pauper in the parish before the justices for examination and any subsequent removal of the pauper up to a distance of 30 miles. The articles appointing John Summers as workhouse master in 1781 were almost identical, but without the reference to Kingston, and allowed Summers to set the poor to work and retain the benefit of any work done by them.

It must have been difficult to find a workhouse master of the right calibre who was willing and able to work within the monetary constraints set out in the contract of employment. It appears from the vestry minutes that workhouse master, Thomas Jones, appointed in 1776 and again in 1779 was unable to sign his name. When a master left with little notice an interim appointment became necessary and at greater expense than the vestry would have liked. Thomas White’s 5 months appointment cost the parish the equivalent of £300 per annum, whereas the rate of the master who succeeded him was £200 per annum.
In reality, the overheads of small scale workhouses tended to be greater than the costs of providing outdoor relief. Despite efforts of parish vestries to save costs through the establishment of a workhouse, the need for additional outdoor relief was a continuing problem. In 1782 the annual cost for maintaining the workhouse in Thames Ditton was £228, plus another £41 by way of outdoor relief, and £79 for administering parish business. As pensions and casual payments increased across the country, anxiety about the cost of the parish rate resulted in the passing of Thomas Gilbert’s Act in 1782. The Act allowed groups of parishes to form unions and build joint poorhouses for the totally destitute, in order to share the cost of poor relief. However, this time workhouses were only to be for the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied men and women were explicitly excluded in order that they should be free to take up employment or subsidised by outdoor relief when necessary.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please follow me using the link on right-hand panel.

[2] 13&14 Car. II c.12 (1662) Act for the Better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom;
[3] Sir Edward Knatchbull 's Act , 9 Geo., I, c.7 (1723), For Amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Imployment and Relief of the Poor.
[4] Slack, Paul (1990) The English Poor Law, 1531-1782, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[5] Parliamentary survey of poor-relief expenditure in England and Wales (1776-7) The Abstract of Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor. There were about 8,545 separate parishes in England and Wales in 1851, Kain, Roger , Richard Oliver (2006) ‘Historic parishes of England and Wales: an electronic map of boundaries before 1850 with a gazetteer and metadata’, Colchester, Arts and Humanities Data Service, in, accessed 27 July 2013.
[6] Thomas Gilbert’s Act, 22 Geo III c.83 (1782) Relief of the Poor Act.
[7] SHCW ref. 2568/9/1-2.
[8] SHCW ref. 2568/9/1, and NKHR ref. KG3.4.4.