Reading between the Lines, Barbara Saunt


The care of the poor in the United Kingdom, which, until 1834, rested upon each parish, was obviously not working, there were too many paupers settling in the industrial areas. The agricultural and industrial revolutions were well established by then, but still thousands of the population were no longer employed in the traditional agricultural system. Several factors were against the people who had moved to find work after repeated poor harvests. Illiteracy and being unskilled, except as an agricultural worker, were the main causes. Eventually the Poor law Amendment Act 1834 took over the individual parishes’ authority and endeavoured to standardise care and relief of the poor throughout the Kingdom.

Ambrose Patient, yeoman of the parish (that is, Boyton with Corton, in the Wylye Valley), who lived at what is now Cortington Manor, was a Guardian of the local Warminster Workhouse Union and on its Board. Whilst tracing his fortunes, the minutes of these board meetings came to light and they made very interesting reading.

It is learned that the Warminster Union, like others nationally, had its area sectioned into districts. For this parish, the district was Number 2 and it stretched from Sutton Veny to Chitterne to Boyton and any spare hamlets in between! Each district sent a Guardian to look after its local interests, and he was supported by a Relieving Officer (an RO) and a General Practitioner. The Guardians held a Volunteer’s post and also had to pay for their own meals if any were taken during Board meetings. Both the RO and the doctor held salaried positions and earned initially £70 and £80 per annum respectively., although Dr Flower, the GP for Codford, also claimed £11 for vaccinating children against smallpox. Other staff who were needed to help with the running of the Workhouse were a Master and a Matron, usually husband and wife, plus a few ‘nurses’ who helped in the infirmary. The latter earned £5 per annum, plus their keep.

The minutes, recorded in a beautiful copperplate hand, seem to relate to an obsession with money, with every ½d being accounted for. And to keep one individual in the Workhouse cost £2 0s 6d each week. This parish had one man there in 1836. Annually the price of commodities rose and it was the Guardians’ task to advertise for tenders to keep the Workhouse supplied with food and other necessities. They had to see samples of clothing or check the quality of food, including, for example, bread, flour (second best), bacon (dry Wiltshire) and bacon (American), shoe/boot laces, leather for repairing shoes and boots, polish for same, trusses (various sizes), which were used to help people with hernias, blankets, mops, buckets, stays for the women and coffins at so much per inch in length. Once someone had passed into the care of the Workhouse, their needs were met, but not necessarily with quality.

Sometimes the Workhouse Master also doubled as a teacher of the boys living as inmates. In 1848 the Paupers’ School Inspectors arrived and did not like what they saw. The school was held in the chapel and the Inspector wrote ‘…the boys should have instruction in moral and religious habits’ and that the boys ‘…should have industrial training as a livelihood by honest exertion. But because of lack of supervision the boys are armed with habits of idleness instead of habits of industry.’ The Master’s wife also taught the girls and the Inspector found ‘…some sort of industry supervision, but totally ignorant of the common labour of the cottage industry.’ Thus this particular pair soon left the employ of the Workhouse. However, one of the tasks levied on the Guardians was to make frequent inspections of various parts of the Workhouse and it seems that they certainly slipped up here. There are loose sheets of paper in the Minute Book with the names of Guardians detailed to inspect certain areas.

Abandoned and orphan children were hopefully prepared for skills by which to earn a living. One boy was certainly sent to HMS Victory, as the Captain (not Hardy) wrote to the Guardians thanking them for the boy and asking for an allowance towards his uniform. Later there was a request from central government asking for the names of likely girls, aged between 8 and 13, who could be sent to Canada (at £8 each for the voyage) to be general servants there.

Illegitimate children could only receive support if their mothers were also receiving help. But many families had also been abandoned by the father and husband, who had literally ‘done a runner’. Some of these men were soldiers or sailors who were serving abroad or on board a ship. Getting money to dependants was not an easy matter in those days.

To help with the costs of running the Workhouse there was a village Poor Rate, levied on everything with a value, such as houses, barns, gardens, orchards and so on. By the early 1880s farming was again not very profitable and there is a record of several parish farmers having a meeting in the boardroom at the Workhouse to state their grievances and to ask for a reduction in the Poor Rate, which was granted.

On spiritual matters, the inmates of the Workhouse had to attend chapel frequently to hear sermons by the Workhouse chaplain, who inevitably conducted a Church of England service. Any burials were also in accordance with the Established Church and on one occasion the clergyman would not conduct a burial service, as the deceased was a known Nonconformist, thus outraging the Board of Guardians. There exists the transcript, again in beautiful copperplate hand, of a three-page letter sent to the Bishop of Salisbury, complaining of the conduct of the clergyman. Although there is no Admission Book surviving for the Warminster Union, the Minute Book did relate the names of people asking for relief, how much they received and their reason for not being able to work.

Reading between the lines, it can be seen that these Poor Laws were the first concerted efforts to aid the poor by removing the responsibility for them from the parishes. Shelter was supplied and can be likened to early council housing. Food and clothing can be considered a sand [as an?] early daily living allowance. Schooling, though mediocre, was a start. The initial inspectors of the pauper school were later replaced by a more efficient school inspectorate. A doctor being paid out of public funds to attend the poor sick and injured, and also to vaccinate children, was a step towards Public Health. And for the needy to be able to ask for assistance when they were ‘able-bodied poor’ was a step towards Social Security. The workhouse has had a very bad press; however, as a result of developments from this, things have improved in this country for the not so well off. (WSA H15/110/9 to H15/100/21)