North Walsham & District Community Archive

Chapter 5 - Assisting the poor

Assisting the poor

It was the responsibility of the parish in the past to care for those who were unable to maintain themselves, such as the sick, the elderly, unemployed and children in need. Financial assistance, clothing and other help ' in kind' might be given.

The system was administered by unpaid officials, called the overseers of the poor, who were chosen by the parishioners and who usually served a term of office for one year. The overseers raised the necessary finance from a rate paid yearly or half yearly, by all occupiers of property, i.e. , houses, land, etc., based on the annual rental value. The rate varied according to the amount of distress to be alleviated and had to be approved by two justices of the peace.

Four overseers were elected annually in North Walsham who served for a period of three months each, covering duties in the whole of the town. This must have involved a considerable amount of work, particularly for the overseer who served during the winter months when there was more sickness and unemployment and, therefore, more demands for assistance.

In March 1832 the poor rate was set at 3s in the £ thus Robert Larter who rented a house, shop and office worth £5 annually, paidl5s. Elizabeth Frarey, whose house was worth £3 annually, paid 9s whilst William Partridge who occupied Ebridge Mill and a considerable quantity of land paid out the large sum of £49. Os 4d. in Poor Rates. John Sharpe, the overseer in that period, collected £677. 5s.lid in rates; there was also a small sum 'in hand'. The ways in which the money was used gives an insight into the extent of poverty which existed at that time
Only those belonging to the parish, i.e., those having a settlement there, had the right to assistance and not outsiders who may have been there for only a short time. These people would have to apply to their own parish for financial help and could, if necessary be removed there by the overseers. The Settlement Laws, first introduced in the late 16th century, were designed to prevent a person from becoming a burden on rate-payers in a parish to which he or she did not belong. Under these laws your settlement was determined in several ways: it could be in the parish where you were born, if of local parents, by serving an apprenticeship in a place or being hired in service for a whole year and completing the term. Another way of gaining a settlement was usually through marriage, when a wife took her husband's place of settlement, although this was not always the case. Those who rented property worth £10 or more a year gained a settlement in the parish. An Act passed in 1846 which simplified the law, stipulated that those who had lived in a place for at least five years had to be given support by that parish and could not be removed.

If there was doubt regarding the right to benefit an enquiry (Examination) would be made into the background of the claimant. In the period 1800 - 1834, 151 such Examinations were carried out in North Walsham and Removal Orders were issued for at least 80 of these cases. Families as well as individuals were sent back to the place they 'belonged' although, in some cases, they may not have lived there for a number of years. One such family was the Chamberlain family. Samuel Chamberlain was unable to support his wife and two sons, thus they were, in September 1806, sent back to East Dereham where, it was found in their examination, they had a settlement. Unless some kindly relative took them in they were, presumably, taken to the workhouse. North Walsham Overseers had, it seems, been sympathetic to the case as they allowed the family to stay in the town for three weeks after a removal order was made as Elizabeth was said to be far too ill to travel following the birth of their second son. It was usual for these poor people to be escorted by one of the town's constables. If the journey was a long one they would be passed qver to another parish constable along the route and the place responsible for their support would be required to meet all expenses.

73 Removal Orders survive for the same period relating to people who were to be returned to North Walsham as paupers as their settlement was in the town. The Examination and Removal Order reproduced here concerns Thomas Dearsley, who was found 'wandering abroad:.........' in the City of London in August 1814. He had not lived in North Walsham for many years but had gained a settlement there by being in service with the Cooper family for four years, 16 years previously! He was escorted from Whitechapel to Newmarket where he was passed on to the constable there who delivered him to Thetford. Again he was passed on' and taken to Kilverstone, where another constable took over for the remainder of the journey to North Walsham. What exactly happened when Thomas Dearsley was received by the constable and overseers in the town is, unfortunately, not known. There is no mention of him in the numerous documents searched. It is assumed that being homeless and with no means of support, he was sent to the town workhouse.

The Overseer's books show that many poor people in the town relied on regular support. In 1832 there were a number of widows who received small weekly payments of Is. to 2s. 6d. although some received considerably more, like Widow Algar, who received 7s a week and it may be that she had a young family to support. Then there were number of men who received a few shillings a week on a regular basis like John Clark who was given 5s weekly and William Durrant whom for some reason, received rather less - 4s. These men were probably aged as those who were being relieved due to unemployment or temporary sickness were included in a short term list. Some of the unemployed were set to work on the land and were paid 3s for a days work from the rates - this is more than they would have received from an employer, unless they had particular skills. As mentioned in Chapter 6 it was common to top up low wages of labourers in the town and this caused a great deal of resentment in the ratepayers who felt it was the duty of employers to pay men a living wage. Nevertheless, the overseers were not prepared to tolerate those who would not work and those who disregarded their responsibilities were punished. The Norfolk Chronicle reported in April 1828 that James Laycock of North Walsham was committed to Norwich Castle Gaol for one month 'on the treadwheel' for refusing to work or to maintain himself or his family.

Assisting the poor

North Walsham overseers also sent small sums of money outside the parish from time to time to support paupers who had a legal settlement in the town but no longer lived there. It is found that in 1832 money was sent regularly to Norwich to assist several former residents. Edward Mace, junior, for example, living in Norwich, received 8s. 6d a week for 9 weeks and James Scott 6s for 10 weeks between the end of March and June that year. There were a few North Walsham paupers living in Gt. Yarmouth, and they, too received a regular small allowance from the town's overseers.

Other forms of assistance was given in 1832:- Thomas Lacey was given 2s. when his wife was ill, presumably to buy a few extras, medicine or, perhaps, brandy which was often supplied by overseers themselves. Charles Thaxter received Is for his sick child; Woman Hazel was paid Is 6d for attending Green during illness'. (A poor woman was often paid a small sum to look after the sick). Boy Wodehouse, described as lame, received 2s from time to time. Coffins were often provided where families were too poor to buy them. These usually cost the parish 16s - more than a labouring man's full weeks wages. A shroud and the cost of burial might also be paid for by the parish rates. About £25 a year was spent on coal for the poor in this period; this is in addition to what was given out from the Poors' Coal Allotment Fund set up at the Enclosure. The price paid for coal in 1823 was 36s a chaldron!

Assisting the poor

Clothing was expensive before mass production and was sometimes provided for poor families, particularly for children. In 1823 Matthew Lacey was given a duffle coat, costing 14s and Samuel Weatly (?) a coat costing 16s. Another duffle coat was made up for 14s for Man Webb together with a pair of breeches costing 9s 6d. Shoes were also expensive and could not be handed down so easily as clothes. A 'Shoe Book, 1815 -1831' survives which shows the overseers handed out shoes regularly to poor families and paid for shoe repairs. New heels cost 6d and new 'bottoms' Is 2d in 1825. Particular families appear over and over again in the book and sometimes an extra name becomes added, presumably that of a younger child now old enough to need shoes.

Orphaned children and children with no one to care for them were usually housed in the parish poorhouse, although sometimes, a child might be lodged with a local family who were glad to earn a small weekly sum for looking after such a child. A few pauper children were lucky enough to be apprenticed to a trade, the cost being borne from the parish poor rates. It seems that in North Walsham it was common for pauper apprentices to lodge in the poorhouse rather than with the master. In the early years of the century James Fuller, aged 12 years old, was apprenticed through the overseers to Robert Woodhouse, a chimney sweep of Spa Common, for a period of five years. The following is an extract from the Apprenticeship Indenture.

'He (James Fuller) is to learn the trade, business, art and mystery of a Chimney Sweeper...... He shall not haunt ale-houses or gaming houses......£2 to be given after two years and six months. He is to be given dress suitable for climbing and also one suit of clothing a year. He (Robert Woodhouse) must see that the boy is washed and cleaned once a week from soot and dust. The boy is to attend worship on the Sabbath and be instructed in religion, and he is not to wear sweeping dress on that day. He is not to call streets or any other place before 7 in the morning or after 12 at noon between Michaelmas and Lady Day and before 5 or after noon between Lady Day and Michaelmas...... He (Robert Woodhouse) is not to hire the boy to anyone. The boy is not to go up any chimney that shall be actually on fire. He is, not to force the boy to get him to go up chimneys.'
In addition to maintaining those in need in their own homes the parish also supported a workhouse from the parish rates. This was first set up in 1739 when a building was rented and adapted for that purpose. In 1786 this was replaced with a new workhouse built in brick with a tiled roof on the Swafield Road and this was used as the town's poorhouse until the mid 1830's.

There are but few details of the way of life in the workhouse. Personal clothing was exchanged on arrival for that provided. What this was like is not known. Accounts refer to flannel and other types of material bought, buttons etc., and bills for making up dresses and other items of clothing. It is found that a local barber called regularly for shaving and haircutting'. Amongst other bills received are bills for coffins. Burial expenses were borne by the workhouse unless relatives of the deceased were able to pay.

Amongst the resolutions made by the overseers at the end of the eighteenth century, when the new workhouse opened, was one which made church attendance twice on Sundays compulsory, all the paupers having to return to the workhouse immediately after the service ended. On weekdays the majority of the able-bodied paupers were employed in sack-making, at least in the early part of the nineteenth century. Account books refer to 'rewards' that were regularly paid out which total in all to about 7s to 9s per week. It seems that these were small sums given to those who worked satisfactorily as a reward for their labour. It is possible that the women assisted with the cleaning and washing, and perhaps cooking, as the living-in staff kept was very small - between 1812 and 1830 this generally consisted of a governor and governess and two maids. Some daily help may have been employed, of course, although no references to this have been found.

The workhouse could hold 100 paupers although from 1811 - 1825 there were seldom more that 35 - 45 residents but on the 30th May 1931, when the Census Return was made, there were 67, which is the highest figure found recorded. A list of names and the occupations of the paupers survives for this date and this is the only record extant of exactly who was resident at any particular time. Occupations for 29 of these people are given 11 were textile workers, a trade very depressed at this time, 12 were described as labourers, 4 were shoemakers, 1 was a carpenter and 1 a baker. There were five families living in the workhouse. Henry Mace, for example, a weaver, his wife Judith and five children. The youngest was four months old; the eldest, Gilbert, aged 12 yrs old, was a spinner. There was also the Whall family; Thomas a labourer, his wife Mary and four children aged from 2 to 10 years old. There were two mothers with young children and one father, presumably a widower, named Robert Dean, a labourer, with his three children. The eldest also named Robert, was 14 years old and was also a labourer, Lucy was 13 and a spinner and the youngest was Susan aged 10 years old.

There were 17 children aged 13 years and under living in the workhouse without either parent who were, perhaps, orphans or from families unable or unwilling to maintain them. Five of these children were described as spinners. George Hall was a spinner, he was 11 years old, his brother, Edward, was only 4 years old and his sister Emily was 8. Abraham Amis was also 11 and a spinner, his brother was aged 9. Little John Swann was also aged 9 and had no brothers or sisters with him; he too was a spinner. One can only speculate what the future held for these poor children, it is possible that one or two were fortunate enough to be given an apprenticeship, paid for by the parish, hopefully with a kind master, which led to a more secure life.

Of the elderly, 6 men were 65 years old or over and four women were 70 or more; the eldest was Mary Hewitt, who was 80 years old. Mary was not completely alone, she had the company of Elizabeth Hewitt, aged 73, presumably a sister or close relation. John Willis was 70 and a carpenter by trade; he was in the workhouse with his wife Elizabeth, aged 48 years old and daughter Charlotte, aged 8. John was luckier than some, he did not end his days there, he and Elizabeth are found in happier surroundings twenty years later, in 1851, living in a cottage on Bluebell Common, near the Blue Bell Public House, with his brother James. James, aged 91, was a former weaver and owned his cottage. There seems to be some uncertainty regarding John's age, which was given as 70 in 1831, making him 90 in 1851 but in the Census of that year he is recorded as being 87 years old and Elizabeth 68.
A book called 'The Provision Book' survives. This is dated from 1812 - 1830 and gives valuable information concerning the diet in the workhouse, although in some years the book has not been kept up regularly. It is seen from the table, extracted from it, that diet varied little between 1812 and 1824 and the amount of food consumed per head remained much the same. The omission of potatoes in the list may be because these were grown by the workhouse in the small allotment attached.  Other vegetables may also have been grown adding some nourishment to the meagre diet. The large quantities of meal and oatmeal show that gruel formed a regular part of the weekly diet - this surely must have been boiled in water, with no milk added, since the quantity of milk bought was very small and it may be that most milk was reserved for the children. The amount of meat eaten seems to have been about lib per head per week and meat broths were, no doubt, served frequently; they were cheap, easy to prepare and could be stretched to feed any number of mouths. The amount of meat eaten seems to have increased slightly by 1824. Bread and cheese formed an integral part of the diet of the poor and cheese per head seems to have amounted to about 6oz a week in 1812 and rather more in 1824.  Butter was obviously used very sparingly and at the later date even less was used and the consumption of treacle rose significantly.  Treacle at 4d a lb was much less costly to serve with bread than butter at Is 3d a lb! Beer seems to have been the only beverage provided but this was, in any case, the main beverage for the very poor; tea was expensive and for many a luxury only rarely enjoyed. Beer was sometimes made on the premises, rather than being bought in, and accounts refer to malt and hops being bought for this purpose. Food provided in Christmas week seems to have been just as meagre and tedious as in other weeks, there is no mention of any extras being given and no additional handout of beer. Whilst the workhouse diet was frugal it was no more so than that which many of these people had in their own homes and for some it was better than what they were accustomed to. At least meals were provided regularly, clothing was spartan but warm and shoes or boots were provided.  Life could be harsh both inside and outside the workhouse for many of the poor in North Walsham.


January    August    Christmas
    4 weeks    4 weeks    1 week
    1812    1824    1812
Meal    40st @ 3/6d    47st ® 2/3d    12st ® 4/-
    and 3/4d       
Flour    38st @ 4/4d    26st @ 2/5d    12st @ 5/-
    and 4/6p       
Beef    971b. @ 8d.    1301bs @ 6d.    571b @ 8 1/2
Pork    331b @ 7 l/2d    191bs @ 9d.   
    and 8d.        •
Beer    68 gall. @ 5d    103 galls @ 4 l/2d    28 galls @ 6d.
Cheese    501b @10d    651bs ® 8 l/2d    61bs @ lOd
        and 8d.   
Butter    10 pints @ 1/ld    6 »/2 pts @ 1/3    3 V2pts @ 1/10
    and 1/1Id.  
Milk    54 pints @ Id    84 pts @ Id.    33pts @ Id.
Oatmeal    8 V2 pints @ 9d    7 pts. @ 3d.    2 pts. @ 4d
    and 3d   
Salt    191bs @ 4 l/2d    161bs @ Id    61bs ® 4 1/4
Sugar    7 V2Ibs @ l/2d    lOlbs @ 8d.    41bs @ 8d
    @ l/4d       
Soap    91bs@ lid.    lOlbs @ 7d    2 l/4lbs @ 1/-
Candles    6 V2lbs @ l/6d.    21bs @ 7d    1 V2lbs @ 1/ld
    and 2/-d.    and 6 l/2d.   
Vinegar    -    -    -
Peas    -       
Beans    ?    —    _
Rice    2 V2lbs @ 4d    -    -
Treacle    V2lb @ 6d    51b® 4d    V2Ib @ 7d
Potatoes    -    m   
Oil    V2pt. @ 6d    •    lpt. @ 7d
Porter    -    —    •
Wine    -    -    -


January    August    Christmas    Week
1812    1824    1812    1824
Men    6    8    11    9
Women    8    7    9    8
Boys    9    10    6    8
Girls    8    3    15    5
Maids    2    2    2    2
Governor and    1    1    1    1
Wife    1    1    1    1
    35    32    45    34

The higher cost of food during the Napoleonic Wars is seen in the table. By 1824 the cost of meal, flour, sugar etc., has been reduced considerably and cheese to a lesser extent. Other commodities, such as soap and candles, have also come down in price.

In March 1824 two young people ran away; a note states that Robert Rudd, aged 14, and Mary Mathews, 19 years old had left the workhouse 'without leave'. What happened to Robert and Mary is not known, despite a search through numerous papers. Were they brought back or did they find a way to support themselves in the outside world? No doubt there were others who absconded although no evidence has been found.

What of the discipline in the workhouse? How stringent the rules and regulations were is not known. In April 1828 two men in the workhouse were sentenced to Norwich Castle Gaol, for what was described, in the Norfolk Chronicle, as 'misbehaviour to the governess of the workhouse'. The exact nature of this was not reported. Is it possible that the conditions in the workhouse or the discipline imposed brought about some protest by the men leading to the incident or was it completely unprovoked and unjustified? Isaac Dye, one of the two concerned, was sentenced to one month ' on the treadwheel' and the other, Benjamin Wodehouse, to twenty-one days. Another question arises and remains unanswered, what happened to the men on their release? North Walsham overseers were responsible for their maintenance, so long as they were law-abiding, so were they accepted back at the town workhouse or did they manage to get some kind of a living in Norwich or even further afield? Three years later a Charles Wodehouse and his family are found in the workhouse - were they related to Benjamin Wodehouse?
In 1834 The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The Act was intended to combat pauperism by its re-organisation of the 'Old Poor Law', and by its stringency and attitudes to poverty. Under the Act parishes were amalgamated into Unions, a new unit of administration, and small town workhouses were closed. North Walsham was placed in Erpingham Union along with 48 other parishes in the area. The town's workhouse closed and the paupers there were transferred to one of the Union Workhouses which were situated at Gimingham and Sheringham - these were enlarged to take over 300 paupers. The old workhouse was, for a time, let as a factory and later it was sold by the parish.

There was another change in 1884 when North Walsham was re-located into Smallburgh Union which meant that those who were forced, by various circumstances, to enter the workhouse, went to Smallburgh Workhouse. Robert Palmer, of the 'Black Swann' Inn, was hired to transfer North Walsham paupers who were in Erpingham Union Workhouse to Smallburgh Workhouse. Those described as lunatics were moved further away, to the County Lunatic Asylum at Thorpe St. Andrew. The journey gave these poor people a glimpse of the countryside which some could not have seen for quite a long time.

1831 Census information, Poor Law material. Workhouse Provision Book, etc.,
with Parish Papers.
Census Return 1851, N.L.S.L.
'North Walsham in the 18th Century', N.W. WEA., 1983.