Being poor in the seventeenth century was not for sissies. Life was, however, better than it had been a hundred years earlier. In 1601, in the last parliament that Elizabeth I called, the great slew of Poor Law legislation that had been passed in the preceding years was consolidated.
Parishes were now required to elect overseers of the poor, collect a poor rate, and distribute relief to the deserving. It meant, in short, that no-one in England need ever again have to starve to death through poverty. This did not mean that their lives would be anything other than brutally hard, but relief for those too ill or too old or too young to work was to be provided in the form of a payment or items of food or clothing.
The poor had earlier been supported by alms given as acts of Christian charity. Now, however, even those who were not of a particularly charitable disposition were expected, and indeed compelled, to make a contribution. Each parish was responsible for its own poor, and inevitably disputes arose about exactly who qualified as a genuine resident. The 1662 Poor Relief Act clarified matters by establishing the principal of a ‘parish of settlement’, which would have responsibility for supporting a person if they fell upon hard times.
The law said that the ‘lame, impotent, old, blind’ should be accommodated in parish almshouses, though it was clear that the primary responsibility for the aged and for children rested with their families. Hythe already had two medieval hospitals which formed the basis of the town’s almshouse provision. St John’s, on the main street, probably survived the Dissolution because it had fallen into disrepair by then, but in 1539 it was conveyed by the Church to trustees for use as an almshouse, to be run by the town’s jurats. A warden was elected from among them every year. In 1562 it provided maintenance for eight needy poor people and ‘such as are maimed by war’. Local men who had been pressed into the army or navy sometimes returned home from serving their country both destitute and crippled as their reward.
For most of the seventeenth century St John’s had five residents, both men and women. In addition to lodgings, fuel and some clothing, they received one shilling and threepence a week, with double at Christmas and Easter, and a Christmas gift of a shilling. It was enough to survive on, and if they were sick, extra food, usually mutton, was provided free. Mutton from the Romney Marsh was in good supply in Hythe, and meat was regarded as the best food for an invalid. Vegetables were held to be indigestible and to be avoided if you were ill. There were occasional treats, too, such as a small feast when the plums in the garden were picked.
St John’s Hospital , Hythe
Among St John’s residents in 1614 was Richard Tilden, who had returned home to Hythe from the wars terribly injured. He was provided with custom-made wooden legs, and, touchingly, given specially knitted hose to cover them. St John’s also provided for other poor people in the town, buying shoes and clothes, most often for widows and children, and paid for the funerals of paupers.
St Bartholomew’s hospital, on the western extremities of the town, had been founded in 1336 by the Bishop of Rochester, Hamo, who had been born in Hythe. It also escaped the Dissolution and continued to receive charitable donations. St Bartholomew’s ten residents, made up of equal numbers of men and women, were known archaically as ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’. Vacant places were filled by election by the residents and wardens. It was not easy to get a place there. Applicants had to be elderly, to have been born in the town and spent most of their lives there, to be of honest and sober behaviour and to have fallen into poverty, which narrowed the field considerably and disqualified newcomers. A feast was held to welcome each new arrival. Some of the profit from the lands the hospital rented out was shared among the residents – in 1657 this was nearly eighteen pounds. It also supported needy people outside, by repairing houses, for example.
The almshouses between them took care of fifteen poor people, mostly elderly. Of the rest we know less of where they lived. Hythe corporation leased houses to the overseers of the poor, and these were used for multi-occupancy. In 1657, for example, Henry Philpott, Edward Keys and the widow Beale lived all lived in such a house.
The resident poor were one thing, vagrants quite another. Despite the poor laws, men still preferred to work for a wage rather than rely on parish relief, and tramping to seek work became an endemic disease of the poor in the seventeenth century. Men tramped most often between June and October, when agricultural work might be available, resting in barns and alehouses. They were unwelcome in towns and villages where locals feared they would take their jobs and undercut their wages, and where they were feared as potential criminals. The corporation was supposed to deal with destitute vagrants by whipping them, locking them up in a House of Correction and then sending them back to their parish of legal settlement, usually the one in which they had been born or had lived for the last three years. The Hythe jurats never got round to building a House Of Correction (implementation of the legislation nationally was always patchy and depended on individual governing bodies’ interpretation), but in extremis the gaol could be used. It was a suitable deterrent. In 1618 Edward Harward escaped from the place because he said he feared starvation and five years later John Hawks hanged himself there.
The definition of a vagrant extended beyond the tramping men. It applied also to those who became a charge on the parish but who had not been born there or lived there long enough for it to be their parish of settlement. Often, the poor person or family was removed to a neighbouring parish, such as Newington or Saltwood, which were only a mile or so away, but the interpretation of the vagrancy laws could be harsh, especially for children. In 1613, Katherine Rolfe, an orphan child was ricocheted between Hythe and Dover while the authorities argued about which of them had responsibility for her. Nearly sixty years later John Lacy found himself in a similar situation in the neighbouring parish of Saltwood. His parents, who had scraped a living selling brooms, had for about seven years before their deaths been based, though not continuously, in Saltwood. When they died, the locals decided that John was not their responsibility, but that of New Romney. He was duly whipped and sent there. The overseers of New Romney refused to accept him and sent him back, although after a year of haggling, they finally conceded defeat. John Lacy was six years old.