The vagrants who most troubled the authorities were the Irish, who as well as being poor were foreign and catholic too, a combination guaranteed to outrage the sensibilities of most respectable Englishmen. In 1605, the Lord Warden passed on to the Cinque Ports a message from the Privy Council which described an apparent invasion of Irish beggars, the ‘swarming of this idle and sluttish and noisome people‘, who having tried their luck in France and been ejected, were gathering in Calais and making their way across the channel. There was, according to the Council, no reason why the Irish could not live comfortably in their own country (ignoring the fact of terrible English depredations there). If they were found at a channel port, they should be immediately sent back to France or, if they had some money, made to pay for their own transportation back to Ireland. Plus ça change….
Seventeenth Century Beggars
All newcomers to Hythe who lacked any visible means of support were regarded with great suspicion. In 1683, William Goldridge, a woolcomber of Charlton near Dover came to the town with his wife and four children because work was hard to find at home. He was required to get two men to supply a bond that he and his family would not be a charge on the parish. They swore that he was ‘a diligent and pain-taking man labouring to his utmost for the maintenance of his family’.
Another strand of the Poor Law legislation was the apprenticing of poor children to local men. Apprenticeship was a normal rite of passage for many young people, and the theory behind this practice was sound – the young people would learn a trade and not, in future, fall back into poverty. In ideal circumstances this was the case. However, Poor Law apprenticeships could be seen as a way of off-loading the parish’s responsibility, with little attention paid to the quality of the training provided and no chance of a job at the end of it.
This was particularly the case for girls, who were usually indentured to housewifry. In 1657, Elizabeth the twelve-year-old orphaned daughter of John Dyer, a Hythe sadler, was apprenticed to Henry Reade, a tanner, and his wife until she was twenty-one. The overseers of the poor agreed they would take her back if Henry died, and ‘his heirs had no use for her, providing she was not lame or maimed’. The comparison here with horse trading is unavoidable. Nearly thirty years later, Elizabeth Crumpe, after the death of her widowed mother, was indentured to her own half-brother Simon Crumpe and his wife, which, since they were paid a premium to take her, seems to be a very liberal interpretation indeed of the Poor Law. However, the boys all do seem to have been apprenticed to trades where there was a real possibility of employment in later life – coopering, tanning, fishing and saddlery.
Jurats like Henry Reade, David Gorham and Austen Grenland were prominent among those taking on poor law apprentices, perhaps to try to set an example. Poor law apprentices were often not very attractive specimens: underdeveloped, skinny and lousy , they would not be the first choice of prospective employee.
The corporation generally did its duty by the poor. It paid for funerals, provided fuel, and gave cotton and kersey to poor women to make clothes. They were pragmatic: when John Glover died owing the corporation seven pounds in rent, they waived the debt so that his son and heir could afford to maintain his sister and not make her a charge on the parish.
In 1611, to supplement the poor rate, they passed a decree that all victuallers should pay for the maintenance of a poor child or pay an extra fourpence a barrel tax on beer. This proved unworkable, but is indicative of some imaginative thinking about social policy. Excessive drinking was regarded as a particular problem, and this would have been a way of discouraging it, since the tax would have been passed on to the customer, while at the same time reducing the town’s financial liability to the poor.
Poverty could strike a family suddenly if the breadwinner was taken ill, injured or died. In the first two instances, a return to prosperity was possible, and might be achieved through the help of family and friends and without resort to parish relief, but the death of a working husband could leave a woman and her children destitute, as she was unlikely to have any means of supporting the family. It has been estimated that whereas vagrants were predominantly male, women householders outnumbered men two to one as recipients of relief.
Some Hythe women did manage to fend for themselves, though. Women like Alice Robyns, widowed in 1599, who set up a haberdashery and then acquired the land on which her late husband’s mill stood, thus ensuring her daughters’ future security ; or Phillice Oldfield and Elizabeth Hall, both widows, who were licensed as midwives in 1617; or two more widows, Thomasine Lee and Thomasine Sladden who succeeded them in 1629; the widow of William Kitchen who kept his mill working after his death in 1659; the woman who provided the rushes for the floor of the town hall (perhaps she also gathered them: a cold and miserable job); John Lacy’s mother who when she was widowed carried on selling brooms to support her small son; and Catherine Littlewood who ran her husband Philip’s stables after his death and maintained her four small children.
To be poor was not always to be totally destitute. There was in all towns a substantial body of wage-labourers whose income was precarious and barely sustained life. For them, employment was uncertain, usually short-term and badly paid. In mid-century, a labourer in the building trade might get tenpence or a shilling a day, subsistence wages or slightly below. By way of comparison, a building craftsman made about one shilling and fourpence a day, 33% to 60% more.
Then there were the servants, slightly more secure in their jobs, but still poorly-paid, and subject to the good-nature of their master. One Hythe servant, John Bean, giving evidence in 1601, testified that in sixteen months’ service, his master had beaten him only once. He was giving evidence as to the man’s good character. By law, all those between fifteen and forty five who were unmarried and without estates of their own were required to be in service. Such people could be forced into service, sent to gaol or punished as vagabonds. The law was enforced only sporadically, and there is no evidence that it was in Hythe, although the authorities in other Kent towns such as Ashford were more rigorous.
Woman servant, seventeenth century
There could be some perks to a life in service, however. A good master would ensure a servant was decently fed and had a bed and clothes. A long-standing servant might even be remembered in the master’s will. In 1647, John Banbury, a Hythe carpenter, lacking sons, left his servant John Williams ‘all my tools and materials to work with (and may it please God to restore him to his former health)’; John Warde who died in 1602 left forty shillings to each of his four servants.
It has been estimated that about a fifth of the population of any town in the seventeenth century could be classified as poor. They were generally nameless, powerless and silent. Taking into account paupers and the low-paid, between a third and a half of all households were excluded from any say in the operation of the community. A great deal was talked about the poor, but they are rarely heard themselves. We simply do not know enough about their housing, diet, health care, dress or religion