‘Not alms but his legal due’ – Part Four

Men and women were also moved to pity when they came to make their wills. Charitable donations took two forms. The funeral dole was a medieval habit, the last chance a soul had to fulfil the church’s commandment to feed the hungry. Although the Church of England no longer taught that these sorts of actions could impact on whether a soul would be saved or not, the tradition lingered on, and money, food or clothes were handed out to the poor at the funeral.  In 1601 George Baker of Hythe asked that a shilling be given to six poor people ‘who have most need’ and William Grigson, a fisherman, left five shillings. Even as late as 1653, Thomas Hooker, a Hythe butcher left instructions for twenty shillings to be shared out.

The second way was a charitable bequest, large or small. Arthur Blechinden and Thomas Browning,   gentlemen who both died in 1612, left money to the poor of Hythe, Canterbury, Dymchurch and Postling between them;  in 1653 William Gately, a blacksmith, left three pounds to the poorest of Hythe who were not  in receipt of parish relief, recognising that relative poverty co-existed with destitution.  Other bequests were in the form of goods. Richard Knight, a gentleman, in 1639 left to Thomas Boykin, a servant at the George inn a suit of clothes.

The largest and most enduring charitable bequest was left by Lawrence Weller, a tanner, jurat and former mayor of Hythe. In 1663 he left eighty pounds and land, the income from which was to pay for apprenticeships and tools for fatherless children in Hythe. The charity was to be administered by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor with the advice of the mayor and jurats. The bequest was so important to the town that in 1830  extracts from Weller’s will were painted on a board and displayed in the church (the charity, still known as Weller’s Gift,  continues to function in the twenty-first century although the objects of its benevolence have changed).  One of the first to take up the scheme was Stephen Keeler, a butcher, whose apprentice William Baker was recorded as being able to support himself after his term ended.

The board bearing details of Weller's Gift to the people of Hythe, which used to hang in the parish church (courtesy of St Leonard's Church, Hythe)
The board bearing details of Weller’s Gift to the people of Hythe.(courtesy of St Leonard’s Church, Hythe)

The poor, lacking savings, were particularly vulnerable to economic downturn. James I  was  extravagant with money. He gave lands, monopolies, offices, jewels and houses to his favourites; he held elaborate masques and banquets. His spending was twice that of Elizabeth. Within seven years of his accession he was flat broke, and by 1617 the country was sliding into depression, although to be fair to James, he was not entirely to blame as Europe was also affected. However, the Crown’s restraints on economic activity did not help. 1622 was the worst year of the depression. Over-abundant harvests in 1619-20 had lowered the price of grain but cut back agricultural purchasing power, while the atrocious harvest of 1621 was to result in rocketing grain prices and severe hardship among workers. There was widespread unemployment and malnutrition.

The weather was the other unpredictable factor in the lives of the poor.  The seventeenth century was generally cold, so cold that the last serious and widespread famine on mainland Britain occurred in the 1690s, mainly in highland communities in Scotland.  Atlantic storms tracked consistently further south than today and deep depressions passed eastwards right across the British Isles, giving rise to severe winters. This is now thought to have been caused by a marked absence of sunspot activity, suggesting a reduction in solar energy received on earth. The Northern Lights became so rare that they hardly ever appeared.  Dust veils were also reported during the period, resulting from twelve known volcanic eruptions round the Pacific from 1638 to 1644.

But at the time, people generally blamed the visitation of divine displeasure for the sins of mankind. These were many and various and included swearing, negligence in attending church, play-going, covetousness, and extravagant female fashion. Bad weather was also attributed to Catholic, Protestant or Laudian changes in religion, or to the sins of Parliamentarians or Royalists, depending on your loyalties. Alternatively comets were to blame (there were three in 1618 alone), or eclipses of the sun.

The winter of 1607/8 was one of several in the century known as ‘The Great Winter’. Trees died due to the severity and length of the frost and ships were stranded by ice several miles out into the North Sea. This was a disaster, as much commerce was done via coastal shipping. Ice formed on the Thames in London, thick enough to bear all sorts of sports and perambulations and even cooking. The frost lasted overall for some two months and many more hard winters were to follow.

Summers seem to have been either too dry or too wet. Drought is reported as frequently as flooding caused by storms. In 1636 in the South-East, it was reported that there was ‘not a drop of rain from March to August’. Although there were occasional hot spells, summers were generally cooler than those of the twenty-first century, In 1674 and 1675, it has been estimated that the mean temperature for June, July and August was 13.7 degrees centigrade.

The affect on crops was disastrous. Winter-sown crops perished in a really bad winter; spring-sown crops could not thrive in drought or were ruined by flood.  Shortages meant that grain prices rocketed, as did the cost of bread, the staple food of the poor.  1630 saw a particularly bad harvest, and the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports issued edicts forbidding the export of grain.  Having already banned the export of corn in May 1630, by July he was writing:

Notwithstanding the order forbidding the export of corn I am informed that divers persons daily ship and export great quantities of wheat and barley, that the store of corn in those parts is so far exhausted, and the prices so much enhanced that without some speedy remedy a great dearth is likely to ensue.

The harvest of 1631 was poor again, and the ban remained in force, although the Lord Warden made an order for ‘the quiet sufferance of one hundred quarters of wheat lately bought by Sir Sampson Darrell in Sussex, for the supply of his Majesty’s navy, to pass without interruption’.  Mutinies in the Navy were not to be risked again.

There were three successive bad harvests in 1647, 1648 and 1649, and the winter of 1657/8 was brutal. Crows were allegedly found with their feet frozen to branches. Trade all but stopped and grain prices soared. The 1660s saw another cycle of poor harvests, trade depression, and subsequent high unemployment.

The effect on the poorest can only be imagined. To be hungry is one thing; to be ill-clothed and freezing or ill-housed and wet as well, with no hope of employment or improvement, is true destitution. The new Poor Laws were stretched to their limits.

The next few posts will be about ‘the middling sort’ about whom there is much more information, and how they lived their lives

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