Police and Politics

                                                  A sketch of John Bennett Tunbridge in 1894

John Bennett Tunbridge did not have an advantageous start in life. He was born in New Romney on 17 November 1850, the illegitimate son of a servant, Mary Tunbridge.  He spent his early years with her, his grandparents and their seven other children, until his mother’s marriage to William Apps, a groom.  By the age of ten, he was working as a butcher’s boy, though he must have combined this with school, as so many children did.  He could not possibly have imagined that he would one day travel to South America on the trail of a wanted man or catch the eye of the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

He had received enough education to join the Metropolitan Police in December 1867, though he had initial doubts and resigned three months later. He then re-joined in September 1869. By 1871 he was a police constable.

He was also able enough to be promoted sergeant only two years later. On 17 November 1877 in Harrow, he married Ellen Maria Hatch, an Irishwoman and the daughter of a Royal Irish Constabulary officer. She was exactly three years younger – they shared a birthday and married on that date, too.  John was promoted inspector the next year.  From 1881 he served in the detective branch, working in the commissioner’s office from 1887. It was during this period that he and his family (a daughter, Milly Norah, had been born in 1882) started visiting Hythe, where in 1886 he intervened when a man tried to eject two boys from a boat on the canal, hitting one of them with an oar. The other man came off worse.

Boating on the Royal Military Canal was – and still is – a popular summer pastime

Professionally, he was involved in the capture of Thomas Neill Cream, the ‘Lambeth Poisoner’ who murdered women sex workers with strychnine.

 

John Tonbridge               and    Benjamin Cream

Photographed at the time of the latter’s arrest*

 

He was then sent to Argentina to bring home  Jabez Balfour, a corrupt financier who had left thousands of investors penniless and then fled the country.

A ‘Vanity Fair’ caricature of Jabez Balfour

John set off on 27 January 1894 and sailed from Southampton to Buenos Airies for what turned out to be a rough and unpleasant month-long voyage. On arrival, he checked into the Grand Hotel. Balfour had already been arrested, and the press confidently expected he would be back on British soil by the end of March. This was wishful thinking.  Balfour employed lawyers to fight his extradition, then, through pleading ill-health, managed to get himself released from prison. In April, matters were no further forward, but John received the news that he had been promoted to Chief Inspector.  Balfour appealed to the Supreme Court. In August he was rumoured to have been surrendered to the British authorities (ie John), but this was untrue: he had merely been re-imprisoned.  In November, the extradition was confirmed by the Supreme Court, but Balfour was then charged with other offences, which took precedence and his removal was delayed – again.

John took action. Unable, as a police officer, to communicate his misgivings directly to the British press,  he wrote in January 1895, to a friend who shared his letter with journalists. In it John complained that he had given up hope of any extradition within the next four-and-a-half  years. The ploy worked and in February a replacement was sent out to relieve him. As if to spite him, Balfour was finally removed from Argentina in April. He was subsequently sentenced to fourteen years penal servitude.

John decided to call it a day. He retired  in September 1895 with an ‘exemplary’ certificate and a substantial  pension, and the family moved permanently (or so it seemed) to Hythe, where John had acquired property in Park Road.  The local paper, the Hythe Reporter, suggested that his experience would make him a very useful town councillor. It was not to be, or not yet.

On the other side of the world, the New Zealand Police Force was in need of a man to clean up its corruption-ridden operation. Premier Richard Seddon, visiting London,  asked the advice of Sir Edward Bradford, chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and John Tunbridge’s name was mentioned. Perhaps, in his mid-forties, John felt too young to retire and he agreed to go to New Zealand, sailing from Plymouth to  Wellington (first class) in 1897 to become Police Commissioner for the country.  Ellen and Milly accompanied him.

RichardSeddon1905.jpg

                                                Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1892-1906.

The next year he travelled round the country with the Royal Commission on Police, learning about the work of his police force and contributing ideas on reform.  After the Commission reported, along lines which accorded with his own views, he had a mandate for sweeping changes and the government gave him a free hand.  He began improvements at once, focusing on the crucial role of non-commissioned officers – the ‘backbone’ of the organisation.  He established a training college in Wellington, created a pension scheme for policemen and introduced merit-based promotions and increased pay.

He was, of course, subject to criticism. Some said his newly-efficient police force imposed a ‘reign of terror’; others thought he was too lax in internal discipline, especially with regard to drunkenness. In April 1902,  the government  overturned his lenient treatment of Nelson police who had been accused of inefficiency, immorality and corruption. John believed their offences to be minor, but the government apparently made its decision on the basis of information provided privately. What should have been an internal police matter had led to public political censure of the commissioner.

John, in protest,gave in his notice in January 1903 – which led to widespread condemnation of the government’s actions, but to no avail. John, Ellen and Milly  sailed for England and retired once more to Hythe, where they lived in North Road.

That he would become a councillor was inevitable, and in 1904 he made his first foray into local affairs by suggesting that unemployed men should be used to build homes for the working classes on council-owned land.  In November 1905 he was elected to serve on the council, but was not immediately popular with his colleagues, especially with John James Jeal, a builder who had been violently opposed to John’s home-building plan.  The feud continued for years and neither man lost an opportunity to undermine the other.

John’s background meant that he was used to giving orders and used to being obeyed.  As a councillor, he was often accused of being domineering and intolerant of faults in others, however trivial. He was much criticised for his action when two children stole apples from his garden: they were on a three weeks’ holiday in Hythe arranged by the Jewish Open-Air Fund Association, and he had them sent home immediately. In 1906, he  took particular exception to a travelling show: ‘…. on the stage outside, a lady kicked her legs about and showed a superabundance of rather unclean lace. Many people think there is too much of this going on, but no doubt it is a very great attraction to a certain part of the neighbourhood.’ Another letter to the local paper next week remarked that  ‘this apparently self-appointed censor of the public morals of our town’ had been singularly unobservant: the dancer with the frilly petticoats was, in fact, a boy.

In 1907 he found himself on the wrong side of the law when he struck ex-Councillor Frank White in the face at a meeting of the Hythe Ratepayers’ Association after White called him a liar. White brought an action for assault; John pleaded guilty, claiming provocation and was fined £1 with 9/- costs.

Despite the criticisms, John was re-elected year after year and continued as a councillor and JP for the rest of his life, serving as mayor in 1909.  He took a particular interest in beautifying Hythe by planting trees and shrubs and in providing allotments and decent housing for working men and always insisted on value for money in the Council’s activities. When war broke out, he volunteered to serve as a Special Constable, an experience which must have been strange after a gap of over forty years.

He died at home on 6 October 1928 after only a few days illness and was buried in Saltwood churchyard. He died only a few miles from his New Romney birthplace, but his journey had encompassed the whole globe.

John’s grave in Saltwood churchyard. He is buried with Ellen

(Paul Dennis)

In 1907 , His daughter, Milly Norah had  married, in Saltwood church, Innes Harold Stranger, a lawyer who went on to become a King’s Counsel.

Ellen died, also in Hythe, in 1934.

* With thanks to Colin Garrow

 

The Tragic Life of Louisa Kidder Staples

William Henry Kidder was born on 24 July 1827 to George and Mary Kidder. His father was a baker and the family lived in Saltwood.  William grew up to become a nineteenth century ‘man and van’, except that he had a horse and cart. He variously described himself as a carrier, potato dealer, greengrocer or hawker of vegetables. He formed a relationship with a young woman, Eliza Staples, who lived with him in Theatre Street in Hythe and who had two children with him, Louisa in 1857 and Ellen in 1862. Eliza died before Ellen’s first birthday and the child was sent to live with her Staples grandparents in Sellindge.  Louisa stayed with her father.

William started another relationship with Frances Turner, a young woman working as a servant in Sandgate. On 1 February 1865, when twenty- two-year old Frances was eight months pregnant, William married her in St Leonard’s church in Hythe. One, or both of them, was aiming for respectability. There was even a marriage announcement in the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, and in the Canterbury Journal.

It was a stormy relationship from the start and Frances, or Fanny as she was known, appears to have been a woman whose temper was on a very short fuse. In September 1865, she was convicted of assaulting an elderly neighbour and fined. In November that year, Fanny complained to the police that William had kicked her while wearing his outdoor boots and then pushed her out of the house into the pouring rain. He said he would murder her if she went to court. He was starving her, she said, she had not eaten for two days, and he had ordered her not to suckle her infant daughter, Emma,  because ‘she should not live’. A warrant was issued for William’s arrest. Presumably Fanny withdrew the complaint, as it was taken no further.

According to witnesses who came forward later, Fanny loathed her step-daughter Louisa and treated her appallingly. She regularly beat the child with a broomstick so that she was covered in bruises. She hit her about the head and face hard enough to make her nose bleed and the girl was often seen with blood on her pinafore or with black eyes. She was dressed in rags with broken boots, fed only on scraps of bread and butter and made to sleep in a potato sack in a corner of the cellar. Fanny spoke of her as ‘that bitch.’ Neighbours complained to the police about Fanny’s behaviour, and for a while Louisa was removed from the family to her Staples grandparents, but William neglected to pay for her upkeep and she was returned home. Richard and Rebecca Staples still had six children of their own at home and their granddaughter Ellen, all supported on a railway labourer’s wage.

In June 1867, Fanny was accidentally thrown out of  her husband’s cart, and injured and returned to her family home in New Romney to convalesce. She took with her Louisa and her own child, Emma. On 25 August 1867, William went to fetch them back, but on arrival at the Turners’ house found that found that Fanny had gone out with Louisa, but returned without her. She was sitting weeping in the front room, her gown sodden.

William together with Fanny’s father, John Turner, took lanterns and went to search for Louisa. They soon found her, drowned in a shallow ditch. On their return to the house, Fanny said the child had fallen into the ditch, but William did not believe her and called the police. By the time they arrived, Fanny had changed her dress for a dry one, but the officers found her wet garments stuffed under her bed. They arrested her on suspicion of murder.

The news was all over Hythe by the next day.  Christiana Potter, the headmistress of the Girl’s School,  wrote in her log book on 26 August: received news that one of the scholars was dead – murdered by her mother.  There was no presumption of innocence from the start.

Fanny’s first hearing was at the magistrates’ court soon afterwards. She repeated the story that Louisa had fallen, and added that she had tried to save her, but the magistrates did not believe her either and remanded her in custody to stand trial for murder at the assizes in Maidstone. Meanwhile, Louisa was laid to rest in the churchyard at Sellindge.

Fanny appeared at the assizes in March 1868. William had refused to pay for a defence counsel for her, and the court had to appoint someone. In was in vain. The jury did not believe Fanny’s story that Louisa had been frightened by two horses and run away, or that she had tried to save her. The girl had drowned in less than a foot of water, and could easily have been extricated. It did not help that Fanny’s husband, both parents and a sister testified against her. After only twelve minutes the jury brought in a guilty verdict, and Fanny was sentenced to death.

Back in Maidstone prison, awaiting execution, she became sullen and ill-tempered, apparently complaining that she had been ill-used by the court. She showed no sign of remorse and instructed the Governor of the prison to write to William and tell him to stay away.

However, the tide of popular opinion, which had been against Fanny, began to turn. The Kentish Gazette of 24 March reported that she had been ‘very badly brought up and sadly neglected.’ It noted her illiteracy and complete ignorance of Christian teaching, and her good behaviour in service until she met William Kidder. He, the paper said, had behaved shamefully towards her and had treated his daughter almost as badly as Fanny had. Even worse, he had now taken one of Fanny’s sisters, a girl aged only seventeen, into his house to live with him. In Hythe, the mayor, James Watts, got up a petition for clemency to send to the Home Secretary. The citizens of New Romney did the same.

Fanny relented and dictated another letter to William asking him to visit. She had already received a visit from her parents. She did not admit her guilt to them or show any sign of contrition. The Home Secretary considered the petitions from Hythe and New Romney, but declined to intervene in the case and the execution was set for 2 April 1868.

On 1 April, Fanny’s mother and two of her sisters, one only a few months old visited. So too did William. It was a short interview. Fanny reproached him for having taken up with her sister and he left. His departure upset her, and she shrieked and wailed terribly. The prison chaplain told William to go home and remember that he was the cause of his wife’s suffering and to mend his ways. He went to the pub near the gaol instead and then back to Hythe.

His reception in the town was not a welcoming one. During the evening, a mob estimated to be three to four hundred strong paraded through the streets with an effigy of William which they burnt in front of his house while pelting the building with stones.

Executions were still public in April 1868. It was not until May of that year that legislation was passed to move the events inside the prison. On 2 April, at noon, Fanny was hanged in front of a crowd of two to three thousand people outside the main gate of Maidstone Prison, the last woman in England to be publicly executed. She had been composed during the morning, and dictated to the chaplain a letter to her parents saying she was sorry for her crime. Her last words on the scaffold were ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me’. Once dead, her body was left hanging for an hour, and then taken away for immediate burial within the prison grounds.

William Calcraft, Fanny’s executioner

William stayed in Hythe, with Emma, although it seems the relationship with Fanny’s sister did not endure. No subsequent census return shows him living with a woman, and he did not remarry, dying in 1908. He must have acquired a degree of respectability as in 1904 he was offered a place in St John’s alms house in Hythe – one of their criteria for acceptance was that the person be ‘of good character’. (1) Emma lived with him until she herself got married on 31 August 1891 in St Leonard’s church. Her husband, Benjamin Thomas Jones, was a groom working for the army in Hythe. They did not have children and lived quietly, a far as can be known, in Market Street in Hythe (now Dymchurch Road).

  1. Kent Archives EK2008/2/Book 15

In Sickness and in Health – Part One

The theory and practice of seventeenth century medicine is as foreign to us now as antibiotics and chemotherapy would have been to people then. Although scientific advances were made during this time, medical practice still relied largely on the teachings of the Greek physician Galen, who had died 1500 years earlier.  He taught that there were four humours in the body: blood, phlegm, choler (or yellow bile) and black bile and that their balance in the body determined healthIf there was an excess of one humour, disease could result, so, for example, too much black bile caused fever. Surplus humours could accumulate in the body and cause putrefaction. Blood-letting and purging were the only ways to treat these excesses.

Galen also developed miasma theory, which held that a polluted atmosphere, that is to say bad smells, carried disease such as plague.  Miasma could be carried in clothes or bedding, and domestic animals, especially dogs, cats and pigs might carry it on their bodies from house to house.

Both these theories ran alongside a belief in divine intervention in the affairs of man. God could, and did, send plague and other epidemics to punish men for their sins. And to confuse matters further there was some understanding of contagion, that a disease could be passed somehow from person to person.

Miasma’ was a particular problem in parts of Hythe, as it would have been in any town.  For reasons unknown, perhaps because it was private and not overlooked, the inhabitants used the lane leading to the Mount (now Mount Street) as an unofficial public convenience, or, as the corporation euphemistically put it ‘for easement of their bodies’. Naturally, it stank.  The corporation introduced a fine of a shilling for anyone caught in the act, but it was not until the visit of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1615 that the place was properly cleaned out.  It must not be thought that the people of Hythe were exceptionally coarse in their habits: Samuel Pepys, on finding that no chamber pot had been provided in his lodgings, instead used the fireplace, twice, and Mrs Pepys was not embarrassed to use the corner of a street in London when caught short at the theatre.

Dangerous miasmas were also produced by people washing inappropriate things in the public water conduit, rather than carrying the water home with them and doing it there.  In 1668 the corporation complained that ‘People are using the conduit to wash fish, innards, and clouts (probably babies’ diapers), whereby unwholesome savours do arise to the great prejudice and danger of the Inhabitants’. They imposed the usual fine, and people carried on just as before.

There were regular outbreaks of infectious diseases in every town. Smallpox became more prevalent during the seventeenth century. It killed about 15% of its victims, and often left survivors blind or scarred. The young were particularly at risk from measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, influenza, and a multitude of now unidentifiable diseases.  Locally, malaria was prevalent on the Romney Marsh, which was known as a ‘sickly and contagious place’ and ‘very aguish’ with high mortality from the disease.

It was, however, bubonic plague which, though relatively infrequent, was most devastating in its effects and most feared.  The major outbreaks in England were in 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665.

Hythe escaped the first bout, but was hit badly in 1625 when ninety-one people died, as against an annual average of about forty. In 1638, at the tail-end of the 1636 outbreak, there were eighty deaths.

In 1578 the government had issued Plague Orders, which with some modifications were in effect until 1666. Local magistrates were to raise a tax for the relief of the sick, order the burning of the clothes and bedding of victims, and funerals were to take place at dusk to deter onlookers. Houses where there was suspected infection  were to be shut up for six weeks with all the members of the family, sick or healthy, locked inside.

The patterns of deaths seen in Hythe during outbreaks of plague tend to confirm that these orders were followed. In both 1625 and 1638 multiple deaths from single families are recorded, presumably because they had been quarantined. In a small town, this was a tough decision for the corporation to make. They were incarcerating their neighbours, friends and kinsfolk in the knowledge that this would almost certainly lead to agonising death.

The limited understanding of contagion led to other measures to protect the town. During the 1625 outbreak, the Cinque Ports Brotherhood and Guestling due to be held at New Romney in July was cancelled ‘by reason it pleased God to visit this kingdom with a great plague’.  People took their own precautions, too. One Folkestone couple got a licence to marry in Hythe in December 1625, because the plague had run its course there whereas it was still ‘very hot’ in Folkestone, and ‘people are very fearful to meet together’.  The Cinque Ports meeting was cancelled again in 1637 when the plague had reached New Romney. The burial records for Hythe for 1665, the year in which plague killed one-sixth of London’s population, are not extant so we do not know how badly it affected the town, but we do know that the corporation put the Plague Orders into effect.  The fair was cancelled, and any innkeeper or other person accommodating someone from a plague area would be fined.  The Mayor or a jurat was to approve bills of health for visitors to the town. Alexander Ames was shut up in his house as he exhibited signs of the sickness. He was one of the lucky ones, and survived another three years.

The haven in Hythe was another potential source of infection, as it brought in foreigners from infected areas. In 1629, the town was ordered to be especially careful as plague had broken out in Holland and France. Any vessel arriving from these areas was to be quarantined and all its goods to be thoroughly aired for as long as it took to ‘give hope and likelihood they are free from danger and infection’. As an additional precaution, one of the annual fairs in 1630 was cancelled.

Plague was often attributed to God’s judgement on a sinful nation, and towns wereL supposed to be particularly sinful. Since epidemic plague was concentrated in towns, the theory held water. The concentration of people and rats in towns was coincidental.

Remedies for plague included repentance and prayer, shutting south facing windows to keep out the injurious south wind, and burning the bedding of the sick (which may have helped).  Theriac, commonly called ‘treacle’, was often prescribed. It contained opium (which also may have helped, at least with the pain) and viper’s flesh to destroy the poison of plague.  A roasted onion stuffed with ‘treacle’ was the medicine most often recommended for the infected.  If the patient did not respond, it was God’s will: medicines only worked by the grace of God, and as God has made us to die, medicines would do no good if the time had come.  For the physician this was a splendid get-out clause.

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Five

The government had set up the national Customs Board in 1671 to try to combat smuggling more effectively. Two sloops patrolled the south coast in search of the smugglers, but then fell foul of some seventeenth century austerity measures and were replaced by eight locally-employed riding officers, thus saving a thousand pounds a year. The result was that smuggling increased.

The lot of Customs officers in Hythe seems not to have been a happy one. In 1676 John Johnson, the Collector at Hythe, asked rather plaintively ‘to be removed to some better place in another port’, or to have his salary increased.  He did not get his wish until four years later, when in April 1680, John Brewer was appointed in his place. In July that year Brewer was assaulted by a gang of smugglers and was paid compensation by the Board. Two years after that, he got permission to go and live in New Romney, and the Board psupplied him with a horse so that he could commute.

By the end of the century, the smuggling situation in Hythe was worse, not better, than it had been a hundred years earlier. Troops of dragoons were deployed to the town, and in desperation the government passed the Wool Act in 1698, forbidding anyone living within fifteen miles of the coast from selling wool without a certificate from the Customs House. This desperate piece of legislation was as ineffective as all the other efforts had been, and the smuggling problem was to persist into the next century and beyond.

There is some suggestion that the privileges of membership of the Cinque Ports federation were an encouragement for smuggling.

The organisation had its origins in a royal charter of 1155 which established the five ports which would maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need – Hythe, New Romney, Dover, Sandwich and Hastings. The chief obligation laid upon the ports was to provide fifty seven ships for fifteen days’ service to the crown annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty.

In return, they received significant privileges, including exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls; and the power punish offences and detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.

The arms of the Cinque Ports

The freedom for a port to apprehend and punish its own offenders probably meant that a blind eye was often turned to what was regarded as a legitimate means of supplementing a meagre income when times were hard (which they often were).  If the choice for the authorities was to be between ignoring the fact that a man was a smuggler, and having him and his family as a charge on the parish, then pragmatism would surely win the day.

Over the years the original five ports gained an accretion of Ancient Towns and Limbs, so that by the seventeenth century there were thirty eight towns involved in the Confederation, which was headed by the Lord Warden, and his deputy the Constable of Dover Castle. As one of the five original ports, Hythe could send two ’barons’ to parliament, but New Romney was considered to be the central port and it was here that the annual meetings of the ports, the Brotherhood and Guestling, took place. These had originally been separate meetings, but by the seventeenth century were amalgamated. The Court of Shepway, another ancient court, was apparently held near Hythe, and there is a modern cross there marking the supposed spot.

The Shepway Cross near Hythe

The towns became rich on the spoils of war, but by the time of Elizabeth I, the Cinque Ports were no longer of any real significance. New Romney had long since silted up; Hythe and Sandwich were going the same way, as was Dover, so it seemed then. Hastings had been washed away by the sea, invaded by the French and battered by storms. Other ports such as Bristol and Liverpool were in the ascendant.

Whatever the reality of the situation, the Cinque Ports clung to their privileges and rights, and took considerable pride in them. These included the right to carry the canopy over the monarch at the coronation and authority over Yarmouth fare, with the right to try criminal and commercial cases in the town during the time of the fare, when the court sat daily.

The Yarmouth men generally resented the Cinque Ports bailiffs, and their reluctant toleration sometimes erupted into quarrelsome, if not violent, outbursts. In the late thirteenth century, the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports contingents of a royal fleet set to fighting each other, with the loss of at least twenty five Yarmouth ships resulting.

As late as 1657, a farcical stand-off between the Yarmouth and Cinque Ports men resulted in a special Brotherhood and Guestling being held in Hythe. John Finch, a Hythe jurat and Alexander Bennett had been elected as bailiffs. They went to Yarmouth, and as usual presented the papers of their written commission to the Yarmouth magistrates. They had taken off their hats while doing so, and then replaced them. The Yarmouth men took immediate offence, and insisted they take their hats off again while the commission was read out loud. Finch and Bennett refused.  The Yarmouth men then left the hall en masse and refused to recognise them as Bailiffs.

After kicking their heels for three days but making no progress in the impasse, Finch and Bennett went home and complained that they had been insulted.  The meeting agreed, but said they should have stuck it out and fined them ten pounds each.

It is small wonder, given the potential pitfalls that the honour of being the Cinque Ports Bailiff to Yarmouth was not eagerly sought after.  In 1619, the Brotherhood and Guestling, which appointed the Bailiff, searched in vain for their nominees. Mr Beadle, of New Romney had lived outside the town for a month before to make himself ineligible. The second choice, Mr Brett was simply ‘gone from home’.

Three years later, when Hythe should have provided a Bailiff, no-one wanted to go, so the corporation asked a former mayor, living in Canterbury. He said he was ill. John Benbricke of Rye was chosen instead, but said he had resigned as a jurat so was not eligible. His colleagues said they had refused his resignation and he must go. Reluctantly, he set off on the long journey.

Quite from the chilly reception, the length of the trip must have been a I’mdeterrent. The Bailiff was expected to stay in Yarmouth from towards the end of September until early November. That was a long time away from earning ones livelihood, and probably time that most of the jurats could ill-afford. By the end of the century the tradition had been allowed to fall into abeyance.

 

Almhouses and Vagrants

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

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 Hythe birthplace of Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester
The Hythe birthplace of Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester

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.

A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part Six

The road westward peters out into the countryside, and you retrace your steps a little back towards the bridge. Do not cross it, but walk on a little way along the track on the south side of the town ditch. In front of you is a horse pond, and next to that the town’s bowling green.  Here the yeomen, having refreshed themselves at the inns, are now gathering, while their mounts drink at the pond.  Bowling is a respectable and popular pastime, and the yeomen are joined by tradesmen who have finished work early today, and by two or three gentlemen of the town.  Their wives, their marketing finished, arrive in ones and twos to watch the match, which in summer always follows the market.  The gentlemen’s wives sport real farthingales, not the bum rolls of their humbler cousins. These contraptions of wire or whalebone are wheel-shaped: the woman’s waist forms the hub of the wheel, which has a slight tilt behind. The skirts spread out over this at right-angles to the body then fall straight to the ground. The gentlemen are in suits of clothes, with matching or toning breeches and doublets; their shirts and ruffs are of fine cloth, and spotless and their stockings of the finest wool and in the brightest shades. This is an age when manly ostentation is positively encouraged.

The term ‘gentleman’ is fairly loosely applied and lacks a clear definition, and in any case, small towns tend to inflate honours and the title of ‘gentleman’ here  probable has little validity in the wider world. The likes of William Knight and Arthur Blechinden, who have some land which they do not physically work themselves and live in big houses with servants, and call themselves gentlemen, would in London just be two more country bumpkins.  John Grove describes himself as both a physician and a gentleman. The awkward facts of his conviction for malpractice and subsequent imprisonment do not quite sit comfortably with your own notions of gentlemanly behaviour.

You tire of the game and see that there is a track leading away southwards towards the sea. Take this now. A lot of the land here, once under water, has been ‘inned’ and sheep graze on the acres of grassland.  The salty soil on which the grass grows is supposed to give the mutton a particularly fine flavour.

The way follows the path of a narrow waterway, which flows down to what remains of the haven.  Over to your left is a windmill, built by Reignold Robyns, the husband of Alice Robyns, the haberdasher you saw earlier. She is saving the proceeds of her business to enable her to lease back from the corporation the land on which the mill stands. She is a clever woman and will ensure that both her daughters have a title to the land for life.

You reach now the sorry remains of a once prosperous haven. It used to be a thriving harbour, with warships, merchant men and fishing vessels sheltering from the open sea, but it has been silting up for the last hundred or more years. It is not alone, and the once thriving ports of Romney, Rye and Sandwich suffer the same fate.  The haven at Hythe was cut out and repaired only a few years ago, and at present, is just about hanging on as a going concern

You wander along the shingle beach towards some signs of activity. You will not find any sunbathers or families picnicking on this beach, or anyone taking a dip. The notion of the seaside holiday, like that of the weekend, is far in the future.  The sea is regarded as intrinsically alien and highly dangerous. Charts show that the sea, even quite close to land, is infested with strange and ferocious monsters and the burial registers at St Leonard’s record the deaths of those who were foolish enough to ’venture into the sea’. In fact, this would make a very unpleasant bathing beach, as it is used as a rubbish tip by the inhabitants of the town, which is quite sensible, as most of the detritus is swept out to sea by the tide.

The activity you have noticed is the solution to the lack of a decent haven, for the fishermen, at least. Some poor nags known as sea horses are turning capstans to haul a fishing boat, the ‘Marygold’ from the water onto the open beach. This landing place is called the stade, and its existence ensures that fishing continues to flourish in Hythe despite the decline of other commercial markets. Next to the stade are a few store houses where nets and fishing tackle are stored, and occasionally other goods, intended for illegal exportation.  Smuggling is a locally sanctioned way of supplementing income, and now that you have seen what poverty means in the seventeenth century, you may be inclined to believe that it is a perfectly valid alternative to penury.

The ‘Marygold’ has been fishing conger in home waters, and its load must be quickly processed to get it fresh to the London markets, so the boat owner’s entire family, from the youngest to the oldest are here to do the work.  This is the only boat on the stade at present. Most of the larger vessels have headed north to catch cod and ling off Scarborough, but as you look out to sea you spot another vessel approaching. It is a three masted square-rigged ship, of about three to four tons, a collier from Newcastle bringing coal to the town. It has been spotted from the town, too, and men and boys on wagons are coming to unload it, to take coal to Guy Wilmot, John Oldfield, John Gately, the bakers, the tallow chandlers, the malsters, and all the other tradesmen who will ensure that Hythe, though struggling, will not sink.

Your imaginary walk has finished. The next post will deal with historical facts and what really happened to the poor in Hythe

A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part 3

Make your way now back into the close. The beercart has been freed and is now being loaded with barrels of beer for an inn at New Romney. The rat has mercifully died, although the boys are squirming around in the dust on their stomachs and shrieking, pretending to be dying rodents.  It is time to go back to the street and continue on your way westward along the main street.

Many of the sideways houses still function as shops as well as dwelling places.  Some are selling goods made on the premises; others sell finished goods, small wares or food. You can buy fabric from Michael Sprott (French kersey only three shillings and sixpence the yard) or James Fordred (tawny baize at two shillings and sixpence) and have it made into an outfit by Joseph Gibbons, the tailor. You can get shoes from John Martin for two shillings.  If you are very up-to-date, you can also buy new-fangled buttons to fasten your clothes from Mr Fordred.  If you still prefer to use points, in leather, thread or silk, you can get them from Alice Robyns, the enterprising widow of a miller who keeps a haberdashery shop with her daughters Margaret and Mary. She also has jersey stockings, in red and green mixed, for five shillings and green silk garters for two shillings and fourpence.

Just now, Widow Robyns is looking askance at the packhorse tethered a little way off. It belongs to a chapman, the door-to-door salesman of the seventeenth century, who also sells stockings and points and a great deal else besides. He is trying to sell his merry-books to a young matron who has bought from him before. Her little son, still in frocks, clings to her apron and you realise that what at first you took for a stiff doll under her arm is, in fact, her tightly swaddled baby. She cannot write, but she can read a little and would like something amusing to share with her gossips. The books she looks at are either quite crudely bawdy, or, to your twenty-first century sensibilities, distasteful. For the seventeenth century reader, Welshmen are funny per se, so are ‘simpletons’. Shit is particularly funny and emptying a chamber pot over a passer-by, uproarious. Wee is pretty hilarious too, especially if, say, a barmaid pisses in a difficult customer’s ale. You are reminded uncomfortably of the humour at your primary school, and move on.

The market is in full swing, having started earlier this morning when the market bell was rung after the court sessions. The town sergeant has finished crying the latest news from the corporation, which today was only a repetition of the order banning people from letting their pigs wander the streets. They will have to pay a fine of sixteen pence if convicted. This is, as it always has been, generally ignored.  Here you can buy what you cannot grow or produce yourself: eggs, poultry, cheese, milk, meat, maybe some early cherries, or small wares not sold locally or available here more cheaply.

The market is strictly controlled and local shopkeepers, alert to any opportunity to frustrate competition, are quick to bring to the attention of the corporation any contravention of the rules, such as staying beyond the closing time of four o’clock. The corporation employs market searchers, who will weigh the stallholders’ loaves to ensure that they are thirteen ounces or twenty-six ounces exactly and are sold at the regulation price.  Flesh searchers check that meat is exactly as it is claimed to be.

Visiting yeomen and husbandmen are arriving on horseback, their wives riding pillion behind them. They gather to drink beer, now more popular than ale, at the ‘White Hart’ or the ‘George’, while the women make their purchases.  Others who cannot afford the inns’ prices drink at one of the many alehouses, licensed and unlicensed, in the town. Some of those in the back lanes are no more than a couple of tables and some stools in a labourer’s cottage, where his wife serves homebrew of formidable strength and illegal gaming takes place, but the premises of Thomas Stroghill, the churchwarden, are as respectable as one would hope for from a pillar of the community.

Take a look at what is for sale at the market, apart from foodstuffs. You may purchase a pair of gloves, a comb, pins, needles and knitting needles, handkerchiefs and hatbands, thread of all sorts, capes, neckcloths and hoods, a looking-glass to check that they suit you, ink and inkhorns, necklaces, bracelets and brooches, napkins and tablecloths, soap and starch, tobacco pipes, spectacles, scissors, whistles, spurs, thimbles, shoe buckles and slippers. These things are not essentials. Money will always be spent first on feeding the family and secondly on decently clothing its members, but the market stall holders are there to provide for the wants of those with a little disposable income.

You spend some time considering this mass of people. The respectable women are wearing tight, rather low cut bodices over chemises, and skirts draped over bum rolls, padded rolls like ring doughnuts which fit round their waists and which are homely substitutes for wire farthingales.  At their necks are ruffs, carefully starched and pleated. From the market they can buy poking sticks to keep the ruffs in good shape. Their menfolk are in doublet and hose – a long-sleeved short jacket fitted at the waist, short wide breeches – padded if they can afford it – with knitted stockings underneath. They too wear ruffs, or wide falling collars, and large broad brimmed hats, even indoors. The etiquette of when to wear one’s hat and when to uncover is ignored at one’s peril. Poorer people don’t affect bum rolls or farthingales, or padded breeches or ruffs, but the general style is the same.

The very poorest don’t affect any style at all, but wear what they can lay hands on. The woman you have just noticed sitting on the kerb stone with a wooden bowl in front of her is one such. She appears to be wearing a bundle of rags tied together with tape. She has the milky eyes of the sightless. A small child has led her to this place by the market – perhaps a favourite ‘pitch’ – and now stands dumbly by her. The child is filthy, scabby and shoeless. It could be a boy or girl, but you really don’t want to get any closer to find out. The woman once had a name, when she was a girl, and when she married and had her children.  Her man and the children are dead now and she is left with a grandchild, and has no name. She is just Mother Casement. There is no room for her at the almshouse, though she gets ‘outdoor relief’ from the town, but it is not enough. So she begs here at the market, and citizens give her farthings and halfpennies, not enough to buy a whole loaf of bread, but enough to buy a bread roll for the child from the baker, who will fleece her because the weight and price of bread rolls is not regulated and he can charge what he likes.

The woman and child smell pretty bad, and people do not approach them more closely than is necessary. This is through more than fastidiousness. They believe that foul odours, or ‘miasma’, carry diseases. Wherever possible, people keep themselves and their surroundings as clean and fragrant as possible.