Betrayed: Sarah Mannering

On a bitterly cold February day in 1786, a carter drove into Hythe with a passenger, a ‘near perished’ young woman, heavily pregnant, whom, he said, he had found in a miserable state on the road from Dymchurch.

He took her to the home of the mayor, Henry Mercer.  She had only a few shillings on her and knew no-one in the town. Shocked, he called in the Overseers of the Poor, who arranged accommodation at the Duke’s Head inn for the woman, who gave her name as Sarah Mannering.  It would be weeks before she could tell them anything else, as she soon became ill with a fever which lasted twelve weeks, during which time her child was delivered stillborn.

The Duke’s Head, Hythe, closed now for some years

Finally, on 31 May, she told her story. She had been born Sarah Monk, in Essex. On 4 July 1784, in Romford, she married William Mannering. At that time, she was living in Purleigh and he in Upminster.

On 21 January 1786 he left her ‘to shift for herself’.  She kept the letter he sent soon afterwards, to show to the Overseers of the Poor. It reads:

To Sarah Mannering, Romford, Essex- Loving wife and child I write you this to let you know that I am Determined to go to the East Indies Immediately so I would have you Never think to see me no more. I would have you go to the Overseer and make him Carry you home. I am tired of my life in England and Therefore By God I will go to the East Indies Directly. I shall [en]list in the morning. May God attend you which shall be the Constant Prayer of your Disturbed husband which is ruined Forever. If I shall live to return again I will come to see you. Pray God Bless you and my Child forever.

From yours, William Mannering.

Presumably, since he was going to enlist and go to the ‘East Indies’, he was intending to join the army of the East India Company, which effectively governed the sub-continent. Whether he did or not, or just went away and changed his name, we cannot know, or why he considered himself to be ‘ruined’.

William seems confident that the Overseers will take Sarah ‘home’ – perhaps to Purleigh – but he was ignorant in this respect of the Poor Law. When Sarah married him, his place of settlement became hers, too, even if she had never set foot there.

The 1662 Act of Settlement had established the tenet that everyone had a place of settlement where you could legally obtain Poor Law relief.  Further legislation in the 1690s said that you could gain a settlement through, birth, marriage, apprenticeship, regular employment for a period of a year, renting a house worth £10 per annum, paying parochial taxes, or serving as a parish office.  William had told Sarah that his place of settlement was Lydd on the Romney Marsh, though she did not know why.  Records do not show that he was born there, so presumably he must have have claimed to have been apprenticed there or worked there for a year. It is an unusual place for an Essex man to be sttled. 

Sarah evidently could not shift for herself, and two weeks later she was arrested while begging and taken before a magistrate. She told them that her husband’s place was at Lydd. The magistrate, a man called Bynion, issued a vagrant pass and she was sent to Lydd, some eighty miles distant and a three- or four-day journey, depending on the state of the roads in early February.  The Romford authorities arranged her transport to Rainham in Kent and then found a man called Arnold at a public house there to take her on the second leg of the journey in his cart.

The Ship Inn, Lydd

Lydd is now a small town and was then even smaller, most of its population officially engaged in fishing and unofficially in smuggling. On arrival, Arnold headed for the Ship inn, where he made enquiries and was told he should speak to Mr Gilbert, the Deputy Overseer of the Poor.  Gilbert made his own enquiries and told Sarah the next day that her husband did not have settlement in Lydd and that she could not stay. He gave her another vagrant pass and ten shillings and sixpence and told her to leave the town.  Since she is described as being visibly pregnant, ‘big with child,’ knew no-one locally and the weather was then freezing, this seems incredibly callous.  

Gilbert sent a passing small boy with Sarah to show her the road to Romney.  She walked to Romney and then on to Dymchurch, a distance of about eight miles. There she spent a night at the Ship inn and the next day she tried to walk on to Hythe, but was found on the road by a Good Samaritan in ‘a pitiable state’. The man got her into his cart and took her to Hythe.


The Ship Inn, Dymchurch, still open in the 21st century

Sarah was by then in Hythe poorhouse where she remained until she persuaded the Hythe overseers in 1787 to give her four shillings to help her go to Purleigh.  She had been betrayed by her husband, by the Poor Law system and by most of the men who administered it. Now she wanted to go home. Whether or not she reached her destination, we don’t know.  A short detour along the way would have taken her into London, a magnet for the poor and dispossessed. Whatever the case, Sarah disappears from history. We can only wish her well.  

‘An idle sluttish and noisome people’

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

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.