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.