Escaping the Workhouse

Mary Ann Finn was born in Saltwood, just up the hill from Hythe, in 1825 and baptised at the church of SS Peter and Paul there on 10 April the same year. Her parents were Thomas, a labourer and Margaret nee Norcock (though she often called herself Harriet). Thomas Finn had himself had a difficult start in life, having been left an orphan. The overseers of the Poor in Saltwood where he was born put him out as an apprentice and he later moved to Dover before returning to the Hythe area. He and his wife had two more daughters after Mary Ann, Emily and Esther. Esther was described in the census records as ‘an imbecile from birth.’ The family moved to Church Hill in Hythe, where they lived next door to a family called Piety.

Church Hill, Hythe, today

The Piety family comprised John, his wife Ann and two sons, John and Thomas, who like their father were labourers. John senior had also apparently diversified into smuggling, as did so many others. In 1832, he and his brother Thomas were caught landing smuggled goods near Fort Twiss in Hythe and sent for trial, but were released when the evidence of the leading witness was contradictory, as it was so often found to be.

But both smuggling and legitimate work were sometimes not to be had in the harsh economic climate of the 1830s and both John Piety and his neighbour Thomas Finn were obliged to throw themselves occasionally on the mercy of the Overseers of the Poor later in the decade. Ann Piety also received an annual gift of a gown from Mrs Ward’s charity.

The year 1845 brought a watershed for both families. John Piety senior had already died and now both his widow Ann and his next-door-neighbour Thomas Finn died. The widowed Margaret/Harriet Finn took Emily and Esther and went to live in Stade Street in Hythe , where they subsisted on ‘outdoor relief’ paid by the parish overseers. Mary Ann, however, stayed in Church Hill, moving in next door with John Piety junior, twenty years older than her, as his ‘housekeeper’.

The relationship was clearly more than that, however, and the couple married on 12 October 1851 at Saltwood parish church in a ceremony witnessed by John’s brother Thomas and Mary Ann’s sister Emily. None of the party were able to sign their names and made their marks on the marriage register. This is the last time that Thomas Piety appears in the records. He seems to have vanished, or more likely just changed his name and tried his luck elsewhere.

Mary Ann was pregnant when she married and her daughter, another Mary Ann, was born before the end of the year. Almost exactly two years after their marriage, John Piety died and was buried on 23 October 1853. Mary Ann was destitute. John had left no other family, and her own mother, living on parish relief and with a disabled daughter, was in no position to help.

Mary Ann took work as a charwoman when she could, but between 1854 and 1855 she often had to apply for relief from the Parish Overseers herself. Unlike her mother, she was sent to the Elham Union workhouse. This was in Etchinghill,  four miles north of Hythe, and opened in 1836. She was in and out of the establishment every two or three weeks, sometimes with her daughter, sometimes without (perhaps she left the child with her mother). Then on 16 March 1856, she gave birth again, in the workhouse this time, to a son, William Henry. He was baptised in the nearest church, at Lyminge, on 14 June 1857.

A sketch of Elham Union Workhouse at Etchinghill, now demolished

The pattern of frequent admission to the workhouse continued, usually with both the children. But the frustrations of her unsettled life began to tell. On 8 September 1859, she was sent to gaol for forty-two days for an unspecified offence. She was returned from prison to the workhouse, but in January of the next year she smashed seventy panes of glass at the workhouse over a two-day rampage, and in March was sent back to prison for another forty-two days’ hard labour at Canterbury prison.

St Augustine’s Prison and House of Correction, opened in 1808 in Canterbury

On her release – again back to the workhouse – Mary Ann tried another way to vent her feelings. On 15 May 1860 she was charged with damaging a bolster. Another inmate reported that during the night she ripped open the bolster, which was filled with straw, took it down to the courtyard and set fire to it with a candle. When asked what she was doing she replied that she was ‘burning the foreigners’. The workhouse medical officer reported that the last time he had seen Mary Ann she was dressed ‘in a singular style,’ behaving oddly and talking about selling vegetables and watercress which she believed she had in her possession. He believed that this was all an act as she had previously been reasonable. The master of the workhouse told the court that she was ‘eccentric and sometimes violent’. He said that if she was dissatisfied with her lot, she would work herself up into a rage. She was judged not to be insane and sent back to prison for another six weeks. This would have suited the Poor Law authorities very well, as, had she been sent to the County Asylum in Maidstone, they would have had to foot the bill for her care.

After that brief period – when she may well have been suffering from psychotic episodes – Mary Ann settled down, and, in 1862, got married again. Her choice of husband, John Finn Avery, may, to judge from his name, have been a kinsman, and was fourteen years younger than her, having been born in Dover in 1839. He was a labourer, and the couple lived together, apparently quietly, in Folkestone, and Mary Ann took in washing to make ends meet.

However, Mary Ann’s daughter was not included in the happy family and was left in the workhouse. On 15 May 1868, aged sixteen, she was ‘moved to the home at Dover’. She must have run away, because on 25 April 1870, she was readmitted to Elham Union workhouse under an order of removal from London, together with a child who had been born in February that year, although no record exists of its birth in London or anywhere else. She left the workhouse with her baby daughter two days later, and perhaps she did now go to her mother, for the child died in Folkestone shortly afterwards and was buried at Christ Church in the town on 5 May 1870.

See the source image

The tower of Christchurch, Folkestone. The rest of the church was destroyed by enemy action in 1940

Mary Ann junior then seems to have tried working as a servant for a living, but it didn’t work out. She was readmitted to the workhouse, destitute, on 6 Feb 1871. She somehow got herself out of the place and went back to London, where she met and married James Dabbs, a second-hand bookseller eleven years older than her. They married in Holborn, where they continued to live, in the Peabody Buildings there, and where they raised a family of three sons and three daughters. There was no more workhouse for Mary Ann Dabbs and her children. Frederick, the eldest, was apprenticed to an engineer but went into the printing trade; James and William became warehouse porters; Ruth worked as a machinist making children’s clothing; Mary Ann was an album binder; and Ellen, the youngest, kept house for her father after her mother’s death.

Mary Ann Dabbs nee Piety died in 1907. She had escaped the cycle of poverty and destitution and overcome her early mistakes and her upbringing.

And what became of her half-brother  William Henry? He disappears from the records after his mother’s marriage. There is nothing in the censuses or the records of death and marriage. He appears not to have taken his step-father’s name either. Perhaps he was adopted, or sent abroad, or maybe even claimed by his natural father.

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Four

Smugglers were not necessarily all from the normal criminal classes. In 1601 a Star Chamber case against Ambrose Warde, gentleman and later mayor of Hythe, revealed some details he would rather have kept private. The suit against him was brought by his brother-in-law, Lawrence Baker of New Romney who had married Hester, Warde’s sister. Baker, a man of small fortune and seemingly less sense, got his business and financial affairs inextricably muddled with those of Warde.  He borrowed three hundred pounds which he could not afford to repay, and when his creditors became unpleasant about it, insisted that the debt was his brother-in-law’s. Warde said it was not and Baker was thrown into gaol.  His wife and children apparently starving, Baker had to sell the silver buttons from his doublet to get them food. Warde (and this was his own family he was talking about) said that Baker could stay there ‘until the lice and mice ate him’ before he would pay a penny.

Baker then apparently mislaid whatever brains God had given him. He was persuaded to make over all his property, which should have gone to his son, John, to Warde, who said he would give him an allowance of twenty shillings a week. Warde immediately reneged on this. Baker wanted some recompense and in bringing his case to court he brought with him a host of character witnesses ready to dish the dirt on Warde.

In the first place, it was revealed that Warde was a murderer. He had stabbed to death a man called Philpott, but had acquired a royal pardon for ‘a great sum of money’. Furthermore, it was alleged that he was using his father’s position as Captain of nearby Sandgate Castle to facilitate an extensive smuggling operation. He used the barn at the castle to store ‘great quantities’ of wool, leather, tallow, corn, and most seriously munitions, which were shipped illegally overseas. He had beaten and severely injured one of the officers at the castle who threatened to betray him and threatened a fisherman, who became suspicious of his night-time activity, with the press gang.

Warde naturally denied this detailed allegation, and the fisherman who reported his activity and threats later unaccountably withdrew his statement. He had been mistaken, he said. No charges were brought.

The customs men were not above suspicion, either. In 1622 John Browning, the cousin of the Thomas Browning (gentleman, let it not be forgotten) whom we met earlier, was accused of offering to smuggle some wool to France for Simon Head of Alkham. He told Head that he could get him six shillings a quarter, which is what he had got when he smuggled and sold his own wool. Browning was, at the time, the Customs Searcher for Hythe. The matter came to light when a Biddenden man offered Head four shillings and tenpence a quarter, and Mrs Head told him that they had received a better offer from Browning.  When the matter was investigated, the usual wall of silence descended.  Mrs Head denied saying anything of the sort, and her husband backed her up.  Three witnesses to the conversation heard only the discussion about prices and nothing about Browning. The case was dropped.

When they did try to enforce the law, things could get nasty for the customs men. William Sneath was the Collector for Customs for Hythe in 1657, and one night, seeing a sloop approaching the shore at Shornecliffe (just along the coast eastward from Hythe), he suspected smuggling. It was not a usual landing place. He tried to seize the goods ‘for the Commonwealth’ but was set upon by the recipients, about twelve men armed with staves. They had come ready for trouble.  His assistant, Josias Swaffer was also injured, as was another assistant, Edward Carter, who tried to fire the small gun he used for fowling, the only weapon he had, but who was knocked down and beaten.  The mayor of Hythe, James Arthur, who was also a physician, was called out at midnight to patch them up.

The problem did not go away. In 1662, the son of the mayor of Hythe was arrested at Sandwich  for ‘extraordinary insolence and violence used against the Customs Officers’  James Basset was the gamekeeper at the country house of  Viscount Strangford, Hythe’s M.P. He was accompanied by the estate’s gardener and three known smugglers. Perhaps it was a youthful prank – he was only twenty three, and the case against him was circumstantial. At any rate, he survived the escapade, perhaps with some influential intervention.

Thirteen years later, it was the mayor himself who was implicated in criminality. When a smuggler was killed by a customs official early in 1685, Julius Deedes, Hythe mayor, falsified evidence against the officer at the inquest. Knowing that he was liable to be arrested, he took advantage of a providential parliamentary election in Hythe and secured a seat. He secured with it parliamentary privilege against charges. The electorate was made up of the mayor and corporation of Hythe, and Deedes not only voted for himself in the election, but as mayor was also the returning officer. His plan backfired when his election was declared invalid, he was forced to resign as mayor, and most humiliatingly of all, the lord high steward of England vetoed his nomination as one of the canopy bearers at the coronation of James II.

Deedes bounced back and was re-elected to parliament in 1689 and allowed to take part in the coronation of William and Mary, but his new-found respectability was short-lived. In May1692, fourteen of his employees were arrested for a serious assault with staves on Customs officers who had seized sixteen bags of wool from a barn belonging to Deedes, which they said were destined to be smuggled. The Customs Board said that it had been a legal seizure, based on ‘reasonable suspicion’. Deedes said the Customs men were acting illegally, as they had no constable with them as the law required, which was a little disingenuous of him as the said constable, Birch, was one of the men assaulting the customs officers and was in his pay. Deedes himself, at the time of the attack, was conveniently at home, twelve miles away, but Birch had incriminated him by showing his written order to some men at Lydd.

The situation looked bleak for Deedes, but he was saved once again from prosecution, this time by dying, in September 1692. He was something of a blot on the escutcheon of an otherwise unimpeachably respectable family.

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part Three

It was not only fishermen who used the haven. It had been an important site for export and import of goods and for cross-channel travel until it started to silt up.  This undoubtedly affected the wealth of the town, as it did in all the Cinque Ports. In 1618, they joined together to write to the Lord warden, pleading poverty and claiming that between them only one small ship now belonged to a Cinque Ports owner  and

‘all the residue of the ships of the Ports are of small burthen and only trade to Newcastle and the west of England with malt; some few are “passage boates,” and employed for France, Holland, and Flanders’

All the owners of larger ships had gone off to London, where the merchants had an unfair advantage, the Cinque Ports said, because they were incorporated into the Company of Merchant Adventurers. As the Company held a monopoly at the time on the exportation of cloth, the Cinque Ports men had a good point, but no chance of winning the argument.

Exactly what and how much was imported and exported through the haven in the seventeenth century is unknown. The Customs papers for the period, which recorded all this information are held at the National Archive, but are now too fragile to be viewed. Some information, however, can be pieced together from other sources.

We know that horses were exported through the haven. In the seventeenth century, the reputation of the British horse was so good that dealers could make three times more by selling abroad rather than in the domestic market. Cromwell had banned the export of horses during the civil war (they were needed for the cavalry) but the ban was lifted in 1656, and the corporation of Hythe evidently saw an opportunity to replenish the town chest, and slapped a fee on horse traders using the haven.

At the same time they voted to charge for other goods transported from the port  -wheat, beans, barley, malt, rye,  and pease.  Coal from Newcastle was a regular import. It was still being brought  into the haven in 1618, but by 1640 Elias Bassett, a local merchant, was bringing the stuff to the town in carts from the stade, suggesting his boats were drawn up there rather than anchoring in the haven.

Dealing in coal was not without its pitfalls. In 1644, Robert Curtis took his barque ‘Porpoise’ up to Sunderland to fetch coal, but on his way back home he and the vessel were seized by the navy, acting under the authority of Parliament, who believed he was  going to supply the enemy. The enemy in this case was the King, Charles I.  Curtis was held for a month before persuading the Admiralty of his ‘affection for Parliament’.

The Hythe Customs books do reveal one thing, even though they cannot be viewed. Their catalogue descriptions show that from 1685 onwards they are blank. No entries were made, and  it must be assumed that from then on, Hythe haven was closed for business.

Alongside legitimate trade existed the murkier world of smuggling. On the Kent coast in the seventeenth century, the focus of the smugglers was getting wool out of the country, rather than importing goods, although that could be an attractive sideline. For centuries England’s chief raw material was wool. It was exported, after payment of duty, particularly to Flanders where it fetched a good price, and was prized for its texture and length of staple. It was used in the manufacture of the very best quality cloth. Then, in 1614, James I issued a proclamation restraining the export of wool. This was repeated in 1617, and again by the Commonwealth and was finally enshrined in law in 1660. The measures were intended to halt the growth of the Flemish textile industries and promote the growth of domestic, especially Irish, enterprises.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, sheep farming on the Romney Marsh had developed until huge tracts of the area were converted to grazing land. Everyone kept sheep, from husbandmen and yeomen, to small and great landowners who employed ‘lookers’ to keep an eye on the beasts and never visited their holdings.  The ban on export was a disaster. The loss of revenue could not be made up by sales to the domestic market. In 1703, it was reckoned that wool in its raw state was worth fourpence a pound in Ireland, and combed wool, tenpence. In France a seller could get two shillings and sixpence for raw wool and up to six shillings a pound for combed wool.  Apart from the inconvenient fact that it was against the law, the argument for smuggling was very persuasive.

Even before the ban, wool smuggling, known as ‘owling’ had taken place to avoid paying the export duty. The word owling is variously explained as coming from the hooting noise the smugglers used to warn of danger (which sounds, frankly, unlikely) or as being a corruption of ‘wooling’.  Or perhaps it was because the smugglers worked at night.

The owlers’ enemies were the customs men. Until 1671, the normal method of customs duty collecting was ‘farming’. An individual, the farmer, would pay a fixed sum to the Crown, and then collect customs duties in a given area and keep them. Farmers appointed their own officials at ports.  Alas, neither the farmers nor the officials were always honest men.

Arranging a ship, and men, to smuggle wool overseas involved a large financial outlay, with the possibility of great returns, and the men who bankrolled this were not averse to using violence if their plans were threatened. Punishment for smuggling was death if the culprit resisted; if not, he could expect to be transported or sent for navy service, none of which was a desirable outcome.  Threats were an effective way of ensuring silence. Smugglers were not dashing rogues with Robin Hood tendencies, whatever the romantic novelists might have you believe.

Not a picture of a Hythe smuggler