Aldridge Overseers

Aldridge overseers’ accounts and vestry minutes yield the names of twenty men who held the office of overseer of the poor between 1823 and 1836.  Two men in each year were elected in this period, as the practice of employing a salaried assistant overseer was not supported continuously throughout the period.  A comparison of these names with those of local residents given in White’s Directory of 1834 reveals that, with the exception of Joseph Reynolds the beer-house keeper (and coincidentally assistant overseer 1820-2), all of the men whose names feature in the Directory were farmers.

1823  Charles Arrowsmith, Thomas Martin

1824  John Clarke, William Tookey

1825  Thomas Cook, Thomas Middleton

1826  Charles Juxon or Jaxon, Joseph Shelley

1827  John Smith, John White

1828  Thomas Crumpton, John Proffitt

1829  Thomas Keen, Thomas Martin

1830  Thomas Martin, John Nevill

1831  Thomas Martin, Joseph Reynolds

1832  Daniel Arblaster, Thomas Martin

1833  John Cliff, Thomas Martin

1834  William Bates, John Lea

1835  Daniel Allen, Joseph Shelley

1836  Daniel Allen, Joseph Shelley

 

So the important question for us will be, why did Thomas Martin do duty as an overseer so often?  He held office in seven of these fourteen years, and continuously 1829-33.  He presumably had an aptitude and taste for parish work; in addition to stints as overseer he was also the constable of the parish in 1826, when he was given five pounds ‘in consideration of his remaining in the office for the year ensuing as a bonus, for his extra duties in keeping the peace’.  The vouchers may reveal why keeping the peace was such an issue in the mid-1820s.

Sources: SRO D1104/4/1 Aldridge vestry minutes 1808-27; D4122 Aldridge overseers’ account book 1823-37.

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If this is Friday, this must be Aldridge

The vouchers of Whittington parish have been typed up in quick time, meaning that we are now turning the focus to Aldridge.  This parish has crossed my radar before, as the home parish of farmer John Masgreave.  John was the elder brother of Ellen Parker neé Masgreave, for whom I wrote an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Once again I’m in quest of names for the overseers and churchwardens of a parish, and this time I have both a set of vestry minutes and a volume of overseers’ accounts to help with the search.  The vestry minutes reveal that Aldridge anticipated legislation of 1818-19 and appointed a salaried assistant or ‘standing’ overseer as early as 1815.  The first post-holder was Patrick Cormick, succeeded in 1820 by Joseph Reynolds.  Reynolds was appointed at a salary of £25 per year, ‘without any cost or charge whatever to the parish excepting all journeys more than 10 miles from Aldridge’.  The parish was clearly trying to keep control of its liabilities in relation to trips associated with legal matters or the settlement of the poor.  Reynolds was required to receive and collect all the poor rates, pay the poor, and ‘execute the general business of the parish subject to the controul [sic] of the overseers for the time being’.  In other words, the parish still elected annual overseers, but they were merely honourary as it was Reynolds who did all the work.

The vestry minutes contain highlights of parish business and low points of parish behaviour.  In illustration of the former, it was resolved in January 1824 that the conveyance of letters between Aldridge and Walsall should be continued by Mrs Hathaway.  Rules were drawn up for the times when this lady should be expected to travel between the two locations for the reliable carriage of post.  A letter bag with a lock and key was supplied to her by the overseers of the poor (for some reason: the mail was not typically their province).  At the other end of the spectrum there was the intransigence of the organist and choirmaster.  Richard Glover was discharged from this post in 1822 for for ‘inability, impropriety of conduct and neglect of duty’.  There is no elaboration of these charges, but given that the next post-holder William Prince was specifically required to arrive at church early, and to teach singing to four parish girls, one can only hope that lateness was the worst of his offence.

Penalties for profiteering overseers

An Act of 1815 made it illegal for churchwardens or overseers to profit by supplying goods to their parish in the same year that they held office.  The penalty for infringement was high at £100.  This law was probably more honoured in the breech, but some keen-eyed contemporaries tried to make sure that it didn’t fall entirely out of view.  Samuel Cook, a radical citizen of Dudley, was one man who tried to make sure parish officers were held to account on this score.  He went to the trouble in 1823 of printing a small poster with the heading ‘Overseers liable to One Hundred Pounds Penalty!’ where he copied out some portions of the Act to publicise the (otherwise neglected) legislation.

This poster came to my attention when visiting the archives at Dudley.  I was searching the catalogues for parish records pertaining to locations in the ancient county of Staffordshire, and particularly for overseers’ vouchers that might survive for Sedgley, Brierley Hill, Kingswinford, and Lower Gornal.  None of these parishes have surviving vouchers relevant to our project, but finding the poster was a bonus.

Samuel Cook used the same small poster, no more than six inches square, to ask some pertinent questions about the workings of the Old Poor Law in Dudley.  He suffixed the main content of the poster with questions, asking about malt bags found at the workhouse, and the pay rise of £20 per year recently awarded to Mr Shorthouse (presumably a parish official).  It is a shame there weren’t more acute observers of parish relief to ask these sorts of questions!

House Row System

The Whittington Overseers of the Poor Law make seveal references to House row system or men.

An Internet search brought up the following on Google Books. There were various statements which appeared to be from parishes in the Staffordshire Moorlands but I expect it would be the same in Whittington

The House-row system.

Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Volume 45

Mr. Heald Salt, Guardian of the township of Wootton, states, that—

“If they (able-bodied labourers) apply in consequence of being out of work, I call a
meeting, and allot them to the rate-payers in proportion to their rate, and they are paid by the persons who employ them; this I call the house-row system.
The same plan has been pursued in our township ever since I can remember, and I was born in the township, and am now above 60 years of age. The non-resident able-bodied poor I relieve, if any of the family come over, giving as little as I can, and tell them they had better go back again. I never have sent any of the non-resident paupers to the workhouse.

The resident able-bodied have been sent to the workhouse, but not for the last five years. There have been cases where the paupers have not been satisfied with the wages paid by the house-row system.
The wages paid for the house-row system are not quite so good as those paid to independent labourers, and they have always reference to the families of the paupers. There are now two cases of persons going by house-row, the one a married man with seven children, none of whom have yet worked, and the other a married man with one child; they are tidy sort of working men, and about average labourer, one not being superior to the other. The man with seven children is paid by house-row 1s. a day and his victuals, and the other 7d, a day and his victuals, and the overseer has undertaken to pay 1s. a week for the lodgings of the latter, as his family are residing 13 miles from the parish.

 

Rich, poor, or spendthrift?

Our latest parish of Whittington St Giles spent more money on poor relief than any of the other parishes we have studied so far, but what should we read into this?

Of course, Whittington didn’t spend the most money in absolute terms.  Large populous parishes naturally spent more than small ones, so the most spent per year in total (so far) by the parishes we have studied has been Uttoxeter.  The cost of poor relief in Uttoxeter was always higher than £1500 per year in the period 1816-1834, and rose to its highest in 1818-19, years of particular hardship in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.  Then the totals rose to £3350, but never again exceeded £3000 before the change to the law in 1834.

Whittington, though, spent most per head of the population.  The parish dispensed thirteen shillings and seven pence for every man woman and child of the population in 1831, whereas Uttoxeter only spent eight shillings.  We could understand this in a number of ways. Either the population was particularly needy, or wealthy members of the parish could afford to pay high poor rates (and therefore did not stint in paying relief), or both.  Whittington’s proximity to the Cathedral town of Lichfield encourages me to think that it may have been a relatively generous parish with little motivation to cut costs, but full consideration of the vouchers will tell us more…

Finding the Overseers

Starting the new parish of Whittington has presented us with a challenge; how can we find out the names of the overseers when no accounts survive to accompany the vouchers?

Overseers and churchwardens are reliably named on some other forms of parish ephemera, such as apprenticeship indentures, but these may also survive patchily.  We can see that at some point in the 1820s the tailor John Beard was appointed as the (salaried) assistant overseer of Whittington, and that he shared the task with at least one other man per year, probably a rate-payer who was taking his ‘turn’ in office.  So far the list of men in addition to Beard looks like this:

1827-8 = Thomas Dennitts overseer (Hugh Nevill and John Coleman churchwardens)

1828-9 = John Stanley overseer (Hugh Nevill and John Coleman churchwardens)

1829-30 = [no indentures found so far]

1830-31 = James Whitaker overseer (Hugh Nevill and John Coleman churchwardens)

1831-32 = William Smith overseer (Hugh Nevill and William Wootton Shucker churchwardens)

It is useful to know the names of the overseers, churchwardens, and if possible the constables working in the parish each year, because their names might crop up repeatedly on vouchers.  Also they might, like Michael Clewley in Uttoxeter, be acting as parish officials at the same time that they received work from the parish, which was strictly speaking not allowed.

The search for names continues….

Keeping track of illegitimacy

Tettenhall parish went to great lengths to keep tabs on the fathers of illegitimate children. I know this because I have spent the last four or five sessions in Stafford copying out the examinations and filiation orders that the parish sought in relation to ‘bastardy’ and reading the account books they kept to ensure that money flowed in.

Bastardy examinations required the mothers of illegitimate children to ‘swear’ to the likely paternity, while filiation orders were signed when men acknowledged their children and agreed to pay towards their maintenance.  Tettenhall typically secured payments to mothers and children of between one shilling and two shillings per week, until the child reached the age of nine.  Nine was not taken as a marker of adulthood, merely of the child’s likely ability to contribute to their own upkeep.

All of this was quite normal in early-nineteenth-century parishes.  Less usual, though, was the meticulous way in which Tettenhall monitored fathers’ payments.  Filiation orders could be a blunt or ineffective legal instrument, as men either gradually ceased payment or if they left the area, but this was one parish which tracked and logged fathers’ payments effectively.  In the accounting year 1819-20, this policy yielded an additional income of £77 13s 9d (that is to say, income over and above the parish poor rate) to help defray commitments to mothers.  The ‘bastardy book’ spanning 1819 to 1828 contains information on 24 illegitimate births, while filiation orders give details of a further 21 cases 1829-34 (in a parish numbering 2618 inhabitants in 1831).

Most men and women appeared in the accounts only once.  Fathers covered a wide social sweep, though, as unskilled labourers were joined in the accounts by farmers, publicans, attorney’s clerks and clockmakers.  Perhaps most intriguing is the filation order for Richard Fowke, gentleman, in support of Sarah Coates’s son born 3 June 1828.  Fowke was the name of the parish surgeon, and Richard was quite possibly one of his sons.  Both the surgeon and the father gave their address as Wolverhampton.

This social breadth among fathers introduces an interesting possibility.  Up to now, we have been assuming that local tradesmen might have benefited from the regularity of custom and payment associated with supplying the poor law.  But some men clearly supplied it in other ways, by adding to its ‘bastardy’ work and augmenting parish income accordingly.  We will need to find out whether there was a significant minority of men who encountered the parish in multiple ways, as suppliers, ratepayers and errant fathers.

Who poisoned whom?

Tettenhall parish officers clearly purchased their stationary from tradesmen who stocked a variety of exercise books, decorated or illustrated in different ways.  Most of these feature apparently anodyne and uncontroversial scenes of rural life or of stock characters.  An earlier blog entry addresses the now forgotten ‘Gilpin’s Ride’.  But a recent find on the cover of a book containing accounts from the 1810s and 1820s surprised me.

Poisoning

This image clearly relates to recent history, given the costumes of the two most prominent figures, and seems to depict Napoleon’s north African campaign of 1798-9 if the crude sphinx on the left of the image is indicative.  What is not clear is who has poisoned whom.  The sick languish on the right of the frame, but they are drawn so generically as to offer few clues.  There were some accounts of local African people poisoning wells at the French army’s approach, but the European figure in the doorway is sufficiently furtive to suggest that the origins of the poison may have been closer to home.

Even given the enmity between the French and the British in the early nineteenth century, this seems a particularly bitter choice of picture for the front cover of an exercise book.

Workhouse life

Tettenhall workhouse existed from at least 1766 and in the early nineteenth century housed between 17 and 68 inmates at any one time, with an average occupancy of 36.   The trend was for a declining workhouse population, however, since the average was 38 in the period 1816-1820 but only 22 in the years 1826-7.

The workhouse in Tettenhall accommodated the same sectors of the parish population as seen elsewhere in pre-1834 workhouses.  The elderly and young children formed the bulk of the long-term residents, while adults of working age experienced short periods of workhouse residency.  The oldest known person in the Tettenhall house was Richard Simmons who died there on 12 January 1827 aged 86.

Monthly inmate lists survive continuously from April 1816 to March 1820, with another list spanning April 1826 to March 1827.  Some notable individuals include William Taylor who was blind and lived in the workhouse from its earliest list until his death aged 27, and Dinah Corns who was punished with six months in prison at Stafford for having her third illegitimate child.

Relief for the workhouse poor extended beyond bed and board.  Early finds among the Tettenhall vouchers suggest that overseers remained somewhat attentive to other needs including for footwear.  This voucher from November and December 1819 indicates that eight inmates (comprising over a quarter of the workhouse population at the time) had pairs of shoes mended, at costs ranging from 7d to 3s.

Tettenhall workhouse shoes

Moving to Tettenhall

For over a year the volunteer group at Stafford has been calendaring the contents of the Uttoxeter overseers’ vouchers, giving rise to over 3000 spreadsheet entries detailing names, trades, and paupers’ receipt of relief.  The work has extended beyond the statutory institution of the New Poor Law, because the new law took a few years to implement in Uttoxeter.  This means that voucher details have been collected into the early 1840s.  Analysis of the research potential from these vouchers in future can can be confident that it covers all the available material, for which we must give a huge THANK YOU to everyone in the group.  It also means, however, that there is now a new focus for the vouchers project, and collectively we have already started blogging about Tettenhall.

Tettenhall does not possess nearly so many overseers’ vouchers as Uttoxeter, so there are fewer pieces of paper to unfold, but the rural south-Staffordshire parish forms a neat comparison with a more northerly market town like Uttoxeter.  The nature of the vouchers is rather different too, in that the chronological spread is much wider (back to the mid eighteenth century) and the organisation of information is less reliable.

Furthermore, Tettenhall benefits from a different cohort of additional parish material.  Uttoxeter has almost no surviving overseers’ account for the same years as the vouchers, but has a wealth of pauper letters.  Tettenhall, in contrast, has accounts and multiple supporting types of document (although many fewer letters).  Tettenhall did have a workhouse, providing one decisive point of comparison with Uttoxeter.  Workhouse inmates will form the topic of my next blog entry.