Poor Relief in Stuart Hertford

Alan Greening

(This article is an edited version of my talk to the Society in April 2002, omitting the discussion of the historical background to the problem of poverty in the C17)

Communities do not exist in a vacuum, so any consideration of the problem of poverty in Hertford has to be seen against the national background, for poverty was a national problem. 1t is not the purpose of this article to examine the long-term causes of the problem, but to look at the local situation in the seventeenth century and the measures those in authority took to deal with it.

But what constitutes poverty? How are we to define it? Most of us would surely say that someone whose income was only just sufficient to cover the basic requirements of food, clothing and shelter, with nothing left over to put by against the proverbial ”rainy day”, was poor, since clearly only the slightest degree of misfortune would be needed to tip him or her over the edge into real want. This was particularly so in a period when a run of bad harvests could cause real privation, when medical competence was minimal, trade at best uncertain, political unrest endemic and no state ”safety net” existed. But seventeenth century opinion would not have recognised this as poverty, simply as the norm for the majority of the population – the ”common sort”. And for a variety of reasons, there always existed a fluctuating number of people who had somehow to survive even below this norm. The first sort suffered from what social historians term “shallow” poverty, the other from ”deep” poverty. Just how many of either there were at any one time is a moot point. If we accept the evidence of tt1e Hearth Tax as an indicator of relative prosperity, which broadly it is, then exemption from payment can reasonably be regarded as a rough and ready index of poverty, although it will not tell us which form of poverty the exempted were experiencing.

Only two Hertford returns survive, both from 1663, and on their evidence just under one third (31.7%) of the inhabitants of the borough were too poor to pay. The overall average nationwide around this period seems to have been nearer 40%, although, like all averages, such a figure is meaningless unless qualified. The percentage could vary widely for different places and at different times, for a variety of reasons. Thus in 1672 York could show only 20.6%, whereas in 1670 Colchester and Coggeshall, both badly hit by the recession in the cloth trade, 53 and 60% respectively were too poor to pay. In 1666 in the mining parish of Whickham, Co. Durham, the figure was a staggering 79%. Extrapolation from Gregory King’s 1688 statistical analysis is suggests a national average figure for ”the poor” of something like 30 %, although whether such a figure represents a real improvement in social well-being is impossible to say. What is beyond dispute is that, one way or another, poverty was endemic.

The 1601 Poor Law, like so much Tudor legislation, laid the burden of coping with poverty upon the parish, which was empowered to levy a rate for the job, and to provide work for the able-bodied poor. In corporate boroughs like Hertford corporations were also given power to enforce the Act and, where necessary, to transfer funds between parishes.

The first thing to remember is that no-one considered the possibility that poverty might be eradicated altogether. Of course, we still haven’t managed to do that, but at least we strive, however inadequately, towards that end. The seventeenth century establishment attempted, with varying degrees of success, to ameliorate the lot of the poor. Not for one solitary moment did it even consider attempting to banish poverty, and in justice it has to be said that it possessed neither the ability nor the resources to do so. Moreover, the seventeenth century mind-set was completely different from our own: did not the Bible say, ”the poor ye have always with you”?

Not that parish elites or town governors failed to apply their minds to the relief of the poor. The problem was too pressing, and it wouldn’t go away. The poor were seen as falling into two categories: the deserving and the undeserving. The deserving poor were those who, through no fault of their own, were unable to support. themselves and their families through sickness, injury, loss of employment, or sheer old age. There were always more of them than the other sort, and the authorities meant to keep it that way. The undeserving poor were those who could, but would not, work: ”masterless” men and women, wandering vagrants. For the deserving poor, relief could be granted; for the undeserving, punishment until they conformed. In either case, charity began at home. The burden of poor relief rested on the parish or the borough: you didn’t help other people’s poor. Hence. the passing of the Act of Settlement, and the alacrity and frequent callousness with which unfortunate strangers were pushed over the boundary; hence the whipping and ejection of vagrants, the deep suspicion of incomers, the determined pursuit of the putative fathers of bastard children.

Religious beliefs affected the management of poor relief beyond the general acceptance of the permanence of poverty. Many towns in the first half of the century were dominated by Puritan elites. They were Calvinist, but not necessarily to be thought of as ”dissenters” or ”non conformists”, for until the advent of Archbishop Laud the Church of England itself espoused Calvinist beliefs, confirming in its position at the Synod of Dort (Dordrecht) as late as i617. But many of those elites were certainly holders of radical Presbyterian or Independent views. They hankered after perfect religious communities, the ideal of ”The City on the Hill”. This concept went right back to Calvin himself, who established in sixteenth century Geneva what can with some justification be called a religious welfare state. It was also a police state. comparable with those with which we have become all too familiar in our own lifetimes: children were encouraged to denounce their backsliding parents to the authorities, even if, as it often did, it brought them to the scaffold.

Thankfully, we never went that far in this country, but to achieve their ambition the Puritan elites were prepared to use both carrot and stick, especially the stick, their attitude to both public and private moral discipline being perhaps best compared to that school of child-rearing summed up in the command, ”Go and find out what little Billy is doing and tell him to stop it”.

Pious attempts to establish godly communities can hardly be said to have inspired wild enthusiasm amongst their recipients, meeting with both overt: and covert resistance even in a town like Dorchester, where the Presbyterian vicar John White and his colleagues did have considerable success, at least on a material level, establishing municipal enterprises, notably a brewery, the proceeds from which went to relieve the poor.

But we are here concerned with what happened in Hertford. No doubt the aims of the independent faction that largely controlled the borough before 1660 were similarly high minded, but the achievements were more modest. And there seems to have been little change in policy throughout the century, whoever was in charge. ·

We are unfortunate in that we don’t have censuses of the poor similar to those compiled in towns and cities like Exeter, Ipswich, Norwich and Salisbury at various times. These were, of course, much bigger places, Norwich, indeed, being the largest provincial city, although its population mid-century was probably not much more than Hertford’s today. No doubt Hertford Corporation saw no need for such exercises, they knew who was poor, and why. Consequently, the surviving records are fragmentary, and we just have to make do with what we’ve got. As regards reasons for numbers, in Hertford’s case – and I suspect in many other small towns – there is certainly one constant factor: even allowing for the labour-intensive nature of most trades, there were simply too many tradesmen and craftsmen for the available work.

The basic unit, here as elsewhere, was the parish. Each parish had two overseers of the poor, responsible for the collection and distribution of whatever poor rate had been agreed by the Vestry, plus any extras which might come along from either the borough or private charities. Relief in the earlier part of the century was invariably outdoor relief; workhouses are a later development. Providing work for the able-bodied unemployed was also in their remit, but in Hertford the Corporation seems to have handled that side of things, with little to show for it.

Whatever records the seventeenth century overseers and/or vestries might have kept seem not to have survived. One set of churchwarden’s accounts compiled by George Hoppie of All Saints’ that survives in the Corporation Records (HCR78:228) includes sums that seem to represent collected poor rates, but shows no evidence of disbursement to the poor. Among the casual extras from the Corporation one may quote income from fines: one shilling for drunkenness, one shilling per profane oath sworn. Constables were zealous in counting the number of oaths!

However, the Corporation’s input depended upon more than the casual collection of fines. There were the town’s charities, the two most important being the Chequer and the Grass Money, the one managed conscientiously, the other by no means so. In 1628 a London merchant named John Browne died intestate and the administration of his estate was entrusted to Sir Thomas Gardiner, Recorder of the City of London and a kinsman of Henry Gardiner of Jenningsbury near Hertford. It was ordered in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury that £6,000 of Browne’s estate – he was obviously a very rich man – should be employed in pious uses, and Gardiner allocated £300 of this money to be used for the benefit of the poor of the town of Hertford. Out of this sum the Corporation purchased the Chequer Inn, which stood on the site of the present Post Office in Fore Street, for £270 and a smaller messuage in the same parish (All Saints’), apparently in Castle Street, with the remainder. The Chequer yielded an annual rent of £18, the smaller property £2. 13s. 4d. To these ·the Corporation later added other properties, and at least half the annual income was distributed to the poor either in cash or in kind, the balance being retained to build up a contingency fund. By July 1635 the Corporation had paid out a total of £80. 16s. 11d. Unfortunately in September the following year the Chequer caught fire, with damage estimated at £400, for which a brief was issued. Recovery seems to have been commendably swift.

The story of the Grass Money is less happy. When the ”humble petition of the Maior and Burgesses and Cominalitie of the Burrough of Hertford this Majesties poore tenants” to purchase the lease of the traditional common lands of Hartham and the Kings’ Meads from the Crown was presented to the Privy Council in 1627, the poverty of the town was stressed and that the purchase would be ”for the reliefe of the poore inhabitantes” of Hertford. The request was granted, but the Corporation was soon in trouble. It rapidly became clear that it and the traditional commoners were at odds as to what constituted the relief of poor inhabitants. In 1631 the Privy Council came down heavily in favour of the commoners. Disputes did not end there. An Inquisition held at Hertford on 19 January 1646 to ascertain ”what lands, tenements, rents, annuities, profits and hereditaments…..(have) been given, limited appointed or assigned…..to charitable uses” concluded that the 29 acres 1 rood of meadow called King’s Meadow had been purchased for the use of the poor, and that the proceeds of the sale of the hay crop thereon should be divided amongst the poor. But nothing legally binding came of this finding, and only niggardly payments were made from time to time. A further Inquisition in 1681 decided that the grant of the Meads had been solely to the Mayor, Corporation and Commonalty and no specific reservation to the use of the poor had been stated or intended. Not until 1708 did yet a third Inquisition finally resolve the matter, overturning the decree of 1681 as defrauding the poor. The Commissioners’ decision cost the Corporation dear, for in adjudging the sum due to the poor they went right back to the decision of 1646: the bill amounted to £2,094. 19s. 1d. – which, of course, came too late to benefit the poor of seventeenth century Hertford.

There exists in the Corporation records a list, probably incomplete, of the disbursements from the income of the Chequer and associated rents at Christmas 1643 (HCR75:85). It contains one hundred and forty-six names, plus three deletions, presumably of persons deceased. Eighteen names are those of freemen who had fallen on hard times. They were not necessarily unemployed, but certainly under-employed. Neither are the names necessarily of householders; forty-four are women, thirty-two of whom, unsurprisingly, are widows. Relief in kind seems to have come mainly in the form of winter fuel. Faggots for firing were bought and there appears to have been a central point for storing them, for during the Civil War soldiers quartered in the town cheerfully helped themselves and arrangements had to be made for an alternative supply. In January 1655 there is reference to a stock of wheat ”long standing in the town hall” being distributed to the poor.

While many of the poor might be elderly or infirm people, others had families to maintain. From time to time the minutes of the Borough Months Court contain lists of pauper children of both sexes to be bound apprentices, with the names of their proposed masters. The children thereby ceased to be the responsibility of their parents to maintain. The names were supplied by the parish overseers as being fit to be apprenticed: some were as young as ten years old. The system was wholly arbitrary, the children having no choice in the matter; nor, indeed, were some of the intended masters very keen. At least one man protested that he could not usefully employ such an apprentice, and willingly paid forty shillings to be excused. His offer was accepted, and he was excused participation. The £2 was duly passed on to Churchwarden George Hopple of All Saints’, who divided it between some of the willing masters to be expended on clothing for their apprentices! This was in 1636. For all the children it was a lottery, but for the boys at least it could prove beneficial, since they at feast had an opportunity to learn a trade which in all probability might not otherwise have come their way. For the girls it was less satisfactory, for few if any were ever likely to be more than domestic servants.

Later in the century the Corporation also put some poor children to school to learn the “three Rs”, the better to fit them for a trade. Thus in 1686 Rebecca Snell received £1 for ”schooling Hollands boy a yeare at three shillings the quarter and Roses sonn ageane at two shillings ending at Christmas last past”; while Sarah Staddes received 8s 8d for ”schooling of Gatwoods children half a yeare”. In 1692 Ralph Battell, headmaster of the Grammar School, was paid only 5s 4d for ”2 yeares schooling for Goodman Randolphs boy”! In 1693 Robert Warner put in a bill for ”schooling” various boys. Warner was a grocer, not a schoolmaster. We do not ·know what qualifications, if any, Rebecca Snell or Sarah Staddes possessed, but we may be sure that the instruction they imparted was minimal.

During the Civil War there were discussions about, and money collected for, a scheme for setting poor children to work spinning ”jersey”. There was resistance to paying, and there is no indication that any practical scheme emerged. Such enterprises were notoriously difficult to implement, not least for the reason that they could compete for already scarce trade. There must have been unfortunates who had fallen victims to mental illness and whose names no doubt appeared in lists of parish poor but rarely surface elsewhere. One which does is that of Thomas Crouch. In December 1635 the borough JPs, with the agreement of the churchwardens and overseers of St. Andrew’s, decreed that ”Thomas Crouch…….beinge a Lunaticke should be restrained from wanderinge up and downe the streets ar1d committinge many outrages”, and incarcerated him in the House of Correction, paying Sampson Clarke the gaoler 2s 6d a week for his maintenance. By the standards of 1635 the payment was liberal: did it perhaps include danger money?

Vagrancy was a growing problem throughout the period. Increasingly, people were on the move. This took two forms, both probably caused by the same factor: decreasing opportunity at home. One was ”bettement” migration, classically but not entirely towards London. The other was subsistence migration, likely to produce the true vagrant. Numbers were undoubtedly boosted by the Civil War and its aftermath. In the 1680s Gregory King estimated numbers at 30,000, a figure many communities would have considered a gross underestimate. The problem was far older than Kirig’s time, and whatever the truth about numbers, these wanderers covered a great deal of ground and habitually turned up in the same places.

Fear of vagrants and ”masterless men” meant that the undeserving poor might easily turn into the dangerous poor.· idleness among the ”common sort” was not to be tolerated, either under Puritan regimes or later. Young men were presented before the borough courts as being “lusty young fellows able to do good service but live idly about the town”, while in 1694 Anne Venables – probably a ”common naughty- pack” or prostitute – was committed to the House of Correction, ”until shee shall sett herselfe forth to service and that in the meantime shee shall be held to hard worke and not perrmitted to goe at large and none permitted to come to her”. As to real vagrants, Hertford lacks the comprehensive records available for some places (e.g. Salisbury), but a list of those passed out of the borough in 1636 shows a remarkable variety of places of origin. Thomas Goddington and his son Edward were merely pushed over the boundary into Hertingfordbury, and Roger Phillipp only as far as Newport, Essex; but Kent, Sussex, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire were destinations for others, while Edward Caber (Taber?) was sent to Norfolk, Mary Miller to Salisbury and Richard Greene to Lichfield in Staffordshire. John Wilson, Robert Hobson and Susan Bessey – a most interesting trio, probably a ”family” of professional wanderers – were sent back to Southampton. Equally suspect were itinerant musicians, liable to be apprehended at illegal or disorderly alehouses, especially during the years of godly rule.

Later on, the problem seems to have been rather different. Following the Restoration, there seems to have been a constant stream of wanderers passing through Hertford, brandishing apparently legitimate passes, although forging the latter was commonplace. During John Dimsdale’s first mayoralty (1675-6) no fewer than twenty-one people turned up at his door over a three-month period seeking help on their forward journeys. Eight were seamen, three ”pore soljers from holand (sic) by pass”, one a Dutchman and one a poor Irishwoman. She, like the Dutchman, received sixpence: no doubt she had kissed the Blarney Stone! No other individual received more than fourpence, but the Months Court was sufficiently disturbed to order that henceforth the constables were not to direct such people to the mayor for relief.

There were, of course, private sources of charity. Roger Daniel, citizen and leather-seller of London, although presumably of Hertford origin, left by his will of 1625 an annuity of £4 to be distributed on a monthly basis to twenty of the poorest householders in the town, fourteen in All Saints and six in St. Andrew’s. Edward Garde, a former Chief Burgess and Mayor of Hertford, left in his will of 1631 to trustees a messuage or tenement in St. Andrew’s Street of the yearly value of £3. £2.1Os of the annual income was to be distributed to such aged and impotent poor of the parish whom the trustees should think fit, the remaining ten shillings to go to providing an annual dinner for the trustees! Garde also left £40 to purchase a messuage the income from which was to go to the poor of All Saints’. Unfortunately, this bequest fell, like the Grass Money, into a deep well of controversy, anal the same inquisition of 1708 which adjudicated on the Grass Money concluded that the Corporation had applied the money to its own uses, and dunned it for a further £487. 15s 8d, again too late to benefit the seventeenth century poor. It perhaps shows the unwisdom of naming the mayor as one of the trustees!

Thomas Noble of Hertford in 1663 left small revenues from properties to the use of the poor of All Saints’, while Sir John Harrison of Balls Park in 1669 devised to the poor of All Saints’ the sum of £100 to be laid out in the purchase of lands of inheritance for their use ”for ever”. It was agreed that the intention was that the amalgamated parish of St. John should also benefit. Yet another incomplete list (HCR75:177), dating from 20 December 1694, exists, setting out disbursements to the poor of St. John’s. What survives is a list of thirty-seven names, thirteen of them of widows, most of them receiving one or two shillings apiece, although four got two and sixpence and four as little as sixpence. There is no explanation of the discrepancies.

Thomas Tooke in 1670 bequeathed the sum of £50 to the town to bring a spring of water from Balls Park to a conduit in the Market Place, or to be applied to the use of the poor generally if the scheme was deemed impracticable. Nothing seems to have been done for eleven years, when it was discovered that in fact only £30 was available – certainly not enough to fund the water supply. The Commissioners in 1681 therefore decreed that the money should go to the poor. Since one of the trustees named was the Mayor of Hertford, it is to be hoped that the poor received their due! One does, of course, find many instances of private testamentary bequests to the poor, but the majority are for small sums which could not have gone far to meet need.

One sixth of Edward Carde’s legacy to the poor of St. Andrew’s went, as we have seen, to providing an annual dinner for the trustees. One should perhaps not be too critical, for this was very much in line with the spirit of the age. When one looks at the annual mayoral accounts of the borough during the century it is difficult to escape the conclusion that to a remarkable degree the Corporation ate and drank its way through a not insubstantial portion of its revenues. Corporate hospitality – as at the Assizes – was one thing, and each mayor was obliged to treat the Corporation to an annual dinner, but every meeting of the Months Court was followed by a meal, and every other opportunity was taken to do likewise. There was the annual junket of the Mayor’s ”fishing feast”, which followed the traditional annual ceremonial fishing of the Lea. Needless to say, the menu was not restricted to fish, st1ll less to fish from the river. Anyone who doubts the extent of this self-indulgence need only consult the mayoral accounts of William Hurrel , 1686-7 (HCR20:602). In the course of the year, there are no less than thirty-four items relating to eating and drink1ng, not including the Assizes. The amount spent amounted to approximately 14% of the Corporation’s income, a figure that would horrify a modem District Auditor. The money spent would not have solved the problems of Hertford’s poor, but at least it would have been better spent in that direction. On the wider plane, it is surely not unreasonable to ask whether the obsessive preoccupation with religion so prevalent over much of the century, so much disputation over the unknowable, so much fixation on the hereafter, would not have been better spent in consideration of ways to improve the human condition in this world. Again, it would not have solved the national problem of poverty, but it would certainly have done more to ameliorate it. Alas, we are back again to mind-sets: would not the poor get their reward in heaven?


Primary sources: Hertford Corporation Records in HALS, Vols. 17, 20, 46, 75 and 78.

Hearth Tax Returns on microfilm in HALS.

Public Record Office, SP16/143/41; Acts of the Privy Council (PC2/40) 823& 890.

Published works: Lewis Turnor, ”History of the Ancient Town and Borough of Hertford” (1830); Paul Slack, “Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England” (Longmans, 1988); Margaret Spufford, ”Poverty Portrayed” (Keele, 1995); Keith Wrightson, ”English Society 15801680” .is an excellent introduction to the social history of the period, and the earlier chapters of Peter Laslett’s ‘The World We Have lost” are also useful. The latter, and ”Surveying the People” (Schurer and Arkell, eds.) both give full details of Gregory King’s statistical analysis. ”Surveying the People” also contains much useful material on the workings of the Hearth Tax. What John White did and did not achieve in Dorchester is splendidly related by David Underdown, ”Fire from Heaven”, (Fontana, 1993).

This page was added on 27/12/2021.

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