The system of poor relief in post-Reformation England had its origins early in the reign of Elizabeth I when consolidating Acts of Parliament of 1597 and 1601 established the civil parish as the administrators of the Poor Law. Every Parish Vestry was ordered to hold annual elections, usually at Easter, to elect an overseer of the poor who was empowered to raise revenue from local rates, or ‘assessments’ and was answerable to the Parish Vestry, and the local Justices of the Peace. Overseers usually served for a year without payment and Vestry members were expected fill the position in rotation and could be fined for refusing to serve.
Nonington’s Vestry initially met in the church vestry but later met for many years in The White Horse alehouse next to the church and the local J.P’s sat every week at Wingham alternating sittings between “The Dog Inn” and “The Red Lion”. The Parish Vestry was the lowest echelon of government and was responsible for such things as setting and raising parish taxes and maintaining the roads within a parish. It was an unelected body made up of parish rate payers and usually controlled by the main local land-owners and dignitaries who paid the most taxes. Landowners, householders and tenant occupiers liable to pay rates had their property assessed for a rentable value on which the rate was charged by the overseer. Householders or occupiers with rateable values below a certain level or who were in receipt of assistance from the parish were exempt from the rate. Poor Law rates were usually assessed at between 2/- (two shillings or 10 pence) and 3/- (three shillings or 15 pence) in the pound with Parish Rates for the upkeep and administration of the parish and rates for repairs to the church building being charged at a similar level. In the late 18th and early 19th century W. Hammond of St. Albans Court was the largest single rate payer.
The main Nonington parish Poor House, now Yew Tree Cottage, was in Church Street and was purchased by the Vestry in 1777 from a Mr. Knott for £.100.00. The money for the initial purchase and necessary alterations was borrowed from a Mr. Bushell and not repaid until the 1820’s. The original premises and accompanying land formed part of the rectangle of land enclosed by banks, possibly dating from medieval times and still very visible, stretching along the west side of Church Street from Yew Tree Cottage to the junction of Church Street with Butter Street
In 1819 an Act of Parliament amended previous Acts and made parish vestries responsible for choosing a committee of twelve prominent people to administer the Poor House and appoint an overseer to run it. From its initial meeting on June 3rd, 1819, the Nonington committee met on alternate Thursdays at The White Horse at either ‘eleven of the clock in the fore-noon’ or at ‘six of the clock in the afternoon’ . Absentees from the meetings were fined 1/- (one shilling or 5 new pence, then half a days wage for a farm labourer) for missing a morning meeting, and 6d (sixpence or 2 1/2 pence) for missing an evening one. After “The Hawks Head”, as “The White Horse” became in 1826, closed in early 1832 the meetings were held at The Royal Oak in The Drove (lower Holt Street).
When the special Vestry was instituted in 1819 the following allowances were paid to the poor:
A married man with a wife but no child; 9/- per week.
A married man with a wife with up to three children; 9/- plus 2/- per child per week.
A married man with a wife with more than three children; 9/- plus 3/- per child up to three, over three children 1/6d per additional child per week.
The Poor House premises became seriously over-crowded and at the Vestry meeting of 1st. February, 1822, it was decided to build six cottages for the use of the poor on Poor House land further along Church Street. These were built by Messrs. Spanton, Nash and Maxted, local bricklayers and carpenters, at a cost of about £185. The site of these cottages is now occupied by a bungalow, a detached house and a pair of semi-detached houses. At about the same time the main Poor House building was converted into eight individual dwellings, the idea being that the some of the poor, especially families, would be more able to support themselves if they occupied their own dwelling instead of living communally in the Poor House.
The Vestry meeting of 21st February 1822 appointed Thomas Clarinbould and wife, Harriet, to superintend the Poor House at a salary of £30.00 per annum. Part of their duties was to instruct the inmates in weaving and so the house began to produce woven goods for sale locally where products such as hop pockets (hop sacks) would have find a ready market. Hemp had been grown in Nonington since Saxon times and provided the yarn for weaving the fabric to make many everyday items including clothing.
Many old documents refer to hemp plots and several field names recorded on the 1839 and 1859 Nonington parish tithe maps indicated their having been used to grow hemp, although large scale cultivation had declined by the early part of the 19th century as cheap foreign produced hemp became more readily available after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The parish also had plenty of ponds suitable for “retting” or soaking the hemp to free the fibre for use in rope making or weaving.
Poor House records show that inmates were well fed for the times. Purchases of beef; pork; fresh fish such as herring and mackerel; and vegetables were made to supplement food and livestock produced on the house’s own land. Able bodied male paupers, both adults and children, were often employed in the Poor House’s gardens to provided food for the inmates. Pigs were raised on the premises with some of these reaching weights of 20 score (400 lbs/ 185 kgs) or more. Payments for their slaughter and butchering are frequently recorded, as are payments for cheese and butter.
A doctor was paid an annual retainer to treat inmates, whilst midwifery and nursing assistance were paid for on an individual basis. There were also individual payments to old women from the parish for laying out the dead, payments for shaving and cutting the hair of inmates and for the employment of a teacher for the younger paupers.
Parishioners living in their own dwellings and eligible for poor relief received money from the parish for varying periods, usually due to illness or unemployment. Assistance was also given to unmarried mothers and widows.
The Nonington Poor House was in general very humane for the times, Vestry minutes show clearly written instructions to those running the house that any persons entering therein should be washed and given good, clean clothing and be fed good wholesome food and that those inmates leaving the house should also be clean and well clad.
Suitable female paupers were employed in the House or hired out as servants. Young girls going into service were provided with an outfit of clothing whilst young males were apprenticed with the Parish providing the necessary funds to pay for the apprenticeship.
The Vestry gave financial assistance to some poor Nonington parishioners to emigrate. The minutes for the meeting of 25th March, 1830, record that John Plumptre Esq. of Fredville loaned the Vestry the sum of £115.0.0. for the purpose of sending some poor parishioners to North America, most likely Canada. The debt was to be repaid by the Parish at the rate of £15 p.a. plus £4 per cent p.a. Full repayment was not made for many years and cost the parish several times the initial loan before the debt was eventually discharged.
Not long after Mr. Clarinbould’s appointment the committee decided to farm out the running of the house with the overseer contracted to feed and clothe the inmates for 4/8d per week per head. In return for doing this he received the income generated by the inmates from products they made and from their being hired out to work with safeguards put in place to prevent any unfair exploitation of the hired out workers.
Inmates were often employed to repair the roads in the parish, road repair and maintenance being the responsibility of the parish, in return for poor relief but were hired out to wealthier parishioners at fixed rates of pay. Adult paupers received 2/- (10 pence) and boys six pence (2 1/2 pence) per day which they initially were allowed to keep, but after the “farming out” of the Poor House’s administration their wages were kept by the overseers and put towards the cost of paupers upkeep. During periods of high unemployment wealthier rate payers were obliged to employ those on poor relief, with the number they had to employ calculated by the amount of parish rates paid, a system which was not to the satisfaction of all in the parish.
In 1834 the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws compiled a report for presentation to Parliament in which William Osmund Hammond (1790-1863), J.P., of St. Alban’s Court wrote:
“There are at this time (May) 12 or 15 able men disengaged in this parish. The thrashing is over sooner than usual, owing to a deficient crop. The woods are cleared, and pea-hoeing is also finished. The men out of work are allowed at the rate of 6 s. for man and wife, with 1 s. a head for children. Under the circumstances, the following plan has been adopted:—A married man, having two children, receives 8 s. from the poor-rate. He takes at the vestry a ticket inscribed with the name of an occupier in the parish. For this person he is required to work four days, and the employer is pledged to set him at no necessary or essential occupation. This reservation must be obviously ineffectual. The remaining two days the man is at liberty to earn anything elsewhere if he can. The tickets are allotted by rotation. The system cannot be justified on principle or practice. So long as it lasts, necessary work will wait for the turn of a ticket man. The land will become foul, the labourer half employed and half paid, and the parish imposed upon.”
Mr. Hammond was at that time the largest contributor to the Nonington Parish Poor Rate and therefore had a vested interest in the distribution of poor relief in Nonington described above
Following the report to Parliament, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 formed parishes into unions which took over the responsibility from individual parishes of looking after the poor. Nonington joined the Eastry Union which came into being on 27th April, 1835. The Eastry workhouse stood on the western outskirts of Eastry, and after is closure as a workhouse in the 1930′s it became a hospital which closed in the 1990′s. The main buildings have now been demolished.
Each parish sent its poor to ‘the Spike’, as the workhouse was better known, with the costs of looking after them met by rates levied on the Union’s composite parishes.
After Nonington joined the Eastry Union the Vestry was allowed to sell the Poor House properties to clear the large debts attached to them. A note in the Vestry book records the properties as: “The late workhouse now converted into six cottages, also six other cottages and two other cottages (in Easole), each of the cottages has a good garden of 20 perches (one eighth of an acres or 605 sq. yards) except the last two which have no garden”. The Easole cottages had previously been rented out at 2/- (10 pence) a week. The Vestry meeting of 8th January, 1836, agreed to sell the all the Poor House premises and on 3rd. November of that year they were auctioned by Messrs. White and Gauldon, Auctioneers. The late workhouse made £150.00, the six nearby cottages in Church Street £220 and the gardenless Easole Street Cottages £.31.00. The Easole Cottagesbecame part of the St. Alban’s estate and were bought by Harvey’s the seed merchants when the estate was sold off in 1938, and were used for storage until their demolition in the mid-1950′s.
The main Poor House premises in Church Street were shown on 1839 tithe map as belonging to Mr. Spanton and in total consisted of fourteen occupied cottages; eight were in the main building and six in the adjacent Poor House cottages. The eight cottages in the present Church Street Row appear to have been built in the early 1850′s on the land between the main house and Poor House cottages. The thatched Poor House Cottages were partly demolished in the early 1960’s, and the remains became the house next to “Jubilee”, a bungalow built on the remainder of the site in the 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, hence the name.