Kicking Out the Poor

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Great Wishford, Wiltshire, scene in the 1580s of a crackdown on gleaning and wool-picking.

In 1625, the Northumberland village of Dilston decided to throw out some of its inhabitants. ‘It is ordered’, notes the record of the village court, ‘that those whose names are hereafter recited shall depart out of the town betwixt this and Whitsuntide’, or else they would face a fine of 20s. If they could not pay, then whoever harboured them would have to stump it up. The court then listed nine people, in four households, who were to be forced out.

A couple of years later, the village again purged itself, this time ten people in six households. The only overlap between the two lists was one Christopher Carr and his wife. It seems that the rest had left as they were told to.

Such orders were, as it happens, quite common. Manor-level courts like that of Dilston were starting to disappear in the seventeenth century, but before they did, they can often be seen throwing poor inhabitants – usually either lodgers or subtenants – out beyond their bounds. That they did so is especially interesting, because unlike under the Elizabethan Poor Law, which was regulated from above and ultimately enshrined in both statute and case law, manor-level courts had much more freedom to treat the poor as they saw fit. They are the authentic voices of the communities they represented.

Take the manor of Holnest, in Dorset’s Blackmore Vale, for example. Holnest seems to have had a serious problem with such undesirables in 1590, and that year no fewer than eleven individuals were fined for not kicking out subtenants on their land. At West Challow and Petwick in the Vale of White Horse, Thomas Merivall was told in 1607 to remove a stranger child, or be fined the swingeing sum of £5 (this was roughly enough to feed two people for a year). In Penrith in 1623, three local men were fined half a shilling each ‘for harbouring poor folks’. Such cases give the lie to any cosy notions of ‘community’ in the historical world we have lost.

Poverty wasn’t the only reason for forcing someone out, either. A bad reputation could be enough. In 1548, Widworthy in Devon fined Nicholas Locke for harbouring Agnes Pisscot alias Alchyld, ‘who is of evil behaviour and tongue’, to the ‘nuisance of his neighbours’. In 1556, John Sawter was hauled before the court at Iwerne Minster in Dorset for keeping Isabel and Anna Falias in his house. They were ‘of bad reputation and disturbers of the peace’. Keeping such a tenant was – in the minds of the court – a bit like having a dangerous dog.

Such orders can be found in the next century, too. Thomas Sewell was fined at Penrith in 1624 for ‘harbouring divers bad persons’. Four years later James Broughton of Grafton Regis in Northamptonshire was relieved of two shillings ‘for oppressing the town by taking in bastards and taking Frances Lucke an inmate into his house and marrying her with one of those bastards’.

In fact, being poor and having a ‘bad reputation’ were two moral failings that could shade into each other. At Widworthy, tenants were told in 1552 to refrain from harbouring either subtenants, or vagrants ‘of ill repute’. Over a century later in 1660, Amesbury Earls in Wiltshire presented Anne Burt to its court for having ‘lately harboured diverse rogues vagabonds and idle persons’.

A smaller number of manors adopted more benevolent policies, at least towards the classic ‘deserving poor’. At Alston Moor and Garrigill in Cumberland, even as late as 1685, neighbours were ordered to ‘harbour and keep such poor people within the parish’ that were ‘either so aged or infirm or so young’ that they could not wander in search of alms themselves. Anyone who refused was either to pay them sixpence towards lodgings, or to be fined 6s 8d.

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The manor of Dilston (Northumberland) lists the people it wants out, 1625.

Dilston, with whom we started, acted to protect the rights of their own poor, even as they drove away outsiders. In 1623, a year of great hardship in the north, Dilston’s court had appointed two men ‘to watch the streets coming to the town’ for ‘all such travelling people and especially the poor’, but they were to make an exception for those poor ‘allowed to be relieved in this parish’. The court even allowed ‘some impotent poor person’, who ‘chanced to be nighted near this town’ to be lodged, so long as the Lord of the manor gave consent.

More often, a compromise was reached whereby a subtenant was allowed to stay so long as their landlord provided a bond to ‘save the parish harmless’ in case the tenant became poor. Headington, near Oxford, for example, ordered in 1602 that no tenant was to take an ‘inmate or undertenant’ unless he offer a bond ‘to save the parish harmless of all such charge as may come to the town on his continuance’.

But as time went on, another set of rules were aimed at restricting the rights of the poor: this time not even necessarily the migrant poor.

These saw customary practices either tightly regulated, or even banned altogether. Such traditional rights as gleaning (where the poor would collect discarded grain after the harvest), or wool-picking (where they gathered tufts of wool that had fallen from sheep), were curtailed. In 1565, householders at Iwerne Minster were ordered not to ‘suffer any of his family to pick any wool abroad in the field or in any man’s fold’ from the feast of All Saints to that of St John the Baptist. At Great Wishford near Salisbury, gleaning and gathering weeds on other peoples’ land were banned in 1583. In 1588, the court listed those fined for gleaning against the order. ‘Thomas Folkes, his wife and iiii children’, ‘John Sprigg’s boy’, ‘George Smelgar’s child’. Ten fines were made, covering a total of nineteen villagers. In 1590, the Oxfordshire manor of Ascot D’Oyley reported no fewer than twenty locals for gathering peas or gleaning wheat. At Grasmere in Westmorland, the wife of Thomas Hawkrigg was even fined sixpence in 1638 for picking up manure on the common.

Manor-level courts were dominated by landholding tenants: the wealthier end of the peasant spectrum in other words. It is – by and large – the attitudes of these men that we are seeing. They are, of course, the same men who were managing the increasingly expansive system of poor relief that was just emerging, and they are often the same people who were leaving sums of money to the local poor in their wills, or tossing coins into the poor box in the parish church.

It is sometimes said that you can tell most about a society from attitudes to its most vulnerable members. The story of exclusion told by many village courts like the ones here reminds us that focusing on charity, or on formal poor relief, is but part of the story.

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