The Condition Of The Poor In Rural Brentford

By David Shavreen

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)

The Elizabethan Poor Law was the first great attempt to deal with deep-seated poverty that was almost a condition of being a labourer in the countryside. It set the pattern that was to be followed, with some variations, for the next two hundred years. It made the parish responsible for the care of its own poor. Those ready, willing and able to work were to be provided for, as far as possible, within the parish. The sick and aged were to be paid pensions and could stay in their own homes. The active were to go to Houses of Correction where they were to be found suitable employment, but idle rogues and vagabonds who had no claim on the parish were to be whipped and sent back to their own parish.

There were no exceptions for women and children who were frequently beaten with the same energy as was expended on the men. In 1699 for example Anne Roberts, a vagrant about 40 years of age with three children, was whipped publicly according to law, and in 1723 the justices at the Middlesex Sessions ordered that Ann, alias Mary, Price was to be whipped from the Red Lion in Old Brentford to the Three Pigeons in New Brentford.

A sketch of Brentford, drawn in 1821 but apparently meant to depict how the town looked in 1669. It probably shows the Brent with St Lawrence’s church behind. (Chiswick Local Studies Library)

The starving could be beaten for stealing grain from the fields. As early as 1652 the effect of the Civil War is reflected in a case presented to the Petty Sessions. Charles Sparkes and Robert Cromwell who were local farmers testified that Anne, wife of Francis Greenaway, had cut off ears of wheat amounting to half a bushel from their fields. The judges ordered that she and her two children should be whipped. The husband protested that ‘he would hang up his children at the Constable’s door’ rather than they should be whipped for stealing corn; for which he was promptly sent to prison. This defence of property vital to the land-owning classes and by them incorporated in the doctrine of human rights, too frequently meant that the poor starved, and in times of scarcity men and women died of hunger in Brentford in the fields and barns of the wealthy, their corpses being transferred to the workhouse to await burial.

The wealthy grappled as best they could with the inconvenience of the poor. They founded charities furnishing sea-coals, clothing, pensions, even medical treatment and they left money for apprenticing boys and girls to some trade, such as fishing, gardening or butchery.

Plague & Smallpox
When calamity in the form of plague struck the township there was, however, little to be done and whole families perished. Medical knowledge was still in its infancy. Sanitation was lacking, housing was for the most part primitive, dirt and uncleanliness were rampant, food and water contaminated, so that for most people life was nasty, brutish and short. In May 1625 plague came to Brentford. The Registers record the deaths of Jethro Thomas, John Thomas and his wife and the sickness of their daughter Margaret. John Clarke, his wife and his daughters also succumbed. Plague broke out again in 1636 and in 1665 two soldiers were thought to have brought the Great Plague from London to an inn called the Half Way House in Old Brentford whence it spread to the neighbouring parishes so that there was scarcely a family that was not affected and plague pits gave the name of Dead Men’s Graves to the fields beyond Green Dragon Lane.

In New Brentford the Vestry borrowed from a charitable trust to build a Pest House but poor women on pain of losing their pensions were compelled to nurse the sick in their own homes. The old women who carried out these duties had no training or qualifications and almost invariably their patients died. Like Dickens’s Sarah Gamp they were often in league with the undertakers so that their efforts almost invariably were followed by coffins and funerals. A typical entry in the accounts for 1709 runs:

Paid Jos. Wardens bill for burying Widdow Hobbs .. .5s 6d
Paid Goodwife Perry for looking after her when sick … 1s 6d
Paid Goodwife Loader for watching and drink at her funeral … 5s 0d
Paid Armstrong for her coffin … 5s 6d
Paid Mrs Patridge for laying a woman at Dean’s … 5s
Paid for a shroud and for wine and spice for the woman that died at Dean’s … 5s 0d

The Plague died out at the end of the 17th century as brown rats replaced the black rats which carried the plague. The foremost scourge then was small-pox. Easily transmitted, outbreaks brought lines of coffins even into the church itself so that in 1720 the Churchwardens of Ealing proclaimed ‘it is ordered and agreed that for the future no persons that dye of the small pox or any other infectious diseases shall be, when they are brought to be buried, carryed into the Church in time of Divine Service’.

Nursing such cases was itself a threat to the life of the nurse. Most had no alternative since their pitiful pensions depended on compliance but early in the century in New Brentford a man with the symptoms of small pox was put on a wagon and taken to Southall but was sent back again since Southall refused to accept him as one of theirs. Reluctantly the local surgeon Mr Drinkwater was sent for and a nurse was ordered but no sooner did she discover the nature of the case than she took fright and fled and by way of compensation the patient was paid a guinea ‘since his nurse left him’. The disease was endemic and there was scarcely an adult who reached maturity whose face did not exhibit the ugly pitting that marked all who survived.

Infant Deaths

Kew Bridge and The Hollows, Brentford (Chiswick Local Studies Library)

That they survived at all was something of a miracle for the high rate of infant mortality can scarcely be believed. To judge from the Bills of Mortality nearly 40% of deaths in London between 1700 and 1750 were deaths among children under two years old. In many cases it was due to the lamentable behaviour of parents who, to avoid the tiresome business of feeding their own infants, farmed them out to impoverished nursing mothers whose habit of supplying their own milk to other than their own babies and supplementing it from time to time with gin or stale crusts soaked in water soon put an end to the brief lives of their own children and those they nursed. Older children too, especially those chargeable to the parish, were exported. The parish of Marylebone sent children to Old Brentford where the care they received was of a kind that was expected soon to relieve the former parish of its responsibilities.

Amongst such nurses was an impoverished man, John Elisha Goody, who in 1700, had needed Mr Roberts the surgeon to set a broken arm for one of his ‘nursechildren’ . Even a hundred years later the practice continued with unhappy consequences for the local inhabitants for in 1806 the parish clerk of Ealing was ordered to write to St Marylebone stating that ‘children who are put out to nurse in Brentford damaged the property of farmers and others, didn’t attend church and were allowed by their nurses to beg’. As they grew older their miseries trailed after them. Poor girls were often put out to service where they sought desperately for a man as a companion or provider, but too often these latter proved too poor or too unfaithful to take on the responsibility of wife and children. Their amorous masters and their amorous sons thought of them not merely as servants but as legitimate prey and in the 18th century the country was awash with bastard children. Sometimes they were left outside the doors of inns like the Three Pigeons or the houses of wealthy citizens or parish officers and sometimes left in a basket, like Moses, in the High Street as happened in Brentford on at least one occasion. Such foundlings were christened and named by the parish after the places in which they had been found such as James Brentford and Mary Butts.

In 1724 the Ealing Vestry complained of the casual relief of ‘big bellied women, soldiers with passes and persons who have no real settlement in the said parish’ claiming that it led to the great impoverishment of their own poor.

The soldiers were the victims of the many wars that raged throughout the century. Wellington said of his men ‘Some of them enlisted from having got bastard children, some for minor offences, many more for drink’. Hated by the general public as a threat to every free Englishman and his daughters they were too often discharged penniless at the end of a campaign, often with their wives and children, and made to go begging for their support. Pages of the Poor Law Accounts are devoted to the meagre payments of 2d or 3d a family, given them as they trudged, often sick and ill, down the High Road to and from London.

The Workhouse
For the locals there was always the Workhouse. In the 1620s there was a House of Correction in New Brentford. By 1751 it was known as the Poor House and, after enlargement in 1756, as the Workhouse. It veered from being a lodging house for the unemployed towards becoming a workshop for spinning wool and finally for being the last resort of deserted children and the elderly infirm. It stood south of St Lawrence’s on the banks of the Brent river and adequately fitted the description of such places in ‘Oliver Twist’. There was not much work done, the food was poor, the inhabitants were unruly and stole the bed-linen and the regime of restrictions and religion led to outbreaks of rioting. The master, on occasion, took liberties with the girls, and poor children who constituted the largest number of inhabitants were sometimes hustled without benefit of priest or doctor into unmarked graves. Control changed as the parish, encumbered with increasing numbers of the unemployable, tried to farm the problem out to individuals hoping to make a profit, but finally returning it in despair to the parish. In 1838 several Middlesex parishes combined to build the Union workhouse in Isleworth and the Brentford building was sold.

Early attempts to bring about change failed because private philanthropy was limited by the absence of hard cash and by a view of society that following the hymn, saw sinful man as requiring the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Not till all men were seen as equal in the sight of God was there any real impetus to change the wretched condition of the poor.

Probably the two most powerful manifestations of this new spirit were the development of a more enlightened education and the provision of clean water and treatment of sewage. In Old Brentford employment came with the development of timber yards, soap factories and potteries all run by wealthy chapel-goers whose British School soon became the envy of the country. The Grand Junction Water Works Company by the middle of the century was providing, for the first time, clean water for men and beasts where hitherto the townsfolk had dipped for water into the none too pure Brent and Thames. These changes were laying the foundations of that revolution that was to transform what had been described as the filthiest town in England into a place fit for humans to live in.

David Shavreen lives in Brentford and has long been interested in its history. He is retired after 40 years in the teaching profession, mainly teaching in schools in Brentford and Chiswick.

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