Margaret Diggle

“An orphan of a workhouse – the humble, half-starved drudge – to be cuffed and buffeted through the world – despised by all and pitied by none”.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Our view of the nineteenth century workhouse is inevitably coloured by Dicken’s savage attack with its indelible image of Oliver asking for more.  The sufferings of the paupers are represented as the result of sadistic cruelty on the part of the officials; no allowance is made for conflicting pressures or good intentions gone wrong.  A study of the Chailey Guardians’ Minutes (1) kept week by week during the period when Oliver’s childhood allegedly occurred may not entirely refute Dickens’ allegations, but may give a more balanced picture.  They also throw light on life in a poverty-stricken area of East Sussex, but as Ringmer paupers went to all three houses of the Union, some reference must be made to conditions elsewhere.

Previous to the Poor Law Act of 1834 the entire responsibility for its poor rested on each parish.  An article on Ringmer Workhouse (1787-1806), based on a book containing accounts and inventories during this period, appeared recently in Sussex History (2).  This gave hints of how the poor of Ringmer fared under this earlier regime.  In 1834 the administration of the Poor Law was put into the hands of large “Unions” of parishes.  The Unions were controlled by boards of guardians who came under the central authority of three Poor Law Commissioners.  The intention was to abolish the system whereby low wages were supplemented by relief in cash, the amount depending on the price of bread and the size of the family, thus, it was believed, encouraging improvidence, and the irresponsible procreation of children.  Outdoor relief must now be kept to a minimum, and those who could not support themselves outside were to be subjected to the meagre charity of the workhouse.  Each parish did, however, retain some responsibility for its poor and had its own overseers.

Chailey Union comprised Chailey, Ringmer, Newick, Wivelsfield, Ditchling, Street, Westmeston, East Chiltington, Plumpton, Hamsey and Barcombe.  The Union was divided into two districts, Chailey and Ditchling.  Chailey district included Chailey (population 1030), Barcombe (931), Newick (724) and Ringmer (1271).

John Attree and Stephen Lowdell represented Ringmer on the Board of Guardians which first met on April 3rd 1835 under the chairmanship of the Rev. Thomas Baden Powell, vicar of Newick, and at once formed a committee to decide whether a new workhouse was to be built.  After attempts to find land for this purpose failed, it was decided to make do with the existing buildings, with alterations as necessary.  A new workhouse was not erected till forty years later.  The building at Ringmer was to be appropriated for children of both sexes (kept strictly segregated), that at Chailey to receive able-bodied males, and at Ditchling the aged of both sexes.  Able-bodied females were to be admitted to any establishment, no doubt because of the domestic help they could give.  The workhouses were to be rented by the Union from the parishes.  In 1836 there was an attempt to remove Ringmer from the Chailey Union to avoid the expense of adapting the building for the children.  The guardians pointed out that Ringmer was separated from the rest of the Union by the Ouse, and could be conveniently transferred to Firle, where there was a larger workhouse which could accommodate the school.  It was, they said, “desirable in these times when farmers are overwhelmed with expenses to be as cautious as possible in creating a debt for the building of workhouses”.

Nothing came of the scheme.  Ringmer workhouse and building were insured at the Sun Insurance Office for £400, with furniture, clothes, provisions and stores for £150, and an application was made for a loan of £300 for alterations.  But the guardians still hoped to rid themselves of their responsibility for the children’s education, and in 1838 tried unsuccessfully to unite the four Unions of Chailey, Lewes, Firle and Newhaven in the duty of receiving and educating the children.  The following year they proposed to merge the school at Ringmer with Uckfield, but the Uckfield Guardians pleaded insufficient accommodation.

It must be remembered that since 1601 paupers had been supported by a poor rate levied on all the inhabitants of a village who were not by poverty exempted.  Even agricultural labourers might be obliged to pay – a Minute of May 4, 1883 states “that there was no reason why General Washer at Ringmer should be excused paying the poor rate”. In spite of his apparent status “General” was, according to the 1841 census and the Parish Register, an agricultural labourer with an unusual first name.  The parish of Ringmer was not wealthy, and one can imagine the dismay of the parishioners when payment was requested by Mr Richard Knight’s executors of a longstanding and long forgotten debt of £170.  They asked the Poor Law Commissioners for permission to borrow the sum from the Poor Rate, but were told this was not legal, nor could they raise a mortgage on the workhouse.  Finally the Chailey guardians consented to purchase Ringmer Workhouse from the parish for the sum of £300 and thus enable the parishioners to settle the debt.

In 1839 it was agreed that the parish of Ringmer be measured, mapped, and valued for the “Parochial Assessment Act”.  Mr R Lower was appointed to perform this task, which was completed in 1840 and the map exhibited at the Anchor Inn in January 1841 “for the inspection of the landowners and occupiers”. This appears to be the Tithe Map still in existence.  In 1840 the rate-payers were given the right to inspect the Union’s accounts.  No doubt they exercised a strong and steady pressure on the guardians.

But the troubles of the guardian under the new system were not only financial.  No longer free to manage their own affairs, they were controlled by the Poor Law Commissioners who had no intimate knowledge of local problems and conditions.  They represented to their masters the difficulty of carrying out the rule that no relief be given to paupers not resident in their parishes (except in emergencies) “especially in cases where the families are extremely large and the paupers are earning largely (yet not sufficiently wholly to keep them) in a species of employment which they cannot carry on in their own parishes”. There were four such families with settlements in Ringmer. Then there were the children who “according to the long established practice of parishes in this neighbourhood have been ‘put out’ on a yearly hireling”. The Commissioners were firm that for children an allowance for clothes could be made, but “on no account a weekly payment of money”, and that after the present contracts expired no premium could be given.  Relief in aid of wages to all able-bodied men non-resident in their parish was to be discontinued; relief to bastards must be limited to 1s. 6d. a week, and only given in kind if the child remained with its mother.

The determination of the Poor Law Commissioners to cease to supplement wages from the poor rate and as far as possible give relief inside rather than outside the workhouse was bound to cause difficulty; yet in February 1837 the guardians resolved “that it is the unanimous opinion of the Board that the beneficial effects of the Poor Law Amendment are amply proved not only by the great reduction in the sums levied for the relief of the poor (3) but, which is more important, by the improved moral and physical conditions of the poor themselves”. The Board supported the petition to be presented by the Duke of Richmond in the House of Lords and by Mr Cavendish and Mr Curteis in the House of Commons asking Parliament not to take any measures to alter the efficiency of the Poor Law Act.

The paupers of Ringmer had a different opinion and did not settle peacefully for the new regime.  The relieving officer Mr Awcock Bull (who did not live up to his formidable name) reported that on May 22nd, 1835, “on entering his duties at Ringmer he was interrupted by violence in the performance of his duty and that being put in fear he was induced to pay £17. 13s. 2d. instead of £9. 15s. 6d., the amount ordered by the Board for payment in money, the paupers refusing to receive any relief in kind”. According to Lewes Quarter Sessions Rolls (4) 40 or more “unlawfully riotousy and routously assembled together”. They made “a great noise riot and disturbance”. The affair lasted for two hours “to the great disturbance and terror of residents and passersby”. The four ringleaders of the riot, James Blaber, John Trigwell, William Oliver and Joseph Ford, were committed for trial at the June Quarter Sessions.  Meanwhile their wives were allowed 3s. 6d. each with 1s. 0d. for each child per week.  The four were convicted of riotous obstruction, and the first three named condemned to eight months hard labour in the House of Correction.  Joseph Ford got off with six months (5).  The guardians were mainly concerned about the bill for the prosecution which amounted to £23. 8s. 8d.  They applied for help to the “Voluntary Association for the Preservation of the Peace” to defray the whole or part, but were told that the prosecution of the Ringmer rioters did not come within the objects of the Association.  In November “three paupers from Ringmer were admitted into Chailey Workhouse on Saturday last and they quitted without notice after remaining about 2 hours”. Furthermore on December 30th there was a riot of Ringmer paupers at Chailey.  The names and ages of the six ringleaders were:  William Martin (aged 30), Robert Seal (16), John McConechie (21), Thomas Lee (19), William Imms (24) and John Seal (19).  They were all committed to the House of Correction.  No wonder the Chailey guardians wanted to wash their hands of Ringmer.

More is reported of the family of Blaber, and of William Oliver, rioters.  Henry Blaber, aged 8, was in February 1836 moved to Ringmer Workhouse, while his sisters aged 3 and 5 went with their mother Martha Blaber to Chailey.  A year later a certain Esther Blaber was ordered to be discharged from Chailey if she continued to misconduct herself.  In July 1837 the overseers were ordered to take immediate steps to enforce the order made on Blaber for the support of his children and in September they were requested to attend the magistrate’s bench at Lewes to explain why they had not enforced this order.  This may have been James Blaber.  The final notes on this unfortunate family concern a young Blaber – the minutes omit his Christian name; the Medical Officer, Mr Verral, is asked to report more fully on the case of Blaber, the boy who was struck by Reynolds at Chailey Workhouse.  Finally in July 1840 clothing, the cost of which was not to exceed £1. 5s. 0d., was granted to Blaber on his going into service.  This may well have been Henry who would now be 12 years old.  Another of the rioters, William Oliver, absconded in May 1838 and left his wife and family chargeable to the parish.  In September a reward was offered for his apprehension, and a year later it was claimed by, and awarded to H. Jones and E. Haycock (6).

What of the guardians claim that the physical conditions of the poor were improved since the new Act came in?  Dickens in Oliver Twist depicted a Board (one presumably meant to be typical) which offered poor people the alternative of “being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it”.  They issued “three meals of thin gruel a day with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays”. The three workhouses under Chailey were rather better served.  Tenders for grocery provisions at Ringmer in 1835 were as follows: Good bacon 4½d. Greens ditto 4d., Flat Danish cheese 4½d., Pickled pork 4d., third Cork butter 8½d., Souchong tea 2s. 8d. and 3s.8d., moist  sugar 6d., 6½d., and 7d., Best London yellow soap 5½d., Salt 1s. 6d. per bushel. Probably the good bacon and the tea, at any rate the more expensive kind, were for the governor.  Clothing included Dowlas shirting, drab nankeen, blue stripe, blue baize, blue linsey, women’s and girls’ bonnets (with ribbon) at 2s 2d. each (girls’ 2s. 0d.).  A record in 1836 mentions butcher’s meat for Ringmer.  However in this year the guardians took into consideration “the necessity of making a reduction in the dietary of able-bodied paupers”.  “Dietary No 2” was adopted by the guardians, but they stipulated “discretionary power to substitute 1½ pints of gruel in lieu of cheese or butter for breakfast”. Those employed on hard work were to have an increased diet as long as the work continued but the increase, 2oz of bread at breakfast and supper, and ½oz of cheese at dinner, sounds hardly generous.  Moreover the governor of Chailey later suggested that the extra allowance was unnecessary for the men employed (for 8 hours a day) at the flour mill;  the medical officer agreed and the allowance for these workers was stopped.  At Chailey in 1838 Sunday dinner consisted of 4oz bread, ½ lb meat pudding, 1lb potatoes, and on Thursday meat pudding and potatoes with 1oz cheese but only 3oz of bread.  We do not know how much meat there was in the pudding or of what quality, but the meal sounds filling, if lacking in vitamins.  It is significant that when dietary No. 2 was adopted at Ringmer the master requested that his salary be increased.  He received an extra £12, with the proviso that he should subsist otherwise on the same rations as the children.  But one could buy a nice lot of extra food on £12 a year.  It cannot have been popular with the inmates that “smoking and the use of tobacco was not to be allowed at Chailey Workhouse”. Saddist of all, in December 1840 “it was considered not advisable that any extra allowance should be given to the paupers in the workhouses this Christmas”. What would Dickens have said to that?

The guardians were responsible for the paupers’ general health; the appointment and supervision of medical officers was part of their duty.  No officer stayed long at Ringmer until Henry Chambers Verral was appointed in March 1837 at a salary of £35 per annum.   In 1838 Chailey Union was divided into medical districts, No.2 consisting of Ringmer, Hamsey and that part of Barcombe south of the stream to the Ouse from Bevans Bridge.  Mr Verral was put in charge with an increased salary of £57. 15s.. 0d.  One of the M.O’s most important duties was vaccination.  The workhouse children were vaccinated.  In December 1836, and in April 1838 the M.O. was ordered to supply this service to the other paupers.  In 1840 there was a new Act for the extension of vaccination, and probable numbers of those who had not been done were required.  The M.O.s must now supply a service to the general public (who paid 1s. 6d. per case) as well as to the paupers, and for this purpose Mr Verral attended at Ringmer Workhouse from 2 to 3 p.m. on Mondays, while Mr Bull vaccinated on Tuesdays at his residence at Barcombe.  Other duties included ordering a special nourishment as necessary, and of course attending confinements – a nurse was rebuked for not visiting Mrs Henty after her confinement.  Mental cases were sent to Bethnal Green Asylum, but they were not forgotten.  Inquiries were made as to their condition and whether they were fit to return.  Outdoor relief was given to those temporarily incapacitated by severe colds, lumbago, diarrhoea etc.  The board kept an eye on the children, requesting Mr Verral to inform them whether proper attention was being given to apply the remedies ordered by him.

The workhouse school existed in Ringmer till 1873.  In 1835 the Rev Thomas Baden Powell was asked to make arrangement for its founding, and to obtain through the SPCK bibles, prayer books, tracts and schoolbooks for the use of the workhouses in the area.  In October Mr and Mrs Bray were appointed to be in charge, at a salary of £5 per year, Mr Bray and his daughters undertaking the tuition.  20 children’s bedsteads for two children each were purchased; and two pigs to consume the rubbish.  But apparently the pigs were not a success as three months later they were disposed of and “no more were to be purchased at the expense of the Union”. Mr Bray was not an entire success either – in May he absented himself from his duties at Ringmer and was told that in future he should not apply himself to any other business.  In the following January he gave in his notice (7) and was replaced by Mr and Mrs H Jones (at £40 per year) but they resigned in November.  Mr and Mrs Unwin (£52 per year – this was the extra £12 after the change in diet) stayed for over two years.  It was when they left that the guardians made their abortive attempt to move the children to Uckfield.  When this failed Mr Fred Shackleford aged 32, of whom more hereafter, succeded to the post, with his wife as Matron.

The task of Master cannot have been easy.  Although numbers were probably never more than half the 80 to 100 pupils (8) first envisaged for the school, age and ability would vary, and families of children enter and leave at irregular intervals.  Apart from the necessary grounding in the 3 Rs, the main aim of the education was religious and practical.  When the school was first opened letters were sent to the parochial clergy asking them to assist in the supply of books “with the earnest request that they will catechise the children and visit the sick, aged and infirm”. In August 1838 it was declared “expedient to provide for the religious education of the children in Ringmer by the appointment of a chaplain at £25 per annum, the chaplain to attend the workhouse twice a week during school hours to read morning and evening service of the Church of England and that he superintend the religious and moral education of the children in the principles and according to the forms of the Church of England and he direct the schoolmaster and schoolmistress in plans conducive to their children’s knowledge of the word of God and of their religious duties”. Previous to this the Rev Constable, vicar of Ringmer, had been responsible for the children, and at the meeting in September he was thanked for his attention to them.  However, no one applied for the office of chaplain, so presumably the Rev Constable had to continue his duties, and the guardians to reply as best they could to the letter received by the Poor Law Commissioners from Lord John Russell asking for particulars of religious instruction and of education in various parishes of the Union.  The attendance of the boys at Sunday School in Ringmer was discontinued, presumably because it was no longer considered necessary.

Practical education was important too.  The governor of Ringmer was authorized to pay a man 1s. 8d. a day to teach netting and to find someone to teach straw plaiting to the boys.  The girls were to be set to work to make clothing for the inmates.  One boy, David Ranger, was evidently specially skilled as he was sent to Lewes to teach straw plaiting to the children there.

Bu to return to Mr Shackleford, appointed governor at Ringmer in August 1839.  The governors believed they had done well in this appointment and nine months later they resolved “that the unanimous approbation of the board at the general attention of the governor and matron of Ringmer Workhouse to the instruction and management of the children of both sexes should be signified to them”. However, the following December they were disturbed by “several charges made by parents of children at Ringmer Workhouse of severe and cruel treatment by Mr Shackleford” and they took these complaints seriously enough to make an enquiry.  Considering the sort of treatment the children of the well-to-do received at this period in their schools without anyone complaining the concern shown by the guardians is to their credit.  They found, as might be expected, “some charges frivoious and others greatly exaggerated”, but, they added, “more harshness and severity has been exercised in the punishment of the children than is necessary or right and Mr Shackleford has in some instances persisted in personally chastising the girls after being directed by the guardians to desist from doing so, and had it been necessary to employ manual chastisement application should have been made to the board and the necessity proved”. Mr Shackleford was to be admonished to exercise more temper and moderation in the punishment of the children in future”.

There were other charges – a boy or boys were sent to Brighton to deliver a parcel from Mr Shackleford.  The board strongly disapproved of the boys being so employed, nor did they approve of their being taken out to accompany Mr Shackleford while shooting (the boys might have held a different opinion on this last point).  He was also ordered to discontinue cropping a portion of the garden expressly for the use of his pigs.

In spite of listing these misdemeanours the board were bound in justice to say (a) that the children had been better taught and (b) had greatly improved in manners, appearance, orderly conduct and intelligence.

The charge that he had stinted them cruelly and excessively in their meals by way of punishment was disproved by their healthy appearance.  The guardians concluded “very high testimony has been borne to Mr and Mrs Shackleford by highly respectable people living in the immediate neighbourhood”. So the Shacklefords wre not dismissed; but their future conduct is not recorded for us, as unfortunately the Minute Books between March 1841 and May 1958 are missing from the East Sussex Record Office.  Our study of the early years of Ringmer’s membership of Chailey Union must therefore come to an abrupt close at an interesting moment.  But we can take up the tale from 1858 to 1873 in a future article.

How do the Chailey guardians compare with the Board to which the wretched Oliver Twist bowed as instructed by Mr Bumble?  The eight or ten fat gentlemen on this Board had determined on a deliberate policy of starving paupers to death.  When J Ingram Esq., Vice-Chairman of the Chailey Guardians, died they declared they had “lost a kind friend and neighbour, a zealous and indefatigable guardian in whom were united the gentlest and most humane disposition with the firmest resolution to carry out the sound principles of the Poor Law”. Did Mr Ingram sometimes find his humane disposition in conflict with his zeal as a guardian? Possibly.  But there is no suggestion of sadism on the part of the guardians in the minutes.  When it occurred in Mr Shackleford’s treatment of the children they showed active concern and admonished him.  They were conscientious – only very seldom were meetings cancelled for lack of a quorum.  They may have sometimes, in obeying their Poor Law masters, been driven to harsh decisions, but they seem to have tried to balance their responsibilities to the ratepayers pockets and to the needs of the poor as fairly as they could.  Would we have done much better?

(1)   East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) G2/1a/1

(2)   Sussex History, The Journal of the Federation of Sussex Local History Societies, Vol 1 No. 8 Autumn 1979, pp 15-18.

(3)   In the minute of May 27, 1835 it is stated that the Relieving Officer for the Chailey Division paid out £40 in outdoor relief.  In the corresponding week of 1836 the sum was £19. 17s. 7d., and the next year it had dropped to £16. 18s. 2d.  However after 1837 the sum increased, and in 1839 was £39. 8s. 5d.

(4)   Midsummer Session 1835 (ESRO)  QR / E830

(5)   Quarter Sessions Record Book, 1835/6, ESRO QO / EW54 Houses of Correction were instituted in 1609 to deal with rogues and vagabonds, women with bastard children and parents who abandoned children to the parish.

(6)   Oliver was not so lucky as Thomas Shoesmith of Hamsey – the Hamsey overseers were three times ordered to deliver his children into his charge, but after appearing before the Board he got away and a reward was offered in vain. Ringmer Workhouse had to receive his children, and in the 1841 census 2 Olivers and 3 Shoesmiths are recorded as in the workhouse school.

(7)   According to the 1841 census Mr Bray was then 60 years old, and residing in Ringmer on Church Hill.

(8)   The census of 1841 shows the number of children in the school to have been 22. According to later Guardians’ Minutes (ESRO G2/1a/2 to 5) there were 37 children at the end of May 1858, and the number never rose above 50 (in Feb. 1863).