POOR LAW ADMINISTRATION 1500-1800
Poverty was one of the most important social issues that face the local community during the period 1500-1800. Paupers and beggars were a common sight in towns like Dartford. Parliament was determined to tackle the problem of poverty and pauperism at a national level. Consequently, a large number of rules and regulations were introduced aimed at helping the genuine poor and dealing harshly with those who made every effort not to work or pay their way in society.
In 1572 the office of overseer of the poor was created by parliament. Overseers were elected by the parish vestry. They supervised bequests, endowments, and other charitable funds designed to help the poor. From 1597 onwards, parishes like Dartford were given permission to levy a poor rate. Funds from the poor rate could be used to fund the building of town poorhouses, which provided food and shelter for the poor. Work was to be provided for paupers and a stock of raw material kept for this purpose. As far as possible, pauper children were to be apprenticed.
The poor rate was to be spent in four main ways. "...for setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to maintain them; for setting to work all such persons, married or unmarried, having no means to maintain them, and who use no ordinary or daily trade of life to get their living by; for providing a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wood, thread, iron and other ware and stuff to set the poor on work; and for the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them being poor and not able to work".
In 1723, single parishes were empowered to build workhouses. Small parishes could form a union with others to make them viable. By 1776, there were about 2,000 workhouses in England. Gilberts Act of 1782 further encouraged parishes to combine with others to form unions, and to appoint independent inspectors. The able-bodied poor were provided with appropriate work outside the workhouse. Work within the workhouse was only provided for those who were judged unfit to work in the community.
HELPING THE POOR IN DARTFORD
With the dissolution of the monasteries, the care and well-being of the poor of Dartford was transferred from the church authorities to local philanthropists and the overseers of the poor. Many well-off townspeople bequeathed money or property to provide funds to help the towns poor. Some created and endowed almshouses where the poor could live. In 1569, William Vaughan had a house built in the High Street for the poor of Dartford. In 1570, Jerome Warram of Dartford, a surgeon, bequeathed to the poor of Dartford his house and garden in Spital Street "...and for the lodging of poor people, three matresses, three pairs of sheets and three shred coverlets".
THE ORIGINS AND BUILDING OF THE PEACE DARTFORD WORKHOUSE
John Dunkin, Dartfords historian, writing in 1844, relates that "In 1724, the charge of maintaining the poor having become excessive by reason of their idleness and improvident management, the churchwardens and overseers resolved to erect an House of Industry [Workhouse] in Lurchins Hole (West Hill), for their maintenance and employment".
Dartfords workhouse was one of the first to be built in England. The Rev. C. Chambres, preached a sermon at the opening on 5 October 1729. He told those attending that it was their Christian duty to help the poor, but that the greater part of the poor had become used to an idle, vagabond, pilfering, drunk and lewd lifestyle. Exhorbitant sums of money had been spent on maintaining the poor. Some of the poor had reputedly used public money for criminal purposes rather than for acquiring the necessities of life.
Workhouse trustees were appointed to supervise the construction work, to appoint the workhouse master and mistress, and to scrutinize the management and administration of the workhouse on a regular basis. The number of inmates rose steadily from about a dozen in 1729 to over fifty in the 1780s.
It would appear that the inmates of the workhouse lived in reasonable comfort. There was an infirmary attached to the workhouse and townspeople who were ill used it as a hospital.
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