Serving God, Serving our Community

Poor Law

The earliest Tudor Poor Laws were very much focused on punishing beggars and vagabonds to deter idleness. For example, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494 passed by Henry VII decreed that idle persons should be placed in the stocks and then returned to the hundred where he last dwelled or was born.  The Tudor Poor Laws ended with the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601.  This legislation codified the previous Tudor legislation.

The Poor Act 1552 created Registers of the Poor and parishes gained the power to raise local taxes through rates.  However, help was only available to those considered deserving of poor relief. The deserving poor were those who were willing to work but were unable to find employment as well as those too old, young, or ill to work. Beggars were not considered deserving.  The 1572 Vagabonds Act provided comprehensive reform that would become the basis for the 1598 and 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws. It provided additional structure for the registration of poor and parish collections.  Queen Elizabeth I’s 1563 ‘Act For the Relief of the Poor’ required all parish residents to contribute to poor collections, and further provided for the punishment of refusal to contribute. The role of the parish was at its most important from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth in keeping order, relieving distress, settling disputes and maintaining an infrastructure without which society could not easily have functioned.  Canon law required the parishioners to elect churchwardens who would administer the affairs of the church and, by an inevitable extension of this duty, undertake a whole range of secular functions. They came to elect the constable, the overseers of the poor and the surveyors of highways.  Both custom and canon law dictated that those elected should serve their term without payment, and at the end of their period of office should account to their public for their management of what had been entrusted to them.  In the small community of the parish most men could expect to hold some kind of office for a year or two, and many were called upon to serve as wardens of the church at one time and as constable or overseer of the poor at another.

The 1662 Settlement Act stated that a person had to have a ‘settlement’ in order to obtain relief from a parish. This could be secured by:- birth in the parish; marriage (in the case of a woman); working in the parish for a year and a day.  If a labourer moved away from his parish of origin in search of work the JPs issued him with a certificate of settlement saying that if the man fell on hard times his own parish would receive him back and pay for him to be ‘removed’.

The Workhouse Test Act 1723, was introduced by Sir Edward Knatchbull.  This amended the Laws relating to the ‘Settlement, Imployment and Relief of the Poor’ and allowed the establishment of workhouses where poor relief would be provided. This could be done either by an individual parish or through the combining of a number of neighbouring parishes which would share the cost: parishes had the authority to rent or buy appropriate accommodation.  Between 1723 and 1750, about 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales.  It was during this time that Frittenden established its workhouse at Charity Farm.

Frittenden’s Workhouse shortly before its closure with the creation of the Cranbrook Poor Law Union
Frittenden’s Workhouse shortly before its closure with the creation of the Cranbrook Poor Law Union

The legislation also marked the first appearance of the ‘workhouse test’ – that anyone who applied for relief would have to enter the workhouse where s/he would be obliged to undertake set work in return for relief. The principle was that entering the workhouse should be a deterrent.  Only the truly desperate would apply to ‘the house’. This was also the principle adopted under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.  Gilbert’s Act of 1782 allowed groups of parishes to form unions and build joint poor-houses for the totally destitute, in order to share the cost of poor relief through ‘poor houses’ which were established for looking after only the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers were excluded from these poor-houses.

The Vestry, also known as the Parish Council, was chaired by the Parish Minister and made up of various worthy members of the Parish. It had acquired power over the government of the Parish, in conjunction with JP’s. The closed meeting was the select governing body of the Parish whilst the open vestry meeting was of less importance and open to all inhabitants.  The vestry has medieval antecedents, having been established at least as early as the 14c to manage church affairs, but in the early modern period it became a general administrative body.  It is no coincidence that as the vestry grew in importance, the manor declined as an institution.  The right to set parish rates to finance the work of its officials and to hold them to account at the end of the period of office gave the vestry undoubted prestige.  Its influence only declined in 1834 when the administration of the poor law was assumed by Boards of Guardians.  In 1894 it was finally replaced as a unit of civil administration by the parish councils which took over its work.

Michael Zell [Industry in the Countryside (1994)] estimates the population of Frittenden in the 1560s to be about 400 based on the Parish Registers [Transcripts of which are held in the Cranbrook Museum Archives].  In an analysis of probates, Michael Zell, looking at those for Frittenden combined with Cranbrook, concluded that Cranbrook and Frittenden had rather more than the average number of wealthy inventories (valued at £60 or over), at 35%, and lower than average numbers of ‘poor’ inventories 9, 24%.

In 1566, Thomas Idenden’s will established a charity for the poor of Frittenden.  It was common practice after the dissolution of the monasteries for people to establish charities to provide relief to the poor of a particular parish.  Kent, where religious houses and the church held some 40% of the land at the time of Domesday, was particularly well endowed.  Thomas left the farm and farmhouse to be administered by 6 Feoffees (trustees) the income from which was to be used to alleviate poverty within the parish.

Frittenden’s Vestry Minutes and Overseers’ Accounts record the working of the Poor Law in the Parish.  These are held at the Kent County Archives [P152 · Date: 1573-1928 ; P152/8/4 · Date: 1832-1885; P152/8/3 · Date: 1832-1896].

Between 1800 and 1827 the following acted as Overseers of the Poor Law in Frittenden:

1800         Robt Pyall                  Thos Day

1801         Henry Burden           William Barham

1802         David Hope               Stephen Hills

1803         William Taylor          William Pullen

1804         Wm Tolhurst             John Sotherden

1805         James Hickmott       Thos Simmons

1806         David Southon          Richd Cox

1807         William Taylor          John Samson

1808         Saml Oliver                Thos Bates

1809         Thos Bates                Robt Orpin

1810         Robt Orpin                 John Munk

1811         John Munk                 James Ottaway

1812         Stepn Hickmott        Wm Hickmott

1813         John Munk                 Wm Hickmott

1814         Thos Day                    David Hope

Thomas Growns       Bejamin Offen

Edward Turrell          John East

1815         Henry Burden           Stephen Hills

William Gilbert         Samuel Southon

Benjamin Offen        Edward Turrell

1816         Henry Burden           Stephen Hills

John Sotherden        Thomas Growns

William Gilbert         Samuel Southon

1817         Stephen Hills             John Sotherden

Thomas Growns       Thomas Boorman

William Pullen          Thomas Hope

1819         David Southon          Richard Cox

John Samson             John Sotherden

James Carpenter      Jeremiah Latham

1820         Thos Simmonds        David Southon

Edward Daynes        Richard Cox

John Samson             James Hickmott sen.

1824         Wm Taylor                Wm Croucher

1825         John Gransbury        Thomas Hickmott

1826         John Jennings            David Dobell

1827         Edward Munk           Thos Boorman

It is of note that some of those appointed were, unusually, not members of the Anglican Community, and thus would not normally be entitled to attend the Vestry Meeting, but instead attended dissenting churches.  Notable among these were the Hickmott family who attended the Tilden Chapel, Smarden, and who were to own the Strict Baptist Chapel, Pound Hill, Frittenden and provided the land and funded the building of the chapel at Bounds Cross.

The increase in the number of Overseers from 1815 to 1820 probably reflects the depths of the agricultural and economic depression following the Battle of Waterloo and the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The Overseers’ records also show recipients of ‘Outdoor’ Poor Relief, i.e. to those not in the workhouse.  They are differentiated between ‘casual’, i.e. ad hoc payments, and weekly payments, i.e. long-term recipients.  For example, for 2 May 1800 Thos King was described as ‘in want’ and received 3s (15p?).

The payment of 4s (20p) to Dame Hope for schooling suggests that there was a ‘Dame’ school in Frittenden funded by the parish, the National Schools (today Frittenden School) did not come into being until 1845.

The Overseers’ also recorded payments such as wages paid, costs of bringing in specialist workers onto the workhouse farm, e.g. plowing [sic], drying hops etc.

The Parish also functioned as the ‘social services’ at this time with the Overseers’ accounts recording to Hills £6 ‘for keeping Sarah Deans one year up to Michaelmas 1800’.  Clearly a payment for a family to maintain a child from another family, much akin to fostering today.

The Poor Law Assessments from 1828-33 show that some 70 people in Frittenden were described as paupers, in a parish of only nnn households.  Of these 36 were described as labourers.  Only 5 women were recorded as paupers.  Assessments also listed those who paid the Poor Rate and indicated the qualification for payment, i.e. house, shop, land etc.

Following from the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, Frittenden became part of the Cranbrook Union.  As a result the Union Workhouse was erected at Hartley, Cranbrook.  In turn, as a consequence in ‘1836 July 19 at a vestry holden in the Church by public notice to take into consideration wether it is advisable to carry on the parish farm or dispose of it.  Further resolved to lett out from five to eight acres in allotments of 1 quarter of an acre to Labourers in the parish’.

The Poor who lived outside of the Workhouse were divided between the Permanent List, of which Frittenden had 9, and the casual recipients who might receive one-off payments or who might be placed in the Workhouse [House] at Hartley.  In addition, where a person was on relief but was not ‘settled’ in the Parish, the cost of their relief could be claimed from the parish where they were settled.

One example of someone on permanent Poor Relief in their home (Outdoor Relief) was:

8       Alfred Daynes (63) of White House.  He was married to Mary Ann (55).  He was a farm labourer but was ill.  Two sons, Ernest and Frank were unable to assist their parents.  Alfred received 5s from Poor Relief plus a further 8s from the Providence Club.


In the era of the New Poor Law, the Commissioners were keen to promote emigration and in 1836-47 Kent accounted for as many as 2,451 of the 9,504 assisted passages from the whole of England and Wales, mainly to Australia and Canada.  The likelihood is that for Kent and for the nation as a whole, most private departures were to the United States.  This was certainly the destination of some of the parish sponsored emigrants from Frittenden.  The Vestry records regularly show consideration of methods of funding emigration during this period.  In May 1834, £10 was advanced to Horatio Ottaway towards paying his passage to ‘Newyork’ and to advance him a further sum of £5-17-6 on sundry bills which the overseers had the power to collect.  In May 1838 the Vestry agreed to assist 57 inhabitants to ‘america’ and in 1839 the parish met the expense of sending out seven families, a total of 39 people, to the USA at a cost of £5 12s 10d per head plus other expenses at a total cost to the parish of £273 3s 0d raised by a special rate.  The 1840s saw ten persons assisted to go to New Zealand at a cost of £3 per head (1840-1) and 13 to Canada (1843), at £5-13s-4d.  This must have been a particularly difficult period.  Apart from various individual cases, the Minutes of the Guardians of the Poor Law record an order for the Parish of Frittenden to borrow the Sum of £13 to be applied for the purposes of Emigration in February 1842 and this was followed in September by the Overseers of Frittenden reporting that they had, under the authority of the Poor Law Commissioners, raised the sum of £30.  This sum was to be credited to a separate “Frittenden Emigration account”.   Perhaps the last large funding of emigration occurred in April 1844 when the Clerk laid before the Guardians copy resolutions transmitted by the Parish Officers of Frittenden to raise £63 to be applied for Emigration purposes.

It is not clear that Frittenden was exceptionally energetic in pursuing this policy by comparison with its neighbours.  Indeed, the opposite may be true.  But it should be kept in mind that it was only the assisted passages which came within the purview of these records.  Most privately-funded emigration from Britain, it is generally agreed, was directed towards the United States, and in the round, it was estimated by the Revd. Moore in 1851, ‘some 200 souls’ must have emigrated to America from Frittenden during the course of the previous 30 years [Frittenden’s Parish Book].

An echo of these movements, and one which might suggest that they were not always permanent came in 1867 when James Hickmott’s diary records

         As I was going home unexpectedly met with one of my old school fellows.  namely George Relf.  whom I had not seen for more than, Forty Years as he had left this Land in youth and Emigrated to America but now returned [Kent Archives Ref: U1334/F1-4, Diary of James Hickmott, June 16 1867].

The poor were also supported by small sums paid out by the Feoffees of the Idenden Charity.  These sums were small but could make a significant difference to those in receipt of them.  The main payment was made in the week before Christmas, but the Feoffees, often the Churchwardens and/or the Poor Law Overseers, could make payments at any time if distress could be demonstrated.

Frittenden was also part of the self-help movement with the creation of the Provident Society in 1839 whereby working men could put money in weekly as a form of insurance when they were unable to work through injury or ill health.  This Society achieved a membership of some 220 working men.


The information on this page has been kindly provided by the Frittenden Historical Society.