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Eaton Bray Parish Workhouse

This piece is taken from a document drawn up by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff for a lecture or exhibition on Eaton Bray. When the word workhouse is used people normally think of the large, grim 19th century institutions housing hundreds of people in ways not dissimilar to a prison. Such institutions were created by the Poor Amendment Act of 1834. Before this many parishes had their own workhouses, where the old, the sick and the poor and unemployed and those who could not afford rent on a house of their own, were obliged to stay and carry out what work they could to earn their keep. These were, no doubt, grim but were usually not large.

We do not know where the workhouse stood in Eaton Bray in the 18th century but it was built of brick with some wood and stone. It had a barn and possibly other outbuildings. The roods of both house and barn were thatched, but there must have been some tiled parts, as three hundred tiles were purchased for nine shillings in 1780. It is doubtful whether any part of the roof was in a very good state, for villagers such as “Henery” Barns and Thomas Foskey were often patching it up for a few shillings. The general structure of the house was equally unreliable, judging by the frequent repairs carried out. The cost was usually calculated in shillings, but occasionally major changes took place. One such event was in 1779 when £17-15-0 was spent on the building. The accounts suggest that a small extension may have been built, or perhaps there was a serious attempt to improve the structure. The records note loads of wood, lime and stones being procured, besides 3,400 bricks, which cost ten shillings for every five hundred. Many men were paid for their “whourk”, including Thomas Smith, who received “for whinders … £1-7-3”; the same account shows 4/6 paid for three casements. Perhaps the inmates had little respect for their glass windows, for in the next year we find Thomas again “glassing at the workhouse” and charging nearly a pound.

The workhouse had two storeys. Downstairs were the “dwelling house” (presumably a living room), the brew house and the pantry. In 1783 the upper storey was described as consisting of Mr. Groom’s room, Tompkins’ chamber, the middle room and at least two others. The furniture was not luxurious but sufficed for the few paupers who would live there. In the living room were three tables, one large and two small, a frame, an old chest, “1 box iron with two pads, 1 oaken stool and 1 water pail, 1 pitcher, 5 dishes and a ladle”. Round the fire were tongs, bellows, hooks and dog irons. The other cooking and eating utensils were kept in the pantry and brewhouse, including five kettles of different sizes. Yet even these were not new and had to be mended by Richard Janes in September 1780. There were also seven earthen and three wooden dishes, two earthen pans, two quart bottles, a pewter “tankard” and a porringer. The one beef fork and hatchet were, presumably, also used in the preparation of food.

Lighting was supplied by candles. The pantry had “one standing candlestick” and five others. Perhaps in the living room they made do with the light from the fire or else went to bed.

The six bedsteads were upstairs, but of course we cannot tell how many might sleep in a bed. On cold winter nights there would have been some advantage in sharing with one or two others, for the house only boasted twelve blankets. There were more4 sheets: “linen 11 pair” and one single sheet. The quality of the mattresses varied. There was one feather bed, perhaps Mr. Groom’s, three feather pillows and two flock ones, besides three bolsters of an unspecified type and “1 bed ticken”. Most of the poor, however, probably slept on straw or hair-stuffed mattresses. In March 1778 two shillings was paid for “straw to straw the beds”, again in May 1779 Francis Sebrook supplied one pound’s worth of “stra” and in 1786 sixpence was laid out “for straw for the pore howse to straw there beds”. Occasionally there was need for new bedclothes. In 1785 Widow Brown was paid sixpence “for making a bed tick for the house”. In the same year the parish paid eighteen shillings “for pear of sheets an making for the pore house”. Sometimes too the workhouse property was used elsewhere in the village, if a sick pauper was being cared for in someone’s house. In 1783 among the workhouse furniture was “Henry Roger’s bed at Gayton’s consisting of 2 blankets, 2 sheets and one bolster”. Two years earlier “Henery” Rogers had had a bad foot which had been cured by Mary Gadsden, but perhaps he now had a recurrence of the same trouble.

The inhabitants of the workhouse were not a very healthy collection of people. No doubt the straw on which they slept harboured various small creatures. The overseers were worried on several occasions in the eighteenth century about the “itch” and in May 1781 were willing to pay a shilling “for curing Robins of the itch”. Many of the poor must have been very dirty when they arrived. Perhaps this is referred to in the entry for July 1783: “For sope when King’s girl left Mr. Roberts. 1d.” The really sick, however, were usually moved out and cared for elsewhere. In 1782 Ann carter was “nosen and cipen [nursing and keeping] Betey Floyed”. Next year William Pratt was very ill. Two shillings was spent on wine for him and another florin was paid to “Elizabeth Stone for nusin Prats”. As a result of this treatment the pauper recovered. Another patient was “Filep Humfrey” who was nursed through the smallpox by “Marey Ealegman” in 1788. When local remedies and nursing had no result a doctor had to be called in and of course he charged the parish for his services. In 1780 this amounted to three guineas.

Not every pauper recovered from his illness, but a death brought more expense to the parish. At Easter 1785 they paid “for berying the Fowler child” but the cost was only 7/4. For adults there was more to be done. Beer and sometimes bread and cheese were provided for the bearers and John Mitchell, the village carpenter, charged ten shillings for a coffin.

The birth of a child in the workhouse was another time when the “governor” might call out the doctor, although this probably only happened in difficult cases. Many of the babies were illegitimate and when possible the parish officers tried to find the father and make him pay not only for the expense at the birth but also towards the maintenance of the child. Costs could be comparatively high: in 1781 the overseers paid 8/6 for childbed linen for M. Quick. It might be considered worthwhile to force a couple to marry and even to pay their expenses in order to save the parish later costs of looking after illegitimate children. In 1783 it is recorded that they “paid the Expenses of Nathaniel Gurney’s Wedding Licence etc. included - £8-8-11”. Couples were usually only married by licence if there was a reason to speed up the procedure. A child born before the wedding might be the parish’s responsibility, but a married man had to provide for his own child. In February 1784 there must have been less of an emergency. Robert Cooper was married in the normal way at a cost of £1-15-0 to the overseers.

As Eaton Bray was a country parish it would seem unlikely that there were ever large numbers accommodated in the workhouse in the eighteenth century. There would be a few who were old and infirm, possibly the occasional unmarried mother and her family and sometimes those who were homeless and out of work. As its name suggests the workhouse was intended to be an industrious centre where the poor earned at least their keep. Later on in the next century when the manager of the workhouse received 2/6 per head per week for his charges, he was paid nothing for those who were able to work and pay for themselves. We have little information about the work provided in Eaton Bray. Certainly hemp was bought for spinning. In November 1787 the overseers “Paid for 6 pound hemp – 3/6. Spinen 3/0”. They also gave John Gray 12/1- “for weaven 38 ells and half cloth” in 1788. A less satisfying job is described in 1786 when John Turvey received four shillings “for picking of stones”.

Weaving and spinning was probably carried out inside the workhouse in the “dwelling house” and no doubt meals were taken in the same room. That would mean there was only one room to heat. Wood was burnt in the fireplace and sometimes “fuz” [furze] such as that which was bought from John Bull for 3/6 in 1787.

It is doubtful whether the paupers had a very interesting diet. The existence of a brew house would suggest that they drank their own beer, just as the beef fork in the pantry must indicate that they ate some beef. There was also a pottage pot. In 1784 Thomas Ellingham received 1/10¼ for providing bread for the poor and since the overseers supplied cheese at funerals we may assume that this was part of the workhouse diet.

The inmates had also to be clothed. The parish tailor appears to have had a thriving there. In August 1779 the overseers paid “for close for the poor in the worckhouse … £3-13-0” and in 1787 there was “Bryan Mouse’s bill for cloos” which amounted to £9-17-8. At other times clothes were bought singly. John Gody was given a pair of “stockns” in October 1787, while Tim Jeffs was constantly receiving garments in the 1780s. In 1785 it was a “wasket an frock” and in 1787 “a pair of brichees”. He was hard on his shoes too. In July he had a pair mended, but by August the parish was providing 2a pair of High Shoes for Tim. Jffs”. He may have been a child who grew out of things as soon as they were made. Shoes were a heavy expense for everyone but there were several shoemakers willing to make and mend. In 1787 four of them sent in their bills ranging from four shillings to 17/5.

Although living in the eighteenth century workhouse did not have the stigma which was introduced with the new Poor Law in 1834, it would seem that it was never a place to which a parishioner would go from choice. Few would wish to stay long in the old building, sharing the chamber pots, the one hair brush and the eightpenny comb supplied by the parish, sleeping on straw or hair beds and receiving when necessary a dose of the parish’s “treckel and brimstone”.