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Old Church House Wilshamstead as Parish Workhouse

Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]
Old Church House in 1962 [Z53/134/5]

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a series of copied articles which seem to have appeared in the Wilshamstead parish magazine just before the First World War, presumably written by the Vicar (Richard Charles Whitworth) [CRT130Wils4]. This piece concerns Old Church House

Church ales and other convivial assemblies were not the only uses to which our Church House was put in the olden time. It had a beneficent share in a more serious side of village civic life; being at one period of its history the parish poor or workhouse it was played an important local part in the evolution of the poor law as it operates in the country today”.

To trace the origin of this transformation of the Church House we must go back to 1535 when under Henry VIII the suppression of the monasteries began. For this sacrilegious act of confiscation the ostensible reason was moral, corruption of the religious houses, the real one the avarice of the King. Whatever the faults of these conventual communities their regular and voluntary methods of poor relief were the only ones in the country worth the name of organised system. The Church, then as now, has ever been the poor’s best friend and those much abused, yet warm-hearted religious orders diligently observed as a daily routine the alleviation of all kinds of distress. No one in want was denied assistance. At the monastery gates were daily distributions of food and necessaries to the poor and needy. And there were no casual wards in those times. The way-worn traveller, or weary pilgrim (he would be called a tramp today) hardly plodding north from London would pause for rest and refreshment from the noon-tide sun at Saint Alban’s Abbey of Chicksands Priory and later passing on through Wilshamstead would at night lay his tired frame to sleep within the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Helen at Elstow. At each of these or at any other religious house by the way that traveller’s relief and welcome were assured. Imagine then the blank in the social life of the country that immediately followed the dissolution of these centres of such manifold charity. Their destruction flooded the land with a multitude of hungry, destitute and often desperate persons, not knowing where to turn for help. In the face of such a menace to society, the state was bound to bestir herself to action. Hence emerged a series of statutes, creative of civil machinery for the relief of the poor which gradually developing has become the Poor Law of the present day [the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 which created Poor Law Unions and the large workhouses of Victorian infamy which lasted until the creation of the Welfare State in 1948]. One of these statutes, viz: - that passed through parliament in 1723, empowered churchwardens and overseers of the parish, with consent of the vestry to purchase or hire houses or contract with any person for the lodging and employment of the poor. Thus, under this Act as is believed, was established the workhouse in Wilshamstead, which served the needs of the village until the parish was incorporated in the Union of Bedford, and it is something stronger as evidence than a mere tradition which has come down to us, that it was the Church House that became the parochial workhouse. In the overseers’ accounts of the time are many allusions, which taken together with a knowledge of the parish go to prove that this poor house could have been a building no other than the old Church House, let for the purpose, by the churchwardens to the overseers”.

“From the Overseers’ books we discover the names of some early inmates. Thus under the year 1781 [P22/12/1]: -

William Simons come in the Workhouse, November the 11th, 1781 Martha Sanford come in the Workhouse, November the 11th, 1781 John Geary come in the Workhouse, November 17th, 1781 Will Simons come in the Workhouse, November 23rd 1781

Within the same covers there are also entries of agreements between the overseers and certain officials, who now would be styled the Master or Matron of the Workhouse: -“

“”April 18th, 1775. memorandum of aggreement [sic] between the officers of this parish and James Gore, that James Gore undertake to keep the poor 1 year of this parish for the sum of ninty [sic] pound hard and fast, and five pound more if he is too hard done by, and ten pounds forfit [sic] if any of us – Thomas Kendall, Churchwarden. Richard Long, William Berry, Oversseers. The mark x of James Gore””.

“”April 30th 1775. James Gore enters of the workhouse for one yeare [sic] from the deate [sic] before menshoned [sic], and for the sum of money as is agreed to before””.

“November 5th 1781. Ann Cooper agrees to take all the pepel [sic] in the workhouse at 1s. and 6d. a week per head, except [sic] Eliza Chambers and James Wells, and if the boys unlet (i.e. not hired out) come in, to maintain them and wash and mend them, and every person to impliy [sic] them at 4d. a day, according to theare [sic] rents to Lamas next. Witness my hand. The marl of x Ann Cooper””.

“Certain inventories given of the appurtenances and equipment of this workhouse are quaint reading today:-“

“April 30th 1775, 5 bedsteads, 6 blankets, 11 shirts and half, 4 straw beds, 1 flock bed, 1 straw mat, 3 bolsters, 1 piller [sic], 1 fether [sic] piller, fore [sic] tables, 1 dotrought [doughtrough] 1 dresser board, 6 trenchers, 1 porringer, 1 iron poridge [sic] pot, 1 chear [sic], 1 bobbin weel [sic], 3 coffers, 1 box, 1 brass cettill [sic], 2 rugs, 2 pillers, 1 fryin [sic] pan, 1 cloak [clock]”.

“January 4th, 1786. 4 pewter plats [sic], 8 trenchers, 5 whooden [sic] dishes, 2 pails, 2 brass porridge pots, 1 iron pot, 4 brass cettels [sic], 1 hand bool [sic], 2 tin pots, 1 earthen platter, 1 tin culinder [sic], 13 mettel [sic] potts [sic], 4 weelds [sic], 1 reel, 2 joint stools, 4 tables, 3 chers [sic], 4 chests, 2 boxes, 1 nive [knife] and 3 forks, 1 pare [sic] of brass scales and 4 waits [sic], 2 long hooks, 1 gridiron, 1 warming pan, 1 piller [sic] and bobbins, 1 pare of bellos [sic], pare of tongs, 1 shovel, 2 dotrofes [sic], 1 cobord [sic], 1 wooden bed, 1 brass friing [sic] pan, 1 form, 1 knife box, 2 littel [sic] stools, 3 tubs, 12 sheets, 10 blankets, 6 bedsteads, 5 beds, 1 baril [sic], 1 hamar [sic], 1 spad [sic], 1 twibil [sic]”.

“At the date of the last list of utensils given in the same book, education had advanced materially as is witnessed by improvement in the spelling: -“

“23rd day of May, 1721 [sic 1821]. 2 pair of bellows, 3 beds, 4 blankets, great brass kettle, 2 brass pottage pots, little kettle, frying pan, gridiron, fire tongues [sic], and shovel, dough trough, 5 tables, 6 coffers, 1 chair, 2 forms, 5 trenchers, 3 wooden dishes, 1 earthen dish, 1 iron, 1 pail, 1 linen wheel, 2 lace pillows, 2 jersey wheels, a reel, 1 warming pan”.

In a later article Rev. Whitworth wrote: “Another bygone function of the Church House, or more accurately of an appendage thereto, was of a penal or corrective kind. Annexed to the northern wall of the westernmost cottage was formerly a receptacle for the temporary detention of the inhabitant whose dissolute or dishonest conduct threatened a disturbance of public peace and security. Here the too hilarious or dangerous defaulter remained till “with the morn calm reflection came”. It is not so many years ago since this lockup was demolished. All that remains is the outline of the pitch of the roof on the front wall of Mr. Nash’s cottage. It is a pity this “Cage”, as it was called, is gone. It might usefully have survived as a sermon in stone, a silent mentor to all accustomed to dine less wisely than well”.