1775: James Wickens and the Lichfield Poor (Part I)

I was rooting around in the loft the other day when I came across an old assignment that I wrote for my MA in Local History back in February 2000. This assignment was on the old poor-law in Lichfield (that in place previous to the New Poor Law Act, 1834): and it took as its source a pamphlet written in 1775, which outlined the vision of a Mr. James Wickins on how the task could be more efficiently and economically undertaken within the city.

In these days of austerity – where sympathy and empathy can be lacking – it occurred to me that the same questions raised by Wickins and his peers were still very much those being asked about the role of the Welfare State today: namely, who is deserving of help? What should that help be? Who should pay for that help? What is the most efficient way of delivering that help? And, what most people seem to care about, how to combat fraud?

Title page of Wickins’ address on Lichfield’s poor-law. 25 October 1775. (Lichfield Record Office)

Anyhow, as Lichfield is my home town I thought I would use it as the basis for an article and bore you with it, however, as it is a bit long, especially with dull photographs of documents, I thought I would split it at a convenient point. It seemed to me that it would make some sense to provide a little context as to just who Wickins was and to what both the local and national position was in 1775 in relation to the poor in general, and so this forms the basis of Part I. Part II will cover Wickins’ proposals, and how they either did or did not inspire change.

James Wickins: Visionary, Altruist or Hypocrite?
The use of pamphlets to reach an audience, be it regarding social, political or religious reform, had come into its own after the breakdown of strict censorship during the Civil Wars. With the printing press becoming more portable and more widely available, it seemed that every man and his dog wanted their say.

James Wickins resorted to this method of communication, the only one seriously available to him, to give an address to the ‘gentlemen and inhabitants of the city of Lichfield’ in 1775 – although I wonder how many non-gentlemen would pay the 6d for it – on several issues regarding the ‘better maintenance and employment’ of their poor.

Wickins’ address looks at the issues of poor-law administration – the ‘expediency of uniting the several parishes into one district’ – as well as its practical delivery – ‘the advantages… of building one commodious house for their reception’. He also remarks on the ‘management and economy of poor-houses in general’.

James Wickins’ signature – he served on juries and as a parish official in the 1770s. (Lichfield Record Office)

We don’t know too much about James Wickins, but at least we do know that he could speak with some authority on the subject that he was addressing his fellow inhabitants on. It is possible that he came from a Birmingham family, being born in 1745, but we are not sure. We do know that had been apprenticed to a Richard Edge, a mercer in Lichfield, until he set-up for himself in business. He then lived in Dam Street, Lichfield, and became an influential man of some learning, being known to, if not a friend of, Samuel Johnson. In 1774 he was one of the judicial panel serving the city’s Quarter Sessions and, in the same year, he was appointed as one of two annual churchwardens at Lichfield St Mary’s. He remained in this post for two years, although he attended parish meetings after that date, and it was during this time he wrote his pamphlet.

Dam Street, Lichfield, one-time home of James Wickins. (Elliott Brown, 2009)

The fact that Wickins appears sympathetic to the deserving poor is perhaps shown not only by the pamphlet, but by the fact he was chosen to administer a small charity for their welfare. The Victoria County History shows that in 1777 Richard Edge ‘left his friend and former apprentice James Wickins £30, the interest to be used to buy 2d white loaves for distribution by the churchwardens of St Mary’s on 23 or 24 December among the poor of the parish. The bread was to be bought from bakers in Conduit Street or Dam Street. Wickins kept the money and used the interest (24s in 1786) to buy 1d loaves which he distributed at his house on Christmas morning among aged persons from the three city parishes, giving priority to parishioners of St Mary’s.’

In her book, Dr Johnson’s Lichfield (1952, p206), Mary Hopkins described Wickins as being ‘always referred to as Mr James Wickins, which indicates a highly respectable position in the city. He had a taste for gardening and collected pictures and books. Anna Seward called his place ‘a little temple of the arts’ and referred to him as the ‘gentle Wickins”. This gentle nature is indicated by the almost apologetic tone of his pamphlet: ‘I am no writer by profession [and] I hope you will take, in a good part, this method of communicating’.

Dr Johnson’s statue overlooks his museum in Lichfield. Johnson certainly knew Wickins. (Unknown).

I cannot be certain of when and where he died – although it doesn’t appear to have been in Lichfield. It does appear that he was still alive c1817, as the VCH goes on to say that was when he ‘gave [Edge’s] £30 to the vicar of St Mary’s, who c1820 was paying 30s interest to the churchwardens for distribution among poor parishioners on Christmas morning.’

So, Wickins was able to speak with authority on the subject. I also believe he was the sole author and not fronting for another: I believe this as there wasn’t really any need to front anyone – and Wickins states that Thomas Gilbert, local MP and prominent poor-law reformer, supported his address, which is something he need not have said if Gilbert was the ghostwriter and would have avoided saying if he didn’t support Gilbert! It is possible that he may have picked-up a feeling of latent support amongst those within St Mary’s parish, but if he was fronting a parochial group then I wonder why it took 2 years to get some of his proposed measures adopted there.

Do I think Wickins was a visionary? No: while his address may appear radical to Lichfeldians (although they had already tried some of his recommendations on a smaller scale), and St Mary’s adopted much of it  a couple of years later, it is based upon systems operating elsewhere – with Margate being cited often.

Do I think he is an altruist? No: an altruist would place their concern for the ‘poor’ above all – yet, as you will see, Wickins hardly seeks a Utopia for them (educating the the poor to make ‘excellent servants’ that are happy with their ‘lowly stations’, for example) and his treatment of the poor trying to settle in Lichfield is contemptuous.

Wickens’ views on the Master and Mistress of the workhouse show, in my opinion, his realism rather than altruism or hypocracy. – ‘temper strictness of discipline with tenderness and good humour’. (Lichfield Record Office)

So, is he a hypocrite? No: a hypocrite would disguise the fact he sought to brook the spiralling costs of relief and yoke bad feeling towards the idle poor under a veneer of beneficial reform for the poor – with no intention of carrying it out; Wickens does not hide his money-saving agenda, and points out clear injustices that need to be corrected.

So, what is he? I like Wickins, but I see him as the business man he was, in the times in which he lived. I think I would describe him as a realist, and although he could appear severe in his address, I still see him as a caring realist.

The Road to Wickins’ Steer: In Brief 
The year that Wickins penned his missive on a new steer for Lichfield’s poor-law would likely appear more familiar to those of today than you would possibly think, but had its origins over two centuries before.

The Tudors should be credited with the first attempts to create a universal system of poor relief, although it took a lot longer to realise. It could be argued that their motivation came not only from a moral duty, especially considering that they had swept away all the religious institutions that had previously helped the needy, but also from the want to control the population.

The Tudors start to address the ‘poor problem’. (Unknown – from Blackadder 🙂 )

I would suggest that the general unrest that fermented the Civil Wars in the 1640s had in fact had central government wary of its ‘huddled masses’ for a century before. The underlying causes of this unrest were a mix of long term trends and short term triggers: population growth, falling wages, escalating prices (especially in periods punctuated by famine) and the increasing loss of self-sufficiency as fields were enclosed and people could not grow their own.

The first phase of the old poor-law was in place by 1601. It wasn’t kind, it wasn’t meant to be, but it did at least distinguish between the deserving and idle poor and placed the burden of administration of it onto a system that already existed – the parish. The idle poor could be whipped, deported, forced to wear badges or be incarcerated in a House of Correction; those that were deemed as deserving could fall back on a dole levied from a rate that was imposed on those considered able to pay within the parish (more parishes adopted this system – so it was uniform by the end of the 17th century) and their children could be apprenticed by them.

From the middle of the 17th century onward costs began to spiral. It is estimated that in 1696, total spend on the poor was around £400,000; by 1750 this had risen to £690,000; by 1776, it was £1.5 million; by 1785, £2 million and by 1802, £4.3 million. Escalating costs, and the need to control them, were at the heart of the New Poor Law Act that was bemoaned by Dickens and introduced by the Whig government in 1834.

The figures are supplied by Paul Slack in his book English Poor Law: 1531-1782; he puts the rising costs down to three main causes: first, that more parishes levied a rate (hence more spent); second, more people began to receive a dole as the poor numbers increased, and finally, more people began to receive dole as society started to redefine who the actual poor were and what the poor rate should be covering. Rising costs led parish administrations, on which the burden of cost rested, to battle with each other to return claimants to their place of origin – even if it was the neighbouring parish – or to seek remuneration from them.

Under the Workhouse Test Act of 1723 a parish – or group of parishes – could hire a house to maintain the poor, put them to work, and deny outdoor relief to those that didn’t enter. Initially they appeared successful, but their introduction coincided with an economic period that benefited those parishes that didn’t have workhouses also. Slowly, and especially after 1756, outdoor payments began to return and costs started to rise again.

The site of the workhouse on Sandford Street, as shown on John Snape’s map of 1781. (Lichfield Record Office)

Between 1756 and 1763 Britain had engaged the French all over the world in the what has been called the Seven Years War, and through its victory had gained an accidental empire (especially if one takes into account an India dominated by the private East India Company) and a huge national debt.

After a threat of war with Spain in 1770 subsided, there came a financial crash. This financial crash will sound familiar: credit kept the 1770s economy moving as it does today, and when a bank collapsed due to fraudulent investments in the East India Company, several others followed as ‘credit’ quickly dried up and repayment was sought. The Bank of England provided liquidity to stave-off ‘universal bankruptcy’ and helped prop-up some precarious banking houses.

The government would also bail out the East India Company with tea concessions. The tea would then be shipped to the American colonies for sale, which simply worsened the deteriorating relations between Britain and America. The tea, famously, would be dumped in Boston harbour and by 1775 the crisis had become a war – increasing the national debt and domestic burden.

While nationally trade and commerce remained good until the war, domestically there were problems: the population was rising and beginning its migration to the towns as the ‘Industrial Revolution’ started; at the same time, wages had stagnated around 1765 and the food prices were escalating. The cost of food was so high those on poorer incomes could not afford meat or cheese, and as such food riots would punctuate the period. Social unrest, especially after the French Revolution, would make the government heavy handed to any threat of social disorder.

Social commentator and Brummie, John Freeth, penned the Collier’s March c1790. (Birmingham Art Gallery)

John Freeth, a Brummie social commentator of the period, wrote about this and what was happening locally in his song ‘The Colliers’ March’ around 1790. Chumbawamba did a great version – here abridged:

… The summer was over, the season unkind,
In harvest a snow how uncommon to find;
The times were oppressive – and well be it known,
Hunger will strongest of fences break down;

Twas then from their cells the black gentry [colliers] stepped out,
With bludgeons, determined to stir up a rout…

Sworn to remedy a capital fault,
And bring down th’ exorbitant price of the malt.
From Dudley to Walsall they trip it along,
And [Wolver]Hampton was truly alarmed at the throng…

Six days of seven poor nailing boys get,
Little else at their meals but potatoes to eat;
For bread hard they labour, good things never carve,
And swore ’twere as well to be hanged as to starve’.

Such are the feelings in every land,
Nothing necessity’s call can withstand;
And riots are certain to sadden the year,
When six-penny loaves as three-pounders appear.

Poor-Law in Lichfield: General Background
What I supply in this section is the basic background to the poor situation in Lichfield around 1775 – as we go through Wickin’s address in Part II, more of the mechanics will be discussed and examples shown.

Lichfield in the latter half of the 18th century was home to the poor-law reformer Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert would be continually returned as the parliamentary candidate for the city between 1768 and 1795 (a period of some 26 years). This faithful, albeit selective electorate, must have known of his sympathy for the poor, as his first attempt at passing a welfare bill had been before his election in 1768. As they continued to re-elect him, one may be forgiven for assuming that Lichfield itself was a progressive community and at the forefront of social welfare: actually, a glance at the contemporary poor-law sources (eg. churchwarden and overseers’ accounts) shows that it dabbled with reform, but the system and costs involved, in my opinion, prevented close co-operation.

The reason was that the system in Lichfield was very fragmented: there was not only a City Corporation concerned with running of the town, but  three different parish poor systems (excluding the Cathedral Close, which had its own poor) operating within the city. St Mary’s covered the centre of the city, and most of the poor; St Chad’s had the north of the city and the outlying hamlets, while St Michael’s covered the south. These parishes (of which St Mary’s was by far the largest as the 1776 return shows) flirted, but never really co-operated fully.

The Parliamentary return for Lichfield’s parish poor spending. (Lichfield Record Office)

Whether it was simply down to finance, which I suspect lay at the root of Lichfield’s zeal for anything, or a lack of demand, Lichfield never adopted a House of Correction for the idle poor. Instead, it used a cell in the city gaol until the 1720s, after which it used a part of the Sandford Street workhouse. Finally, a room under the Guildhall was used from 1803 – which was funded by all three parishes.

Site of the Sandford Street Workhouse, Lichfield – one time serving all three Lichfield parishes.

The Workhouse Act dates to 1723, but Lichfield had a workhouse of sorts before this. In the 1690s a London cloth-maker leased a building in Sandford Street from the Corporation, staffing it with the city’s poor. It continued to be called the workhouse even after it stopped manufacturing (as it may have continued to house the poor). By 1728 it was taking in the poor from St Mary’s and St Michael’s, at a rate of course.

Site of the Sandford St Workhouse, Lichfield.

St Mary’s continued to use the workhouse; St Michael’s and St Chad’s decided to pool their resources and open their own workhouse in Greenhill around 1740.

Green Hill, where one building was used as a workhouse by St Michael’s and St Chad’s on the Snape map of 1781. (Lichfield Record Office)

This co-operation didn’t seem to last too long: at a vestry meeting at St Chad’s on 2 March 1745 it was recorded: ‘finding by experience that the poor of our said parish which were lately turned out of the workhouse at Greenhill are now maintained and provided for at much less expense to our said parish than they were in the said workhouse… shall not be replaced’. St Michael’s continued to run the workhouse.

The 2 March 1745 vestry meeting at St Chad’s that decided the workhouse was not viable – note the churchwardens that were illiterate! (Lichfield Record Office)

This shows that cost was the over-riding factor to St Chad’s – it was also true for the Cathedral, who started donating collection money to the overseers in the hope of avoiding the need to levy a poor rate of its own.

As the 1776 return above shows, it is clear why: St Mary’s collected £523 that year, spending £492 on the maintenance of 98 regular and 32 occasional poor – an average of £3.7 per person – the lowest spend per capita for the three parishes; St Michael’s levied £157, spending £117 on 11 regular and 6 occasional poor – equating to £6.8 per head – the most the three parishes spent; St Chad’s levied the least at £109, spending £91, but on 22 poor – this averages as £4.1 per person. This shows two things: firstly, that poor relief was the original postcode lottery and, secondly, it is easier to understand why St Mary’s wanted to merge resources, as the most pressured of the parishes, while the others wished to retain their autonomy.

The entrance to the New Poor-Law combined workhouse (Lichfield Lore)

St Mary’s operated their workhouse until the New Poor Law Act saw the three parishes combine in 1834 and open a new site on the Trent Valley Road. St Michael’s operated Greenhill until a fire in 1790. It took around 20 years before we are certain that it had be re-inaugurated, again in Greenhill. In 1827, St Michael’s tried to transfer the inmates to the St Mary’s workhouse, but ironically St Mary’s rejected the idea – the legacy of Wickins being long forgotten it seems! It closed when the new workhouse opened. St Chad’s opened another workhouse in Stowe Street in 1781. It appears to have operated until the new workhouse – however, around 1803 it only had a compliment of six.

St Mary’s reject St Michael’s in 1827. (Lichfield Record Office)

And so ends a brief background to Wickins’ address to his peers. Remember to click on photographs to enlarge. Part II will be released in the next few days.

My thanks to:
Lichfield Record Office
Lichfield Lore (Kate Gomez)
Elliott Brown
Victoria County History (Michael Greenslade)
Mary Hopkins
Paul Slack
Birmingham Art Gallery
Bank of England