1775: James Wickins and the Lichfield Poor (Part II)

Introduction to Part II
The story so far is that I found an old assignment on the ‘old poor-law’ in Lichfield (that in place pre-1834), which took as its source a pamphlet written in 1775 that outlined the vision of a James Wickins on how the task could be more efficiently and economically undertaken within the city.

I wanted to show with this two-part article, and using Lichfield as an example, is really how that the same questions raised by Wickins about the old poor-law in 1775 were still very much those being asked about the role of its latest successor, 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. 1775. (Lichfield Record Office)

Part I dealt with the background to the poor-law both locally and nationally, as well as a little about James Wickins himself; if you have read the first part then this one will make more sense, whereas if you haven’t it could appear a little disjointed – https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/1775-james-wickens-and-the-lichfield-poor-part-i/ . This part will look at what Wickins actually proposed in 1775, and how that fitted into existing or influenced future practice within Lichfield.

Remember to click on photographs to enlarge.

Wickins’ World
Before he goes into specifics, Wickins introduces his address by stressing his experiences in ‘poor’ matters: that he was a parish official for St Mary’s. He also clearly states that he is a supporter of, and has received support for his address from, Lichfield MP and poor-law reformer, Thomas Gilbert.

Wickins then launches into a two-pronged attack: he singles out both the genuinely awful position that the ‘real’ poor find themselves in and the financially wasteful systems that support it.

Wickins makes the immediate distinction that his poor are those that are classed as ‘deserving’: the old, infirm, disabled, sick, widowed and abandoned, those that and have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own – and he really plays the sympathy and moral cards. His poor are the ‘honest and industrious poor’ – describing their position as being one of ‘such a state of misery, as human nature must shudder at the idea of’. He does temper this with some caution, in that it shouldn’t be the aim to feed and house even the deserving poor better than those that strive to support them. Sound familiar?

Wickins’ opening remarks on the deserving poor, the idle poor and the squandering and defrauding of resources. (Lichfield Record Office)

He accuses the idle poor, on the other hand, of ‘practising every art of fraud, to hand dependent on our ill-timed bounty. They fear no discovery, for they have the cunning to keep far enough out of the reach of observation.’ Also sound familiar?

Wickins’ general view of poor administration is not good: the levies are too high and fall upon people that are often unable to pay them; the places appropriated for the reception of the poor ‘are the very sinks of sloth, of filth, and misery’; the money used for out-relief was ‘a large proportion’ of that raised and was unregulated, and so open to a ‘thousand frauds’, or being squandered on poor-houses over the city instead of one central workhouse. He believes that a new administration should remove the fraud and practice thrift.

So, what of Wickins’ proposals? He believes that there should be one unified poor relief system operating in Lichfield rather than the current three-parishes (excluding the Cathedral), and this should be operated by men that were not open to temptation through money or power.

The basis of Wickins’ address: one united parish system (fraud free!) and one workhouse. (Lichfield Record Office)

The ‘thousand frauds’ complained of by Wickins perhaps needs a little more explanation. Fraud committed by parish officers  is not an issue that appears to have been brought before the Bishop’s Court at Lichfield: those cases regarding parish officers that do appear between 1750 – 1800 are usually cases of neglect rather than fraud (like the case against the Churchwardens at Derby St Werburgh in 1784). The ‘thousand frauds’ probably covers the gamut from accidental oversight, neglect and financial irregularity through to deliberate theft and embezzlement.

The crux of Wickins’ address is that a three-parish financed workhouse would be the most cost-effective, replacing the poor-houses and much of the out-door relief in the said parishes that had been unregulated and open to financial irregularity up to that point. Interestingly, considering that this out-door system was claimed to be such a fraudulent one, Wickins does not propose to end it for food, fuel and clothes – which is what made up so much of the expenditure for St Mary’s parish – just to limit it to those deemed as worthy poor and unable (through age or illness for example) to stay in the workhouse.

This single workhouse would be under the guardianship of a committee of ‘Gentlemen who will neither want power or inclination to procure for them[selves] every comfort’. Interestingly, and what detracts from his altruism, is that Wickins does not see all deserving poor the same: one role he sees the Committee as fulfilling is the pursuit of those poor from outside Lichfield – that ‘strict enquiry [be made of] who are, and anyone not, parishioners – to demand certificates from such persons who settled in town… to prevent interlopers from obtaining settlements by undue means.’

St Mary’s votes for better scrutiny of the overseer accounts, April 1788. (Lichfield Record Office)

Wickins’ guardians were adopted by St Mary’s in 1777, when a committee of nine was appointed, however, he was perhaps a little naive in believing this would be a panacea for fraud: in a move that perhaps showed how the parish self-regulated financial irregularities, at a vestry meeting at St Mary’s on 22 April 1788, just 11 years later, the parishioners ‘resolved unanimously that in order to prevent the many irregularities complained of in the management of the poor… a committee of 25 principal inhabitants… be appointed annually  to inspect the overseer accounts and see the poor attended and properly employed’. The vestry does not allege fraud, just mismanagement.

One method of potential fraud open to businessmen (principal inhabitants, and of which Wickins was one) – and what today would be called a conflict of interests – was to endorse their own businesses. There is no evidence to suggest that Wickins was involved in malpractice, but he does himself appear several times as receiving payments from the Sandford Street workhouse between 1782 and 1785.

With regard frauds carried out by the recipients, once again it is possible that these matters were dealt with inside the parish – for those not too wily to be caught! It was not until 1818 that a petty-cash voucher system was introduced in an attempt to curb mismanagement.

1818: petty-cash vouchers are introduced at St Mary’s to curb mismanagement. (Lichfield Record Office)

It would be unfair to assume that parish officers could not be bothered or were too complacent to pursue such matters: where the offender was from another parish and sufficiently affluent to pursue, they were indicted before the Quarter Sessions. One such example of this was the case against John Smith on 12 January 1773: Smith, from Nuneaton, was ordered to reimburse the parish for costs in the maintenance of Frances Sutton (his illegitimate daughter). He was ordered to pay ‘2 guineas immediate’ and ‘one shilling a week as long as the bastard be chargeable to the said parish’.

The case of John Smith and his daughter is pursued through the courts. (Lichfield Record Office)

One other administrative change Wickins proposes was that all the small charities and benefactions that were operated through the parishes (the Corporation administered charity bequests too), which helped supplement the poor, and there were many in Lichfield (Hinton’s charity, for example, which saw Joseph Wilkins obtain payment of 1s in addition to his poor relief between 1768 and 1776), be merged into ‘one common fund’. St Mary’s didn’t adopt this in 1777, and ultimately this pragmatic idea would not come about until the formation of the Council in 1835.

The House and Operation
As said, Wickins based his model on a workhouse and administration funded by the pooled resources of all three parishes. The house, for which he hoped someone would donate around an acre of land, should be in an ‘open, airy, dry situation, rather at a small distance from the city than in any part of it (it isn’t clear if this is to sate the jealousies of the parishes – so none can claim it is in their area – or a simple want to keep the poor at a distance). All workhouses to this point had been on the edge of the city (Sandford St, Green Hill and later, Stowe St).

Attempts were made to unify the parishes in the wake of Wickins’ address: St Mary’s voted for it in 1777, and emerged with a plan ‘for repairing the workhouse in Sandford Street and for establishing the same upon a regular and decent footing for the reception and employment of the poor in the said parish’. The building, it was recommended, was to be ‘enlarged as to take in the poor of St Michael’s and St Chad’s… with these parishes advancing proportional share toward… costs incurred [and] if agreed to by St Michael’s and St Chad’s [they shall be] represented on the committee’.

St Mary’s vote to extend the workhouse on Sandford St and take in St Chad’s and St Michael’s poor. 1777. (Lichfield Record Office)

They didn’t agree: the vestry of St Chad’s stressed ‘that there was to be no question of a union with St Mary’s or of any contribution towards the St Mary’s poor’ – which to me indicates, as the Parliamentary return for the previous year shows (see part I), that St Michael’s and St Chad’s feared the swallowing-up of their needs by the leviathan in between. Feelings did change, as shown with the St Michael’s approach to a merger in 1827, but they would ultimately remain separate until the 1834 Act.

Wickins describes his theoretical workhouse: it should be simple and cheap, incorporate a school, bake-house, a wash-house, a weaving room and a store-room, yet have a substantial court-yard and garden.

Clearly there need to be areas within the main workhouse for sleeping quarters and the Master’s living area, but Wickins does go on to say that a separate area should be set aside for the sick – a matter in which a great many workhouses are ‘remarkably defective’. Whether St Mary’s adopted this approach at the Sandford St site is unclear, but Wickins believed that it was simple common sense both economically and for the good of the inmates themselves. The area should be as noise-free as possible and have access to the garden for clean, fresh air.

The garden is in fact essential to Wickins’ model. He immediately address the cost issue – saying that is should be large, but there is no need to go to the expense walling it! Wickins sees its benefits on several levels: first, that it is conducive to good health – allowing walking, access to clean air and so forth; second, and both a health and cost-saving, is that it can be used for cultivation – so they can become as self-sufficient as possible by growing their own vegetables; finally, there is an element of mental well-being (not that he would describe it as such) – in that working in the garden would not be seen as labour, but a joy.

Wickins sets out little idea for furnishing the workhouse – although Mr Thrifty starts immediately with salvaging whatever can be taken from the current Sandford St site to ‘save somewhat of the expense of new’. He proposes the system that is ‘custom in many places’, which is that those who enter the workhouse bring their own bedstead and bedding, which they can take when they leave (or if they die in the house, the house take possession). Inventories survive for St Mary’s workhouse (1744) and for St Chad’s (1740), so presumably furnishing will be along the same spartan lines.

An inventory survives for St Chad’s workhouse, 1740. (Lichfield Record Office)

Care of the poor could be contracted to a third party on behalf of the parish – which had happened in Stone in the 1770s. In Lichfield, a vestry meeting on 14 April 1744 appointed a John Phillips as such a ‘master’ and that ‘he shall provide for the poor people in this workhouse, this parish, allowing him for every head 14d a week’. Phillips had died by 1777, but as a part of their ‘Wickins adoption vestry meeting’ St Mary’s wished to reappoint a salaried Master (and a Mistress). The criteria for appointment was that set down by Wickins: they were to be God-fearing and yet be in possession of considerable business acumen. Sums-up Wickins really.

St Mary’s appoint John Phillips as workhouse Master in 1744. (Lichfield Record Office)

The workhouse would have a set of rules; Wickins does not go into these as his workhouse exists only in theory – but simply they should be ‘fit for their employment’. Breaches of rules would be dealt with by the Master (and possibly referred to the Committee).  Wickins’ didn’t mix words when faced with the need to ‘enforce obedience’ – basically he advocated sending the person to bed without dinner, until they humbly submitted.

Wickins’ take on punishment – treat them like a child. (Lichfield Record Office)

Wickins address advocates strongly, as with parishes such as Stone for example, that the poor should be engaged in manual labour: ‘All who can work, ought to work… that if a man will not work… neither let him eat. Employments may be suitably adapted to almost every age and condition’. Needless to say, labour was to be expected from the women and children who resided at the workhouse, but after 1777 the inmates were allowed to keep 2d in every shilling they earned (with the remainder going towards the general account).

The setting of the poor to work was nothing new in Lichfield, Wickins’ vision simply accepted this long-standing system: the original 17th century workhouse had used poor labour; in 1725 two stocking frames had been installed at the Sandford St site; between 1738-39, St Mary’s had received £1 5s 8d for work done at Sandford St and in 1744, the parish received over £33 for tammy (a rough-textured woollen cloth used for straining sauces, soups, etc) made at the house. Even after Wickins, in 1795, blankets were being made for internal use.

Another idea put forward by Wickins, and taken-up by St Mary’s, was the education of workhouse children. His idea was to educate boys to the age of 12 years in reading, then writing, and then in arithmetic if time allowed. Girls, he believed, should be taught to read and keep a good house by knitting, sewing and spinning.

What is difficult for us to read today, arguably more down to politically correct parlance than with changing morality, but would be a perfectly acceptable stance in 1775, is Wickins’ justification of educating the poor: ‘Thus qualified both boys and girls would become useful members of society; they would make industrious manufacturers and excellent servants: having no great hopes of higher attainments, they would sit down quiet and contented, in the lowly station, where their lot is cast’.

Matthew Matlock receiving pay for schooling the workhouse children (and adults?) in 1778. (Lichfield Record Office)

The education of the poor children of St Mary’s, excluding separate charity schools, was in the care of the Master of the workhouse. For several months in 1778 the overseers accounts list payments to a Matthew Matlock for ‘schooling the children’, and in 1779, to Mary Maddox for ‘teaching spinners’. This may have been for the education of the children of the workhouse, and if so possibly just a short-term measure (to cover sickness of the Master for example) as Matlock disappears before the end of the year. It is evidence, mind, that the experiment in education was taken seriously.

In qualifying cases apprenticeships were already financed by the poor rates in Lichfield (as they were in other parishes, like Stone).  The indenture below, dated 15 January 1747,  is between St Michael’s and Christopher Gee for the apprenticeship of a poor child – Sarah Groutwich – for training as a ‘female servant in the art of housewifery’.

Wickins endorses this practice (he himself had been an apprentice remember). The system was open to abuse – with the apprentice having little if any rights: ‘The said apprentice her said Master faithfully shall serve in all lawful business, according to her power, wit and ability; and honestly, orderly and obediently in all things demean and behave herself towards her said Master’. Wickins himself expresses the need of the necessity of a ‘cheerful obedience to their superiors’. While the tone seems to be one of debasement and humiliation, this, it must be remembered, was the language of the day.

The 1747 indenture for Sarah Groutwich as a ‘female in the art of housewifery’. (Lichfield Record Office).

St Mary’s had provided some medical care for the poor prior to Wickins’ publication, although it is clear that medical care does increase significantly after the publication of his pamphlet.

Although it must be acknowledged that the entries in the overseer’s accounts can be described as laconic at best, there does appear to be a marked difference between the accounts for the 1730s and the 1770s: the accounts for the 1730s simply cover payments for ‘lying-in’ women (bed-rest and bonding with their new-born), whereas those for May and June 1778, for example, are punctured with ‘delivering a woman in the workhouse’, ‘bleeding Thomas Perkins, as well as for a lying-in woman. The workhouse accounts for the 1780s show several payments for the ‘physic for sick children’ and ‘ointment for the sick’.

St Mary’s payments for ‘physic’ in the 1780s. (Lichfield Record Office)

Mental health was also tackled, although using the terminology of the time, when in 1784, one George Chadwick, a ‘practitioner in physic’, was granted a licence for ‘receiving any number of lunatics and mad persons from Lichfield’.

So, it seems Wickins’ may have been responsible for the introduction of a better standard of medical care for the poor in Lichfield – however, I think this was also happening in other parishes and one of the reasons costs were going-up: according to SR Broadbridge, in ‘The Old Poor Law in the Parish of Stone’ (1973),  doctors fees also start to appear in the accounts for that parish from the mid-18th century.

Diet in the Wickins’ workhouse was to be frugal: ‘plain, wholesome, cheap, dressed in a cleanly manner, and enough of it’. St Mary’s accounts suggest that this was the view within the parish already: the diets of the residents centred around oatmeal (as the ‘physic’ photo above shows), eggs, milk, butter, bread (flour), ale and presumably what they could grow in the garden. There are no payments for meat, but this does not mean they did not receive any at all: we do know they kept pigs, as there is a payment made for ringing two of them in 1785.

Wickins believed that his workhouse could be self-sufficient with clothing. He believed it should be provided when necessary and not simply every year for example. He believes clothing can be made by the inmates themselves at a cost less than purchasing it from an external source. Wickins believes and individual can be clothed and fed for just over 3 shillings a week – this should be more than covered by the cost of the labouring they do in the workhouse. It seems St Mary’s took this up in 1777, as payments were made for shoes but not for cloth-based garments.

Wickins may have been deluding himself when he refers to the inmates as ‘the family’, but he genuinely felt that such people would be happy with their position, be grateful for what they received and would repay their superiors with base obedience. I think he would be horrified to read Dicken’s words about the Union workhouses in a ‘Christmas Carol’: ‘Many can’t go there [the Workhouse] and some would rather die’; equally, I also think he would recognise in his peers, though clearly not subscribe himself, to the feelings of Ebeneezer Scrooge: ‘Well if they are going to die… let them do it, and decrease the surplus population’.

And so our brief sojourn into the Lichfield of 1775, into the minds and experiences of ‘the poor’ and those responsible for them, is over. What I hope I have shown is not only a little insight into how the system operated in the Lichfield parishes around that time, but that the age old questions I opened this article with are still the same ones we debate today: What is our moral duty? Who should pay into the system? What should they pay? Who should be able to take from the system? What should they be able to take out? And, not forgetting, how to eradicate fraud and mismanagement?

As long as we are all free-thinking individuals, the differing views on this will be legion; and I suspect the answers to these age-old questions will never really be found.

This article is in memory of James Wickins of course, but also to Sarah Groutwich and Frances Sutton – both of whom I hope had some kind of life. It is dedicated to Jo and Anita at the Lichfield Record Office, and a flag-bearer of Lichfield local history, author of Lichfield Lore and 700 tweets a day, Kate Gomez.

My thanks to:
Lichfield Record Office
Victoria County History (Michael Greenslade)