worthing history
 

© FREDDIE FEEST 2012

 
When it was a crime to be poor
 
       
 
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Worthing's Old Town Hall in South Street

TO say that until the early 1800s in Worthing it was a crime to be very poor, out of work and without a home, is hardly stretching a point. Vagrants were inevitably escorted by the beadle to the town boundary and left to their own fate. If they came back they were arrested and in some cases sent to prison. Only the lucky ones were committed to the workhouse, which was hardly any better.
     For debatable reasons local Victorians were obsessed with the subject and, intriguingly, the fate of these “poor wretches” (as they were described at the time by the more charitable members of local society) was meticulously noted in official records. Especially (and right down to the last penny) how little was actually spent on their so-called relief .

   As early as 1822, local parish officials were obsessed by the problems posed by the cost of parish relief and vagrancy relative to their pitifully inadequate budgets. The sums they paid out to relieve suffering sound absurdly small to us now, even taking into consideration the very much lower standard of living in those days.
     In Worthing, there was often a quaint informality about the meetings of the Town Commissioners that were all-too-often dominated by the problem. One of the commissioners sometimes gave employment on the spot to needy applicants, Mr Harry Newland obtaining quite a lot of labour for his brick kilns in this way!
     The official minutes of one such meeting, in February 1822, record that work was given to three applicants “to get up rocks fit for burning into lime near Mr Harry Newland’s brick kiln, and bring them to that spot for ten pence per load.”
     When James Baker pleaded to the Board to give him work in January 1833, Newland gave him a job stone cracking though it was agreed the commissioners should supply him with a hammer.
      By the early-1850s the authorities were attaching considerable importance to “the right to collect material from Worthing beach for the purpose of giving parish employment.”
       Three years later, when the local government of Worthing was transferred from the Town Commissioners to a Local Board of Health, the clerk, a Mr Tribe, was given a long-winded vote of thanks “for the great services he has rendered to the parish officers and the whole of the ratepayers by obtaining through his interposition with the Secretary of State the insertion of a clause in the By-Laws of Worthing reserving to the inhabitants the uninterrupted right possessed heretofore to collect sand, stones, etc., on the sea beach, by means of which employment the parish officers have been saved a considerable amount of money, in the absence of which the parochial rates must have been very considerably higher.”
     Unfortunately, this policy of allowing indiscriminate removal of material from the beach proved to be shortsighted. Money may have been saved in one direction but it was lost in another, for one of the greatest difficulties the Commissioners had to contend with was the encroachment of the sea and especially the periodical washing away of the Lancing road. The great cost to the town of groynes and other sea defences was only just beginning…
       But one ingenious way in which the Town Board tackled the relief problem had its amusing aspects. They decided to supply applicants with nets and send them out shrimping, the catches to be taken by the Board.
      The Board would pay the catchers 2s.6d per gallon “if they could not meet with a better market.”       
      This worked well enough until the families of Town Board members rebelled against perpetual shrimps for tea, whereupon the scheme was dropped!
      Details of unrelated historical value are revealed in some of these applications for financial relief. One such application was made on January 6, 1843 by Elizabeth Freeland, of Worthing. This brought the response: “Twelve shillings will be sent to her by Post Office Order.”
      It was the earliest recorded instance of a Postal Order being used in Worthing.
      An entry of a kind unhappily all too common in Worthing Town Board records noted: “December 1859. Catherine Baker applied for relief. She stated that her husband did not get drunk but had a little beer given to him which took such an effect that he did not know what to do. He did challenge Hoar to a fight. Granted two shillings a week, one shilling to be taken off for a month on account of Baker since being seen in a public house.”
      Occasionally the records reveal an unsatisfactory attempt to evade responsibility, such as when, in 1813, John Chapel applied for relief. The Town Board responded: “He is granted five shillings on the understanding that he should keep away until Christmas.”
      His application was made in May!
      Touches of humour also creep in here to relieve the tragedies underlying these brief entries. Unconscious humour, but for that reason all the more amusing in records that had been covered by dust for nearly two centuries. One can imagine the Clerk noting down the following items in all seriousness:
      “Elizabeth Jones: pay stopped on account of her boy giving interruption to the business when receiving pay; told to chastise her boy.”
      “George Wingfield applied for shoes; refused. This lad put on his hat and refused to leave the room; Toler (the town beadle-cum-policeman) sent for to remove him.”
      “ Miriam Richardson applied for relief for her mother; granted 2s 6d. To have one of Job Parkin’s girls to take care of her grandmother in lieu of the girl who is there now from the country.”
       Or best of all: “Charles Knight applied for trousers; deferred.”
      Another unfortunate who applied for trousers was given a shrimp net. No doubt he was expected to stand waist-deep in water until he had caught enough shrimps to pay for his trousers!
     It is not easy to get a clear idea of working conditions of those times, as the official records show only one side of the picture. But these items help us to build a mental picture of life in those days.
     For example, in 1822 James Tyrell attended a parish meeting “to give thanks for the kind treatment he had received at East Preston Workhouse.” But this seems to have been an isolated instance.
      In 1825, John Buster complained of having been shut up for four days and five nights in the same institution. His “crime” was to reveal to a Mr Trott of Poling that “the paupers in the workhouse are in a verminous condition.”
      This case was investigated by the guardian of the workhouse who (hardly surprisingly) decided there was no truth in the report and that “Buster had been suitably dealt with.”
      Treatment meted out to local vagrants in early Victorian times certainly appears to have been harsh and often brutal.
      Perhaps there were worse towns than Worthing but certainly its popularity among vagrants began to embarrass the authorities. By 1848 there were complaints about the increasing number of vagrants coming into Worthing to sleep and it was recommended that the parish officers should “cease to afford the relief hitherto given to this class of persons, viz., two pennyworth of bread each and lodgings under the Town Hall.”
      In 1858 the Vestry Clerk was ordered to write to Captain Montgomerie, the Chief Constable, informing him of “the increasing number of vagrants that at present infest Worthing and that insufficient means appear to be employed to get rid of them.”
     Later that year a man named James Duffy was appointed Worthing’s first (and until now, last) official `bounty hunter’ when it was ordered that he “be paid one shilling for every able-bodied vagrant he apprehends and gets committed to prison the following week.”
     Hardly the good old days…………