The Now and Hereafter Poor:

A study in the administration of the Poor Law in Mitcham prior to 1834

Studies in Merton History 3: by E N Montague

This study was compiled in 1980 to satisfy the requirements of what was then the Extra-Mural Department of London University when the author was studying for a Diploma in Local History. Information that has come to light since the study was completed has been summarised in a Postscript on page 46.

Chapters cover – Practice in Mitcham till 1720; The Poor Law in Operation in the Eighteenth Century: (a) Apprenticeship, Settlement and Out-relief, (b) The Workhouse; The Parish Officers and the Poor Rate; Wartime Stresses; Post War Depression and Poor Law Reform

A private Act of Parliament, obtained in 1816 “For the better assessing and collecting the Poor and other Parochial Rates in the Parish of Mitcham, in the County of Surrey” is reproduced in the Appendix.

Extract from the Introduction




A Study in the administration of the Poor Law
in the Parish of Mitcham prior to 1834

ISBN 1 903899 15 X

E. N. Montague
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre,
London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX

Studies in Merton History: 3

This study was compiled in 1980 to satisfy the requirements of what was then the Extra-Mural Department
of London University when studying for a Diploma in Local History.

Information that has come to light since this study was completed has been summarised in a Postscript on
page 46.

The Society is grateful to Merton Library and Heritage Service and Surrey History Service for permission
to include illustrations from their collections.

Published by


© E N Montague 2003

ISBN 1 903899 15 X

2 47


1. A fresh and very important source of information on the administration of the Poor Law in Mitcham in the
latter half of the 18th century came to light in 2000 in the form of a volume entitled Mitcham Parish
Accounts 1743-1796. Bound in suede, like the Vestry Minutes, it bore a label showing that the work had
been carried out by Mathers of Mitcham in 1915. The book was seen by me at the Merton Local Studies
Centre in August 2000, but has since been transferred temporarily to Surrey History Centre for safe
The contents include some Churchwardens’ Annual Accounts, but mostly are accounts of the Overseers of
the Poor. From 1743 to about 1758 the entries are very detailed, with names of people submitting bills to
the parish and the amounts paid, together with details of payments to poor inhabitants. The accounts
around 1752/3 are particularly interesting, and although on some pages the writing is tiny, it is quite
There are also assessments of ratepayers in 1743, 1745 and Easter 1790, and there are references in the
accounts for the 1760s of payments to militiamen’s families.
2. In a personal communication in July 2002 Mrs Sheila Gallagher of the East Surrey Family History Society
drew my attention to a “huge increase in the number of settlement examinations in 1784 (145, compared
with an average of 18 in 1771–1783)”. She also noted the Vestry Minutes of November 15th and 22nd
1783, which commented that “allowing pensions out of the Workhouse was Injurious to the parish”. (See
the introduction to Surrey Record Society Vol. 27.)
3. The volume of Mitcham settlement examinations Apr 1771–1784, which had been missing, is now in
private hands, but the Surrey History Centre and East Surrey Family History Society have microfilms of
it. These have been transcribed and indexed by Mrs Gallagher. There are many notes on the Certificates
made by the overseers regarding the time examinants were to be allowed to get a certificate or be removed.
The matter comes before the Vestry again on:
June 12th 1785 “… further order’d that those persons who have been legally examin’d and not have obtain’d
Certificates be remov’d to their respective settlements.”

Mrs Gallagher notes that some examination records may not have been kept – many other parishes seem
to have ‘weeded’ or discarded them before the 1790s, so we are fortunate to have the earlier Mitcham
ones which give such interesting insights into local history.

E N Montague

December 2002


A Study in the administration of the Poor Law in the Parish of Mitcham prior to 1834

I – Introduction, and Practice in Mitcham till 1720

Throughout Britain the work of the monasteries and religious houses in caring for the poor, blind, lame
and impotent, was to a large extent terminated by the Dissolution, although some of the ancient almshouses
and hospitals of medieval origin have continued until the present day. From the time of the Reformation
the relief of the poor became increasingly secularised, and to the late Tudor and Stuart periods belong a
great many almshouses both large and small, endowed by rich merchants and others, moved by piety and
Christian philanthropy. To take a local example, Merton Priory was dissolved in 1538, and a century later
Rowland Wilson, a vintner of the City of London, built a group of almshouses at Merton for the poor of
that parish. Although it lacked neither poor nor wealthy residents at this time, Mitcham has no almshouses
earlier than those built with the Tate bequest in the early nineteenth century. Old Bedlam or Old Bethlehem,
a large Tudor house which stood at Fair Green until 1854, might have been an asylum, for in 1814 it was
described as “now let in tenements to poor people”. The name implies it may originally have had some
connection with, or been inspired by, the famous Bethlehem Hospital, but there appears to be no
documentary evidence surviving to substantiate this, and the building returned to single-family occupation
in the 1820s.

Old Bedlam, Mitcham: wash-drawing by J C Buckler, c.1827 (Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library and Heritage Service)

The Tudor approach to the problem of poverty was to differentiate between the ‘sturdy beggars’ able to
work, who were debarred from the receipt of alms as early as 1349 by an act of Edward III, and the aged
or sick. Unemployment, arising through a variety of causes, made the problem acute by the middle of the

sixteenth century, resolving itself into three separate questions, the means by which the destitute were to
be relieved, the idle punished, and the method by which officials necessary for the administration of any
scheme of state relief were to be appointed and supervised. A number of Acts passed in the sixteenth
century were consolidated by the Act of Elizabeth I in 1601 on which the relief of the poor was to be
based for over two centuries. This monumental Act placed responsibility on the ecclesiastical parishes
for the provision of work for the unemployed, the apprenticeship of pauper children, and the provision of
relief to the impotent, blind and lame. ‘Idle rogues’ were to be given short shrift, and sent to prison or the
house of correction. The duty of administering the Act was given to the Justices of the Peace, who in
order to provide relief were given power to levy a poor rate. To assist them in this work, Overseers of the
Poor in the various parishes were to collect the rate, and redistribute it to those who warranted aid. In
general, the scheme worked tolerably well until the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, and its provisions
were reasonably effective, particularly in the relief of the aged, sick and orphaned.

It was in the assistance of the able bodied poor that the principal difficulties arose, primarily due to the
mistaken choice of the parish, rather than the county as the unit of administration. Underlying the
Elizabethan Poor Law was a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of unemployment, apparent in
the assumption that in each parish there was work enough for all its inhabitants, and a complete failure to
understand the need for mobility of labour. Freedom of movement was restricted by the Settlement Act of
1662, consolidating earlier legislation framed with the intention of containing the poor in their places of
birth or settlement. The Act empowered the parish officers, within forty days of arrival, to remove
newcomers by force if necessary, if it appeared that, lacking means of support, they might become a
liability. Continued residence, however, was permissible if the newcomers carried a certificate from their
home parish accepting responsibility for them should they fall upon hard times. The provisions of the
Settlement Act fell particularly heavily on widows and unmarried women, especially when they had
children to support, and they were often treated with shameful harshness and inhumanity by parish officials
anxious to avoid the imposition of any further burden on overstrained parish funds.

This is well illustrated by a case from the Surrey Quarter Sessions records, which demonstrates the lengths
to which the parish officers were prepared to go in order to avoid a pauper child being born in the parish,
with the resultant risk that it would become a charge on their limited resources. In the Sessions Book for
1661 is recorded a case which came before the Reigate Magistrates, on the outcome of which depended
the happiness of a young couple and the future of their baby.1 Jeremy Upsher of Mitcham, described as a
‘husbandman’, or tenant farmer, had once been the servant to William Fletcher at his house in Mitcham,
and claimed thereby to have obtained a settlement in the parish. On his marrying Elizabeth Rushen of
Wotton, the Churchwardens and Overseers of the parish of Mitcham ordered his removal to Wotton,
against which the officers of the latter parish appealed. A Justice’s order for the conveyance of the pair
back to Mitcham, and for their support by that parish, was ignored by the parish officers, who obtained a
warrant from Sir Nicholas Carew of Beddington for Upsher’s imprisonment as a vagrant. The Reigate
Bench found for Upsher, and ordered his release to enable him to repair to Mitcham, where he and his
wife were to be allowed to settle, providing himself and his wife “great with child and like to perish for
want of maintenance” with such habitation as he was able. Moreover, the Churchwardens, Overseers and
other parish officers of Mitcham were ordered not to molest or hinder Upsher in his task. Jeremy Upsher’s
name does not appear in the Mitcham Hearth Tax returns for 1664, but this may be explained by the
family being in lodgings, or otherwise not liable for the tax. Alternatively, Upsher might well have been
unable to enforce the Reigate Magistrates’ order against Mitcham, and been obliged to wander further
afield, hounded from parish to parish, until somehow he and Elizabeth obtained shelter, or died. A more
compassionate attitude seems to have been adopted by Mitcham Vestry on April 26th 1713, when it was
ordered that the “Overseers do endeavour to gett the travelling woman a way with her Child that Lyes Inn
at John Harwoods Jun. as reasonable as they can”. We do not know, of course, how the officers actually
secured compliance with the Vestry’s instructions. Our second example of the parish in action and the
granting of parish relief comes from a stray copy of the Mitcham Overseers’ accounts for 1677–8.2 William

Holland, who was occupying a small house with two hearths when the survey was conducted in 1664 and
was presumably in work and managing to pay his dues, for he was not exempted from tax, fell ill in 1677.
The Overseers’ account tells the story from this point on:

Recd. for Holland’s goods three pounds Sixteen Shillings 03 . 16 . 00

Pd. Hollands halfe yeres rent due at Michalmas 1677 00 . 15 . 00

Gave Holland in Money & provision in his Sickness 00 . 03 . 09

Pd. for a coffin for Holland, Ministers and Clerks dues 11 . 00

Pd. for bread and bere at Hollands buriall Eight shillings 00 . 08 . 00

Pd. for 2 gownes 2 payr of Shooes 2 Strawe Hatte for Hollands children 00 . 11 . 06

Pd. for keeping Hollands 2 children until Easter & for yarns that they might learn to knit

& making ye oldest a wastcoat 06 . 09 . 06

As is so often the case, one is left to speculate on the children’s fate, but the normal course for the parish
officers was to place boys as apprentices and girls in service so that they might be self-supporting and
learn a trade. The charges for the burial etc. were average, the Vestry minute book of 1664 recording the
breakdown of the costs as a coffin suitable for a pauper 6 to 7 shillings, fees for the burial 6s. 8d. “for
breaking the ground”, 3s. for the Vicar and Parish Clerk, and 2s. for bread and beer for those accompanying
the funeral (and presumably acting as pall bearers).

An example of the cost of arranging apprenticeships also comes from the set of Overseers’ accounts for
the year 1677, the Overseers concerned, William Heath and Henry Hawkins, recording that they had

Pd for Deans three childrens keeping, placing them forth Apprentices, their Indentures, Apparrell, expenses in providing

them Masters, and spent at their several bindings the sum of 21 . 00 . 10.

The three children were presumably, those of Robert Dean(e), whose name appears in the Hearth Tax
records of 1664 as the occupier of a house with two hearths.3

Schemes for the employment of the poor in schools of industry were being put forward by several writers
at this time, Yarrenton, in England’s Improvement by Sea and Land (1679), suggesting employment of the
poor in linen and iron manufacture, and pointing to German experiments in spinning schools. Other
writers like Tucker, urged employment of the poor as a means of suppressing wage rates, whilst Defoe
held that the giving of alms in itself was a mistake, and that firmness was necessary. There was plenty of
work, he said, the trouble was that the English ate too much, and did not work hard enough; furthermore,
education of the poor was unwise! In Mitcham the employment of the poor was already established
practice well before the close of the seventeenth century, as Heath and Hawkins’ accounts show:

Recd. for 12 lb. of flaxen yarne Spun by the poore 00 . 14 . 00

Pd. for Eight pound of Nynpenny flax to set the poore to works 00 . 06 . 00

Pd. Goody Miles and Goody Midhurst for Spynning X lb. of ninepenny flax 00 . 07 . 06

Neither ‘Goody’ Miles nor ‘Goody’ Midhurst is recorded in the Hearth Tax records, presumably since
they or their husbands were exempt from tax on the grounds that they were in receipt of alms, or were not
paying church or poor rates.

Donations to the poor post mortem had for many years been a popular expression of Christian piety, Mrs
Fisher in 1709, for instance, giving £200 to the parish of Mitcham to purchase lands, the annual rent of
which (about £14) was to be distributed amongst poor housekeepers.4 In April 1710 it was reported to the
Vestry that Thomas Plummer, whose family had long been associated with the village of Mitcham, and
were the owners of a large estate in the parish, had given £5 for the poor of Mitcham. This augmented the
bequest of an earlier Thomas Plummer, who by his last will, proved January 25th 1639, gave the parish
£4. per annum, payable out of the rent of an estate in Basinghall Lane, London, to be laid out in bread,
and given to the poor at the church every Sunday morning by the Churchwardens. So that the deserving
poor could be instantly recognisable, and perhaps that thus stigmatised they might be less inclined to
accept charity, the vestry in April 1710 instructed the Overseers to buy pewter badges for the paupers,
ruling that if any refused to wear the badges, they would forfeit parish relief.

44 5

II – The Poor Law in Operation in the Eighteenth Century

(a) Apprenticeship, Settlement and Out-relief
We have already seen that the apprenticeship of pauper children was practised in Mitcham during the
seventeenth century. The procedure continued throughout the eighteenth century, and probably until 1844,
when the often much abused (but not, so far as we know, in Mitcham) system was finally abolished.
Numerous examples could be quoted from local records. One of them, from the early eighteenth century,
shows that Mitcham children could be apprenticed to employers many miles away and that, as in the case
of riverside villages like Battersea, the parish officers of Mitcham found the Thames watermen ready to
take on boys. In February 1711 Mitcham Vestry agreed that the Overseers of the Poor “do put Erasmus
Mulford, one of the poor children, an Apprentice unto Mr. Phillips, Waterman, and pay with him the
summe of ffoure pounds to Buy him Cloathes”. It was customary for the parish authorities to pay a
premium with a child so placed. An important right given to the pauper apprentice by an Act of 1662 was
that apprenticeship conferred a settlement. Unlike children bound as trade apprentices, however, the names
of very few pauper children found their way into the apprenticeship registers, for these were seen as
potential rolls of freeman and electors, a status only a minority of pauper children could expect to attain.

From 1789 onwards, when the minutes of the Mitcham Vestry began to record far more detail on poor law
matters than had previously been the custom, there are many cases illustrating the activity of the parish in
obtaining places for the children in their care. On January 31st 1790, at their monthly meeting, the Vestry
ordered the Beadle to “apply to Mr Terry at Wallington respecting hiring of Rebecca Scarnell”; on
November 9th 1796 the Vestry agreed to the employment by a Mr Kilburn of twelve children from the
workhouse at his cotton manufactory, and on December 13th 1795 we see them bargaining with Messrs.
Bettsey & Co., stocking manufacturers of Cheam, to take, as apprentices, “so many of the boys of the
workhouse … as the Justices shall think proper, at five guineas per boy”. We know that once placed with
an employer, the children were not lost sight of by the Overseers, for on December 27th 1789 the Vestry
ordered the Beadle, Robert Wasley, to take (sic) James Turner “who was bound apprentice to Ralph
Venables his Master, and have his said Master before the Majistrates … to show cause why he does not
provide for his said apprentice.” Working conditions generally were appalling by modern standards, and
we know that in some parts of the Kingdom ‘free’ children were forced, through economic necessity and
the terms of parish relief, to work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., accompanying their parents as ‘piecers’ or
‘sweepers’ in the mills. Peel’s Act of 1802 “For the better preservation of the Health and Morals of
Apprentices in Mills etc.” stipulated a twelve hour day, clean and airy factories, no night work – not more
than two in a bed, teaching of the three ‘Rs’, and religious instruction. Inspection was placed in the hands
of the clergy, but the employers protested at these moderate provisions, and the Act was not efficiently
administered. A further attempt to check some of the worst abuses of pauper apprenticeship was taken in
1816, when forty miles was laid down as the maximum distance for boarding out children from London,
but the practice was to continue for nearly thirty more years before its final abolition.

Over twenty years before the passing of Hanway’s Act permitted the boarding out of London pauper
children, the custom of fostering children was well established in Mitcham. For instance, the Vestry
resolved on April 24th 1745 that

William Mills be paid one Shilling a Week for keeping the late Widow Durham’s two Children which now are in the
Workhouse provided he keeps them well in Clothes which shall be enquired into at the half years End.

The interest of the Vestry in other aspects of child welfare is evidenced by various entries in the minutes,
and undoubtedly many cases not involving expenditure went unrecorded. In February 1745 it was

ordered that the Widow Holt’s Girl have an Iron for her lame leg provided for by the Overseers,

and the minute of January 1st 1743 has what to our eyes is the amusing entry ordering that the
Churchwardens and Overseers

do take care that they shall be most heedful and condescend to save and preserve Wm. Smith (a boy bit by a mad dog)

from falling into madness and that they have him forthwith dipt in the Salt Water.

It was not until 1750 that the supposed medicinal properties of sea water were advanced by Dr Richard
Russell, and it seems hardly likely that the Vestry was proposing a trip to the seaside for young William. In
any case, a midwinter journey to the coast would have been almost impossible at this time, when even the
road between Mitcham and Sutton became impassable, and teams of draught oxen had to be employed to
drag wagons through the clay of the Sussex roads. It seems more likely therefore that William’s treatment
involved a visit to Epsom spa.

The establishment of the first workhouse at Mitcham in 1737 did not mean the end of out-relief, and the
Vestry minutes of the mid-eighteenth century abound in references to financial assistance being given to
families in times of sickness. Furthermore, help was not confined to monetary payment as, for instance,
in May 1749, when the Vestry ordered that two parish officers should accompany Mary Amey, “widow of
Thomas Amey late of Buckham” in her journey to “Buckham”, and there assist her in settling her late
husband’s affairs. Amey’s landlord was to be sought out, and any arrears of rent paid, his debtors were to
be satisfied, and the officers’ reasonable expenses were to be met out of parish funds.

Out-relief included assistance with rent, maintenance allowances for the care of orphans, sick pay for
wage earners, payment of doctors’ fees, and provision of shoes and clothing for pauper children. The
ever-mounting cost of maintaining the poor, whether in the workhouse, or on out-relief, and the resultant
rise in the poor rate (there was a hundred percent increase from 1767 to 1769) led the Vestry increasingly
to take action to secure the removal of non-parishioners to their places of settlement. Not infrequently
they encountered opposition, and had to resort to law. In September 1768 the Vestry ordered

… that the officers do employ a Counsellor and Attorney to defend the cause brought against this parish by the parish
of Great Bedwin in Wilts concerning the removal of Mary Edwards and her three children from this parish to the
parish of Great Bedwin.

Six months later the parish officers were ordered to employ an attorney to appeal against the order which
had resulted in the removal of John Archer, “a Lunatick”, from Crayford in Kent to Mitcham, where he
had become a charge on the parish. Investigation disclosed that Archer had a valid settlement certificate
from East Grinstead, and Mitcham Vestry thereupon instructed that an order be obtained by the officers
for his removal to that town.

For the rest of the century, cases continue to be recorded in the Vestry minutes, the brief entries denying
us the details of the misery and anguish suffered by those involved. In August 1784 nine families were
ordered to be removed “to the several places of their Past Legal Settlement” and ten more the following
October. It is likely that these were migrant workers who had come to Mitcham for the harvest, and were
hoping to overwinter. Although we are told that on April 20th 1788 it was agreed that Robert Wallis and
his family be removed from the workhouse to the place of their last legal settlement, we have no idea of
how they had come to be in Mitcham, what had led to their having to resort to the workhouse, and whither
they were despatched by the Mitcham officers. Some of the entries may sound slightly comic, as in the
case of “Mary Lyndy commonly called Irish Molly”, concerning whose removal from Mitcham the Beadle
was instructed in January 1790 to apply to Mr Terry at Wallington. One may suspect that Irish Molly’s
presence in Mitcham was considered corruptive by the Vestry, but for all we know she may have been
merely the unfortunate victim of circumstances. It was certainly not in every instance that a family in
need was removed, and a distinction seems to have been drawn between undesirables and others against
whom the parish had no complaint, other than that they had become a charge on the poor rate. Should the
Overseers find themselves obliged, perhaps on humanitarian grounds, to grant relief to non-parishioners,
it was to the parish of settlement that they turned for reimbursement. Thus in April 1779 we find Mitcham
Vestry resolving to institute proceedings against the parish of Charlwood for the recovery of money
expended in the relief of a family from that village. There is no mention in the parish records of the
outcome, but presumably if Mitcham was reimbursed the family was allowed to stay. Later Vestry minutes
show that such reciprocal arrangements were quite common.

42 7

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 was aimed at effecting considerable improvement in parochial organisation, but
applied only to parishes who chose to incorporate themselves into Unions. The Act reserved the poor
houses for the sick, the aged and impotent, and orphan children, stipulating that the latter should not be
sent to a workhouse more than ten miles from their home village. The able-bodied were to be excluded
from the workhouse, and found work at or near their place of settlement. Mitcham did not see fit to form
a Union with the neighbouring parishes and fifty years later only 924 parishes out of 16,000 in England
and Wales had done so. Mitcham, however, was not slow to embrace the idea of restricting access to the
workhouse, and in November 1783 reached a decision to discontinue allowances of out-pensions from
the workhouse as “injurious to the Parish and Contrary to the Welfare of the Institute” except in very
extraordinary cases.

We are not told how far this direction was observed in practice, but the resolve of the officers must have
weakened in the face of the circumstances of the cases they had to consider. Six years later the Vestry agreed

Widow King belonging to this Parish now resident in the parish of Clapham be allowed one Shilling per week & paid

and in June 1789 minuted that

Widow Hubbard to be able to go to her sister Shepperds at Tooting and to be allowed two shillings and sixpence per week.
Tooting parish was to be indemnified against any liability for her support.

The need to keep a firm hand on the parish purse-strings remained, however, and in June 1789 several
weekly pensions were reduced “after mature consideration”. Nevertheless out-relief continued and in

Mrs. Ludgater, recently widowed, and with 3 small children to support, was allowed 1/6d. for each child, and Hannah
Munrow was allowed 2/- per week.

With the quarterly poor rate standing at 9d. in the pound and, unlike previous years, continuing at this
level throughout the year, the Vestry remained alarmed at the apparently inescapable burden falling on
the ratepayers. (It must be remembered that there was no General Rate at this time and separate demands
were made for the Church Rate, Highway maintenance, and for bridges, gaols and other County purposes).
On October 25th 1789

In view of the great increase of the weekly relief paid to several persons out of the workhouse

the Vestry agreed that weekly allowances should be discontinued as much as possible. The following
March all weekly pensioners were required to attend with their children at Church at next monthly meeting.
The list of those attending shows twenty-three in receipt of relief, including three widows having
settlements elsewhere. Of the Mitcham parishioners, eight were widows with children, twenty-one in all,
and one widow was living at Clapham. Two couples were living outside the parish, at Fetcham and
Staines, two were single women with children, a third ‘single-parent family’ was that of a man and his
three children living at Barnes. An insane boy and five other pensioners, probably elderly, made up the
total. The average payment was a little over 2 shillings, about a fifth of a field labourer’s wage and
enough to buy three quartern loaves.

8 41

Mitcham Vestry Minutes – Sunday March 28th 1790 [70% reduction] (Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Service)

40 9

(b) The Workhouse
The first hint we have from the parish records of Mitcham Vestry providing accommodation for the poor
comes from the minute of a decision on March 18th 1710, when it was “ordered the overseers do provide
a house for the widow Mulforde and make saile of her Household Goods tomorrow”. During the early
part of the eighteenth century it was becoming accepted that, for their own good, the poor ought to be set
to work in the poorhouse or workhouse, and that with good management, the burden on the ratepayers
could be brought to a minimum by the sale of the products of the paupers’ labour. The idea of establishing
workhouses was adopted in many towns even before the enabling Act of 1723, but these early workhouses
often failed because of the difficulty of finding remunerative work. The Workhouses Act of 1723 authorised
parish officers to buy or rent workhouses and to enter into contracts with businessmen to lodge, maintain
and employ the poor. Persons declining to enter the workhouses could be denied further outdoor relief,
and if parishes were too small, they were empowered to unite. The overseers of the poor retired annually,
and the custom of ‘farming’ the poor was widely adopted, partly to overcome the lack of continuity in
management which might otherwise ensue, and partly to delegate the cares of day-to-day management.
The supervision of the poorhouse and its inmates was left to the contractor, who was granted a per capita
allowance, and was expected to make up the balance of the running costs by profitably employing the
paupers himself, or farming them out to local landowners or manufacturers. Although this system led to
shocking abuses in some parishes, and many of the older poorhouses were insanitary, overcrowded and
verminous, it should be stressed that in others they were comfortable, clean and efficiently administered
with compassion.

At Mitcham, the decision to establish a workhouse was taken in 1737, the Vestry Clerk recording in the

minutes of the Vestry held on November 7th:
1. Ques. Whither [sic] a Workhouse or not? in the Affirmative.
2. Ques. Whither to hire an House to place the poor together in? in the Affirmative.
3. Ques. Whither to purchase an House or not to place the poor together in? in the Negative.
4. Ques. Whither to adjourn till four? in the Affirmative.

The Question being put whither the House upon the Marsh belonging to Mr. Waldo and now in the Occupation of
George Umfrevile be proper and convenient and fit to place the Poor together in are desired to hold up your Hands?
carried in the affirmative
Except Mr. Bond and James Jordan.

Peter Waldo’s house, which overlooked Figges Marsh, a little north of Eveline Road was inspected by a
party of thirteen vestrymen, and a committee of ten was appointed to arrange for the “fitting up of the
intended House and all other matters relating to the providing of what is fit and convenient for maintaining
and employing the Poor that shall be placed therein”. Peter Waldo agreed to satisfactorily “new-rip his
House and make good all the Brick-work, Plaistering-work and other Work so as to put the Same into
Substantial repair … and to inclose and fence the Ground with a five foot pail and an Arch of Brick in
order for a Gate-way both for Cart and footway over against the Front Door of the House”. New windows
were to be fitted and a new chimney constructed in the “great-Room intended for a Work-room and a
Convenient double necessary-House one for the Men and one for the Women”. A twenty-one years lease
was agreed upon at a rental of £12 p.a., possession commencing by December 5th 1737.

Under the date of Sunday March 12th, 1738 the Vestry minutes have the entry

ordered that John Jackson and Mary his wife be put into the Workhouse as Chief Servants of the Parish to look after
the Poor that shall be placed therein and that they be paid fourteen pounds a year for their Service from Lady Day next.

It was left to Peter Waldo to furnish the house “as he shall think proper”. The entry was not signed, which
suggests that it did not meet with the full approval of the Vestry, the majority of whom presumably
objected to the cost. On March 26th there is a further entry, recording the assent of the Vestry to the
appointment of a Thomas Bond and his wife to care for the poor at £10 p.a.

It is not quite clear when the practice of farming the poor was first introduced in Mitcham, but by 1758
we find the Vestry entering into a contract with “Samuel Angier of Poplar” whereby for the sum of £280

10 39

p.a. he agreed to “maintain, clothe and employ the poor”. Reading between the lines, it seems that for the
next ten years the fate of the inmates of the workhouse must have been an unhappy one, and the performance
of the workhouse master the constant concern of the Vestry.
The choice of Angier was unfortunate, to say the least, and his subsequent performance most unsatisfactory.
It is clear that his interest in caring for the poor was solely pecuniary, and in 1760, having reached an
agreement with the Vestry of the neighbouring parish of Tooting to care for their poor at the rate of two
shillings and ninepence per head per week, he had the effrontery to approach Mitcham Vestry with the
request that they allow him to use their workhouse for this purpose.1 Not surprisingly, the Mitcham officers
refused permission, and the unfortunate Tooting paupers, with their Overseers’ consent, were taken by
Angier “to his own House in Coleman St London”. By 1764 Mitcham’s dissatisfaction with Angier seems
to have been coming to a head, for when in May the Vestry met to consider his proposals for the care of
the poor of the parish for the next three years, they had to adjourn three times before agreement was
finally reached. The page in the minute book recording their decision is, rather strangely, missing, with
every sign of its having been torn from the book. The following year, when at the end of March it was
agreed that Angier was

to be continued and entrusted to have the care of the now and hereafter poor of this parish and also the casual poor for
one other whole year … & on his present terms and conditions agreeable to certain old articles between him and the
Parish and at the same salary of £280 p.a. payable quarterly

he was required to sign the minute book as a token of his acceptance of the conditions. At the Easter
Vestry on April 9th 1765 Angier was the first of the six persons short-listed for appointment by the
Justices as Overseers for the year 1765/66. Quite properly, he was not selected.

In 1765 the neighbouring village of Carshalton embarked upon an experiment which, as Jones2 comments,
“though presumably financially advantageous to the ratepayers, was highly undesirable for the poor. An
agreement was made with Samuel Angier, a Mitcham baker, that for three years he would ’employ, maintain
and cloath the Poor’ of the parish in return for a payment of £160 per annum. The dangers of this
arrangement seem to have weighed heavily in the conscience of the parish and, at an unusually large
vestry meeting, a committee of twenty-nine was appointed ‘to inspect into and order the Employment,
Maintenance, Cloathing, Regulation and other Matters and Things respecting the poor of the said parish
according to the true Intent & meaning’ of the agreement with Angier.”

38 11

Peter Waldo’s house overlooking Figges Marsh, used as a parish workhouse from from 1737 to 1782. Photographed c.1860, when it
was known as The Poplars Boarding Academy for Young Gentlemen (Tom Francis Collection – Merton Library and Heritage Service)

The years 1765 to 1768 saw a steady increase both in the cost of provisions and in the numbers of the
poor seeking the support of the parishes, and Angier was in constant financial difficulty. The lump sum
originally allowed him by Mitcham Vestry was quite inadequate to provide for the poor of that parish,
and in June 1766, when his appointment as workhouse keeper was confirmed for a further twelve months,
his salary was not only increased to £300 p.a., but he was presented with the sum of £20 “for and on
account of the Dearness of Provisions”. Prices continued to rise and a year later his salary was raised to
£340 p.a., with a further sum of £20 to reimburse him, but it appears that this was still not sufficient, for
only five months later it was

further ordered that Samuel Angier to whom our parish poor are entrusted until Mid-Summer next be paid an additional
quarterly of £27. 10. 0. from Michaelmas last on account of the great increase of poor now in the parish-house and the
rise of provisions and other expenses.

The increase in the sum paid to Angier – from £280 to £442 .10s. from May 1765 to May 1768 – is
remarkably high, yet as we shall see later, was actually insufficient.

By 1767 Tooting parish officers were so dissatisfied with Angier, who was not fulfilling his part of the
contract, that they decided to look into the question of obtaining a poorhouse of their own.3 Early next
year the Mitcham officers, worried at conditions in their workhouse, tried to bring Angier to account, but
he repeatedly failed to appear before the Vestry. After numerous adjourned meetings, it was finally decided
on March 1st 1768, that in view of Angier’s absence from the poorhouse and neglect of his duties, Michael
Freeman should “assist Mrs. Angier in the care of the poor under the Inspection of the Officers for one
month from this day”. This resolution marks, in fact, the end of farming the poor for a decade, during
which time the management of the workhouse came under the direct supervision of a committee of seven
‘Gentlemen Parishioners’ which included the Squire, James Cranmer, and a London attorney, William
Tate. Enquiring into the running of the workhouse, the committee was informed by the Churchwardens
and Overseers on March 16th that

Saml. Angier hath neglected to find, provide and allow proper and sufficient meat, drink, washing, cloathing and other
necessary for the relief of the poor of this parish pursuant to his … agreement.

The committee thereupon authorised the parish officers

To find, provide and allow such provision of necessaries as shall be thought sufficient for the relief and necessity of the
poor of this parish so long as Saml. Angier shall neglect to provide for the Poor pursuant to his agreement,

and ordered that Angier be given notice to quit the workhouse by June 24th 1768, when his agreement
with the parish expired. The action of the committee was formally approved by the parishioners in Vestry
on March 16th. It remained to find a suitable man and woman to manage the workhouse, and on June 12th
a meeting of parishioners held in the vestry ordered that

James Beswell and his wife be chief servants to the Parish to look after the poor that now are and shall be placed in the
workhouse and likewise to do the office of a Beadle; with the allowance of £15 a year and likewise to have a coat and
hat when necessary; his service and salary to commence at Mid-Summer next and upon any dislike on either side to
have a month’s warning.

Beswell signed the minutes, “assenting and agreeing to the above order”.

It was still necessary to settle the muddle left by Angier, and on Sunday June 26th 1768 it was ordered
that a Vestry be held in the Committee room at the workhouse the following Thursday, June 30th 1768 at
6 p.m., and that Mr Atkinson (one of the Overseers) and Mr Angier must attend with their accounts. At
this meeting, (which Atkinson attended, signing with an X) a further adjournment was ordered so that the
parish officers might

Get such of the goods appraised as are in the workhouse and belonging to Mr Angier (by and with his consent) in order
that the officers may have an opportunity of purchasing the same or part thereof as they shall think fit for the use of the
Parish as the said Angier has quitted his employment as Master of the said House ever since Lady Day and is greatly
indebted to the parish.

12 37

On July 7th 1768 in the committee room “of the Parish House” the officers reported to the gentlemen of
the committee and other parishioners that whereas Angier’s normal salary for the quarter was £112. 10.
0., they had had to expend a sum of “£140 and upward” in the quarter in maintaining the poor – far in
excess of Angier’s allowance. Angier, appearing in person, expressed before the committee on this occasion
his willingness to continue as workhouse keeper, and asked that he might be allowed to “discharge his
trust”. He said he was willing to surrender to the parish misappropriated goods (sic) to the value of £44.

2. 0. in settlement of his debt of £18. 18. 6., and hoped the parish would not oblige him to reimburse them
“the overpluss of the charge for the last quarter”. The Vestry was so confused it was unable to come to a
decision on this amazing proposal immediately, and the meeting was adjourned. Two days later the
committee and parishioners decided to “discharge Angier from his trust from Lady Day last” and to
purchase the goods which had been listed by their officers and independently valued at £44. 2. 0. Angier’s
debt was deducted from the sum received, and the balance paid to him.
It would appear that although Angier had misappropriated parish goods, the parish was prepared to overlook
his irregularity in view of the evidence that they had not been allowing him sufficient money to provide
for the poor in his charge. They evidently accepted that they were in some measure responsible for “his
great misfortune and present distresses”. It is difficult at the distance of two centuries to say with certainty
whether Angier was completely to blame for failing to provide adequately for the poor. His attempted
theft of parish property is, of course, inexcusable, and it is more than likely that it had been his intention
to line his pockets at the expense of parish and poor alike. His success in inducing the Vestry to increase
his allowance from £280 to £450 in three years can be attributed, at least in part, to the known increase in
the price of wheat and other commodities in the 1760s, and in view of the fact that in the experience of
the workhouse committee an expenditure of between £560 and £600 p.a. was necessary, he can hardly
have made much profit. We have no idea of the number of paupers in the workhouse at this time, although
on the basis of the sum agreed with Tooting in 1767, between thirty-five and forty inmates at Mitcham
would be a reasonable assumption. From the absence of any reference to actual employment of the poor
in the contemporary Vestry minutes, it would appear that potential revenue from this quarter was negligible.
Certainly it could be inferred from the increase in the number of paupers which occurred at this time that
the labour market was depressed, although an alternative explanation for the increase in poverty could be
the failure of wage rates of workers on the margin of subsistence to rise in line with commodity prices.

Once the Angier affair had been settled, the Vestry settled down to managing the workhouse through the
committee and their servants, the workhouse keeper and his wife. They revived the idea of useful
employment, and on December 12th 1768 resolved that

We the Minister, Churchwardens, Overseers and other parishioners being in Vestry pursuant to several adjournments
to consider of a proper Employment for the parish poor and it being proposed by the Officers that the poor might be
employed in Spinning, Carding and manufacturing of Mop yarn for making Mops untill some other shall be found out
or the same be judged improper, It is Ordered that the Officers and their Successors do employ such of their parish
poor which now or hereafter shall be in their parish house that are able and well in Spinning carding and Manufacturing
of Mop yarn for making of mops or otherwise, and that the materials and necessarys proper for the purpose aforesaid
be purchased by the sd. Officers & persons employ’d to teach the same.

For reasons which are not stated, in January 1769 the Vestry were once again advertising in the press for
a “proper person to take care of the poor in the Workhouse”. Three weeks later the parishioners meeting
in Vestry at the King’s Head unanimously agreed to appoint John Hunt of Holborn in the capacity of
“Yearly servant to the Workhouse” under the directions of the “Officers and Gentlemen of the Committee”
at a rate of £30 per year. Some indication of the care now being exercised by the Vestry in their choice of
workhouse keepers may be gained by the fact that although they had decided that Hunt was “the properest
person in preference to the other candidates who have offer’d”, he was discharged, “his character upon
Inquiry being answerable”. The post was readvertised on several occasions during the next three years,
but the Beswells were not finally given notice to leave until August 1772. Unfortunately their successor,
John Winter, proved unsatisfactory, “having not conformed to the Articles now Subsisting between the
Parish and him”, and was given three months’ notice in March 1773. Once again, the Vestry felt the need

36 13

to tighten their control over the management of the workhouse, and in May 1773 it was resolved that
officers and such of the committee as pleased were to meet at the committee room in the workhouse every
“Fryday” evening at 6 o’clock to relieve the poor applying for relief, and five further members be added
to the committee for the management of the affairs of the parish. The officers were still to endeavour to
procure as chief servant of the parish a fit person to care for the poor.

At the end of May 1773 John Warring and Mary Mattinson, who were already inmates of the workhouse,
were appointed as workhouse keepers. Once again, the choice was an unfortunate one, and we can only
guess at the events leading to the minute of the Vestry on July 23rd 1775:

… It is Order’d that the Officers do Employ an Attorney to act according to the advice of Counsellor Baron in the
Affair of John Waring in regard to his behaviour to the Children in the Workhouse, and they shall be indemnify’d for
the charges attending the same.

We are left unenlightened as to the outcome of the proceedings, and must also assume that for a further
two and a half years the workhouse was run by the committee, for no further entries appear in the Vestry
minutes until December 1777, when once more it was agreed a workhouse manager should be appointed.
Shortly before Christmas an advertisement was put in the press for proposals from “Some Reputable
Person or Persons” to provide for, and employ the poor of the Parish. Thus it transpired that an Andrew
Ogle, of apparently satisfactory character, was appointed “to take the care and employment of the poor of
this parish” at a salary of £580 p.a. In their choice of Ogle the Vestry was again misled despite a good
report as to his character being provided by the officers, and in less than six months they were requiring
him to attend before a full Vestry meeting, and (presumably) account for his misdemeanours. Farming of
the poor was abandoned once again, and on June 30th 1778 the Vestry appointed William Moore Senr. at
a salary of £25 p.a.

on condition that he perform the following Articles, viz:To
Collect all the Poors Rates and Church Rates in this Parish: to get Examinations to carry away all Paupers. Assist
the Woman in the Workhouse, to Inspect into the Delivery of Goods brought in the Said Workhouse: to See and
Examine that Nothing is Wasted or Confiscated & to do all the Business as the Majority of Officers & Parishioners in
Vestry or Committee thinks proper.

Thus we come to the close of the history of the management (or mismanagement) of the first Mitcham
workhouse. Conditioned as we are to seeing the workhouse always as a cold, grim building wherein the
unfortunate inmates were treated with cruelty and indifference, it is easy to assume the worst from the extracts
quoted above. Undoubtedly the Vestry was unfortunate on many occasions in the choice of its contractors
and servants, but usually one can see a readiness to rectify matters. The full story of the first Mitcham
workhouse will, of course, never be known, and one can only hope that the gentlemen of the workhouse
committee, many of whom we know from contemporary records to have been capable of considerable generosity
and compassion, succeeded in alleviating the lot of the least fortunate of their fellow parishioners.

After considering the matter on various occasions over a period of two years, and after repeated
adjournments with no decision being reached, Mitcham Vestry finally decided on December 30th 1780
that a proper poorhouse should be erected. Since the unwholesome appearance and disturbing behaviour
of some of the unfortunate recipients of parochial charity probably rendered their removal from the centre
of the village desirable in the eyes of the more sensitive members of the community, a suitably remote
location was identified on the far side of Mitcham Common. The site chosen lay within the manor of
Biggin and Tamworth, then held by the Manship family, and the Vestry accordingly instructed a local
attorney, Francis Gregg of Park Place, Mitcham, to take the necessary steps to obtain consent to the
enclosure of the required parcel of manorial waste.

Submitting that the land was required not only as a site for the new workhouse, but also to provide a
garden and orchard for the benefit of the poor, Gregg appears to have had no difficulty in convincing
Elizabeth Manship of the parish’s need, and at a special manorial court baron enclosure of approximately
three acres two roods of common land was sanctioned on payment of a nominal rental of five shillings per

14 35

annum.4 The Vestry received their attorney’s report at a meeting held in the parish church on July 29th
1781, and appointed a committee of six parishioners to transact the business of conveying the land to the
parish, and to decide upon plans for the erection of the new building.

Subsequent events moved with commendable speed; an agreement consenting to the enclosure was signed
on August 18th by eighteen tenants of the manor, and the trustees for the parishioners were granted their
licence to enclose on Augustst 21st.5 W. Oxtoby, a local builder and architect, was commissioned to prepare
the drawings, and in less than a month the committee was able to invite tenders. The quotation submitted by
Samuel Killick was duly accepted, and by March 24th 1782, building operations were sufficiently advanced
for the Vestry to give Peter Waldo of The Elms, the owner of the old poorhouse, one quarter’s notice of their
intention to quit. (This apparently annoyed Waldo, since on December 15th the Vestry minutes record that
the parish officers were ordered to take steps to enforce the payment of his poor rate, which he had withheld
in protest at their action.)

Undeterred by its previous experience, the Vestry advertised in June the posts of master and mistress of the
workhouse, and on August 10th Gregg was asked to draw up an agreement for signature by the Churchwardens
and Overseers of the Poor and James Hill for the maintenance and employment of the poor of the parish for
twelve months from Michaelmas at two shillings and eightpence per head per week. The cost of building the
workhouse was £1,200, and at a Vestry meeting held at the King’s Head on December 27th 1782, it was
decided that Killick should receive interest at the rate of 5% per annum on the sum of £700 outstanding to
his credit.

Starkly functional, Oxtoby’s design lacked any of the architectural embellishments one associates with
normal domestic buildings of the period.6 The central element, a three-storied building of seven bays,
measured fifty-five feet long by twenty-five feet in width. Front and back entrances were centrally placed,
and the construction was of red brick with a tiled roof. Two-storied extensions at both ends of the main
structure retained the formal symmetry of the composition, but with the passage of time this was to be
obscured by the addition of various sheds and outbuildings. The grim old building, surmounted by a
clock, and approached by a gravel track still known today as ‘the workhouse path’ by a few of the older
residents of Mitcham, was a prominent feature on the bare windswept Common for many years. Apart
from parts of the boundary wall, nothing now remains of the buildings which, for nearly sixty years, must
have been regarded with apprehension by the village labourers and their families.

The Workhouse, Commonside East, Mitcham, watercolour by John Hassell, 1823 (Merton Library and Heritage Service)

Hill’s allowance for maintaining the poor was increased by ld. per head per week from Christmas 1783 to
Michaelmas 1784 but he tendered his notice in March 1784, and this was accepted. With uncharacteristic
slowness, it was not until August that the Vestry instructed the Churchwardens and Overseers to advertise
“for a Person to farm the Poor of this Parish as the present person’s time is nearly expired”. A Ralph
Venables was appointed “to maintain and employ the poor” at 2/8d per head (to replace James Hill from
Michaelmas) which, with an average of seventy inmates, means an annual allowance of a little over £485

– far short of the sum paid to Ogle seven years previously. Payment of £52 was made to James Hill in
consideration for various buildings etc. he had erected at workhouse, and deficiencies in clothing and
linen were made good.
By November it must have been very evident that the Vestry had seriously underestimated the allowance
made to Venables, for the workhouse inmates seem to have been on very short commons. The minute for
November 22nd poignantly records that it was

Order’d that for Peace and Quietness sake Two Ounces of Bread more than the present Quantity be allowed to each
person in the Workhouse and that one penny per Head per Week be added to the pay of Mr. Venables for each poor
person in the said Workhouse.

His total allowance was now £500 p.a., which was still short of Ogle’s salary by £80.

Without further information on the number of poor in the workhouse, movements in the price of flour and
other staples, and above all, the income derived from employment of the poor, it is impossible to form
much of a picture of their standard of living. None of the masters stayed long. A John Evans (who had
presumably replaced Venables) gave notice in May 1788, to be replaced in his turn by John Govas and
wife, commencing duties at Michaelmas. Once more the allowance seems low – 2/6d per head being
agreed with Govas, as it had been with Evans before him.

We are familiar with the much later Dickensian image of the workhouse, but have no justification for
assuming that in the eighteenth century the Mitcham authorities were deliberately callous or indifferent
in their dealings with the poor, although much more research is needed before the full story of these years
can be told. Eden, in his State of the Poor, published originally in 1797, showed that in the workhouses
generally, although the diet could no doubt become monotonous, the poor were adequately fed; “At Esher,
where the bill of fare was varied with the consent of the Poor, according to the season, the inmates were
not stinted to any particular quantity”. Christmas and feast days were also occasions for suitably increasing
and varying the menu. In his introduction to the 1928 edition of Eden’s work, A. G. L. Rogers commented
“it is much to be wished that we had any assurance that the children of the independent poor fared half as
well. In Kent and probably in most parts of England at that time the labouring classes seldom tasted meat
in winter, except in the Poor-house”.

Certainly an attempt seems to have been made at Mitcham to render the immediate surroundings of the
workhouse a little less uncongenial to the inmates, for a plan7 surviving from 1840 shows clearly that an
extensive flower garden had been laid out in front of the dwelling house and a children’s playground to
one side, in addition to the more utilitarian kitchen garden and “potato ground” at the rear. The original
request from the Vestry for a grant of land mentioned a garden and orchard for the benefit of the poor, and
in 1784 there was even a brewhouse attached to the premises. Concern for the welfare of the inmates of
the workhouse is evident in the following Vestry minute of April 2nd 1793:

The thanks of the parish in Vestry assembled be given to Henry Hoare Esq. for his Kindness in Erecting and furnishing
a cottage at his own Expence by the side of the workhouse for the use of poor people afflicted with any infectious
disorders that might be pernicious to the poor in the House; and that it likewise order’d that the Vestry Clerk do
transcribe the last order of Vestry and wait upon Henry Hoare Esqr with the same.

Provision was made for elementary instruction of the children, by a Mr Sargent until Midsummer 1793,
and thereafter by Mrs Piesley, one of the inmates. The arrangement no doubt saved on the fees paid to Mr
Sargent. The children were taught to “read and work” – the former mainly that they might derive benefit
from the Bible and the visits of the curate.

16 33

III – The Parish Officers and the Poor Rate

Before proceeding further with this study of the administration of the poor law in the parish of Mitcham,
we should, perhaps, pause to consider the principal actors in the drama. The “now and hereafter poor”,
who flit through the pages of the Vestry minutes and Overseers’ accounts can rarely be identified with
their homes or the trades they followed before they fell on hard times. Their names are, of course, recorded
for posterity, but, as we have remarked already, we can do little except imagine the details of the little
tragedies which ultimately forced the families, the widowed, or the orphaned to seek relief from the

The principal officers through which the parochial authorities performed their Poor Law functions were
the Churchwardens and the Overseers of the Poor. Normally they were unpaid, although as we shall see,
there were exceptions, and unless one could claim exemption, service for one year was obligatory, shortlisting
being determined by rotation or the property one occupied. The office of Churchwarden carried
with it a degree of dignity and prestige, and since the duties were not too onerous, it was frequently
considered an honour. Overseer of the Poor on the other hand, was an office to be avoided if possible,
since it often brought the holder into conflict with his neighbour, and took a considerable amount of his
time. In compensation, Mitcham Vestry agreed to pay its Overseers £50 p.a. in 1797. Two Overseers were
appointed annually by the Justices of the Peace from the six nominees put forward by the parishioners
assembled at the Easter Vestry meeting. In Mitcham prior to 1800 the Overseers seem to have been drawn
in the main from the middle stratum of village society, and only occasionally do we find the minor gentry
taking their turn with farmers, and tradesmen. Literacy does not appear to have been considered vital,
particularly during the early eighteenth century, when it was quite common to find the Overseers signing
the Vestry minutes with their mark, rather than their names. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising
that few Overseers’ accounts or vouchers are known from the period prior to 1780, and that with the
exception of one book from the Commonwealth period, the earliest poor rate books now extant date from

Towards the latter part of the eighteenth century a third officer, the Beadle, acquired a more active role in
Poor Law administration in Mitcham. Lampooned in fiction as an interfering old busybody, the Beadle’s
office was of considerable antiquity (he is mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry VI) and yet his duties
appear never to have been defined by the courts. They were, however, well established in Mitcham by the
late eighteenth century. A holder of the office in Mitcham in the mid-nineteenth century is recalled by a
contemporary as “a pompous old gentleman who used to march solemnly to church on Sundays in a
cocked hat and knee breeches, his uniform decorated with gold lace and gilt buttons, a large bunch of
seals at his waist, and carrying his official staff”. Despite his impressive appearance, however, he was of
relatively lowly status, and was frequently required to act as assistant to the statutory officers of the
parish. On April 13th 1786, Mitcham vestrymen, with doubtful legality, unanimously appointed Robert
Wasley as “Assistant Overseer, Constable and Beadle at a salary of £30 p.a.”. Furthermore, the post was
felt to be sufficiently important for the Vestry to consider that a “proper Person” should be nominated
each year. The Vestry minutes do not record the confirmation by the Justices of Wasley’s appointment,
and it is significant that although at the following Easter his name was again put forward as Assistant
Overseer, his signature appears only once in the following year in the Vestry minutes, and then not as an
Overseer. One senses a reluctance on the part of the Justices to confirm this appointment, but the Vestry
evidently triumphed in the end. Their impatience can be detected in the following extract from the minutes
of the Easter Vestry held on March 25th 1788:

It is further Order’d that Robt. Wasley be appointed to serve as an Assistant Overseer & likewise to serve in the
Capacity of Constable and Beedle of this parish with a Salary of £30 pr. Ann: payable Quarterly and to Act in all
respects according to the Minutes of Vestry dated Kings Head Inn Apl. 13: 1786 which Minutes were this day read and
Unanimously agreed to; to be a Standing Order of this parish.

On this occasion His Majesty’s Justices confirmed Wasley’s appointment, and he continued in office for
two further years, until replaced by a Richard Symmonds.

32 17

Symmonds’ appointment is noteworthy, not only for the somewhat unusual adjournment to the churchyard
after Sunday morning service, in order that the abnormally large number of persons wishing to take part
in the proceedings could be accommodated, but also for the detailed statement of his duties recorded in
the Vestry minute. It was ordered

… that a person be appointed to be Beedle of this parish to clear the parish of Vagrants, to attend at the Meetings of the
parish officers to Issue their Summons, to accompany and carry the poor to be removed to the Majistrates & procure
Passes, to attend every Sunday at Church and see that regularity & peace be kept in the Church & Church yard during
Divine Service & to Collect the Poors rates if the Overseers of the poor require his Assistance in that respect at the
risque of the Overseers & to wear a Gold laced Hat & Coat at the Expence of the parish, to be appointed for the
ensuing Year & to be paid Quarterly the Coat & Hat to be returned to the parish if the person should be turn’d out
before the Years end but to have a new Coat and Hat as aforesaid Every Easter Tuesday & the Salary to be at the rate
of Twenty Guineas pr Ann; And It is further Order’d that Richard Symmonds be appointed to the said Office of Beedle
of this parish and to have a Coat & Hat at the price of Six Guineas.

Thirty-two parishioners signed the page of the minute book recording the appointment – a most unusual
number. It will be noticed that Symmonds’ salary was £9 less than Wasley’s, and yet his duties, as defined,
were more extensive. The appointment must have been part-time, or the office holder was expected ‘to
make something on the side’, for his salary was little more than a field labourer’s pay!

Funds to meet the expenditure incurred by the Overseers were raised by the levying of a quarterly rate on
house property in the parish. Reluctance on the part of parishioners to pay their dues was just as common
in the eighteenth century as it is now, and the officers were instructed to institute proceedings against the
defaulters. In the case of John Anthony Rucker, a prosperous calico printer with factory premises at
Phipps Bridge, the Churchwardens and Overseers obtained an order against Rucker at Quarter Sessions,
but the procedure was ineffective, and on February 28th 1790 the Vestry resolved that the officers should
seek the advice of Mr Carter, the parish’s solicitor, as to the steps left open to them to enforce the order.
The basis of assessment was the anticipated or calculated yearly rental of the property, and since it was
fixed by the untrained and sometimes dishonest Overseers, was a constant source of friction. The type of
dispute which could occur is well illustrated by a scandal which shook the village of Mitcham in 1787.
William Pollard, a gentleman living at Park Place and Joseph Sibley, the Overseers for the year 1787/8,
had refused to rate themselves on the same basis as the other parishioners, and the Churchwardens and
inhabitants assembled in Vestry on June 14th 1787 decided to appeal against any rate demanded of them
by Pollard and Sibley. Accordingly a committee of twelve parishioners was appointed to conduct the
appeal of “the greater part of the Parishioners against the unequal Poors rate now made”, to consider
future rating assessments, the manner in which the poor were cared for, and how the poor rate should be
applied. The Overseers declined to attend the three meetings at which these measures were adopted, but
when a vestry was called on August 12th to consider the Overseers’ finances until the appeal was settled,
they, the Overseers, declared “… the poor are not in want, nor the Master of the Workhouse in want of
Money …”. The appeals against the unequal rating assessments were heard at the Quarter Sessions held at
Guildford and Kingston on July 10th and October 2nd respectively, and William Pollard was ordered to
double his assessment from £50 to £100. Legal costs were borne by the parish rates. Attempts to levy a
poor rate of one shilling in the pound for the Michaelmas quarter were unsuccessful, and when the two
Overseers failed to attend a Vestry held on December 30th, they were formally required to be present at
the next monthly meeting, and to “give an account of the poor”. This had little effect, and their continued
failure to comply with the Vestry’s orders resulted in the Churchwardens being instructed to proceed
against them “as the law directs”, but the Churchwardens’ action seems to have been singularly ineffective,
for Pollard and Sibley remained conspicuous by their absence at subsequent Vestry meetings called by
the Parish Clerk. They did, however, call a Vestry themselves in March 1788, in an attempt to levy a poor
rate of 6d. in the pound, but this was adjourned, and a week later the Vestry refused to agree to the making
of any new rate “until £20 of the former rate and £120 of the last rate” were collected properly, being of
the opinion that a sufficient rate had already been granted to defray the expenses of maintaining the poor
and that the defaulters should pay the amount still due. Unfortunately the Vestry minutes do not give a

18 31

Mitcham Vestry Minutes – Wednesday April 28th 1790 [70% reduction] (Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Service)

30 19

complete account of the end of this sorry affair; the Overseers failed to submit their books and after
repeated adjournments, at which no business could be transacted, the Vestry seems to have decided to cut
its losses and start afresh. Its troubles were not lessened by the resignation of the workhouse master in
May 1788.

An earlier dispute with which the Vestry had to grapple arose in 1783 from the withholding of rates by a
number of ratepayers, including Mr Foster, a miller, and Peter Waldo. They held the view that rates
should not be demanded on that part of the rent which included payment of land tax by the tenants. The
issue was an important one, for large sums of money were involved. The Vestry sought the opinion of the
highest authority it knew – Lord Loughborough, Lord Chief Justice to the Court of Common Pleas, who
lived at Mitcham Grove. Lord Loughborough’s opinion was that land tax was part of the rent and therefore
subject to pay the poor rate, in accordance with current assessments. Nothing more is recorded of this
dispute and presumably the protesters paid up.

Receipts for Poor Rate received – 1818 (Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library and Heritage Service)


for the better assessing and collecting the Poor and other Parochial Rates,
in the Parish of Mitcham, in the County of Surrey 1816

(Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library and Heritage Service)


“The Now and Hereafter Poor”

(Unless otherwise stated, the source of much of the information in this study is the volumes of Mitcham
Vestry Minutes 1699-1763, 1763-1793, 1793-1806, 1807-1823 and 1823-1854 held at Surrey History

I. Introduction, and Practice in Mitcham till 1710
1. Surrey Record Society. Surrey Quarter Sessions Order Book 1661. XXXV (1934) 66-7.
2. Purley Library. LC.10. Typescript copy (origin unstated).
3. Surrey Record Society. Surrey Hearth Tax 1664 Nos. XLI, XLII Vol. XVII (1940).
4. Lysons, D., Environs of London I Pt. 1 (1811) 360.
II. The Poor Law in Operation in the Eighteenth Century
(b) The Workhouses
1. Morden, W.E., A History of Tooting-Graveney (1897) 63.
2. Jones, A.E., From Medieval Manor to London Suburb (c.1970) 59.
3. Morden, op.cit. 71.
4. Surrey History Centre. Court Rolls, Manor of Biggin and Tamworth.
5. Surrey History Centre. 2/5/7.
6. Wimbledon Library. Brayley, E.W. A Topographical History of Surrey III Pt.3 contains two
watercolours of the workhouse by J. Hassell, dated 1823.
7. Surrey History Centre. 2/6/4.
IV. Wartime Stresses
1. Eden, F.M., The State of the Poor (1797). Edited by Roger, A.G.L. (1928).
2. Surrey History Centre. Court Rolls of the Manor of Biggin and Tamworth.
3. Merton Local Studies Centre L2/346 “1816” LP 110
4. Malcolm, J. A Compendium of Modern Husbandry III (1805) 116
V. Post War Depression and Poor Law Reform
1. Webb, S. and B., English Local Government. For general background see Hammond, J.L, The Bleak
Age (1947)
2. Brayley, E.W., A Topographical History of Surrey V (1850).
3. Merton Local Studies Centre. Tom Francis lantern slides.
4. Merton Local Studies Centre. Tom Francis lecture notes.
5. Sullivan, J.M.A. The Parish of Mitcham in Surrey in the year 1838-9. (an unpublished thesis for a
London University Diploma, 1970).
6. Surrey History Centre 6089/1/47. This has been published by Merton Historical Society as Local
History Notes – 22: Mitcham in 1838: A Survey by Messrs Crawter & Smith (2002).
Rates were not the only source of funds to meet the cost of poor relief, and in 1770 the charges made by
the Vestry for the removal of turves and gravel from Mitcham Common, determined at a meeting on April
15th 1762, were “ratified and confirmed”. Mineral rights on manorial waste normally vested in the lord
of the manor, and Mitcham Vestry’s assumption of this right, was of highly questionable legality. Their
extra-manorial activity was not restricted to fees for gravel, and on several occasions in the latter part of
the eighteenth century, the Vestry was not slow to demand, and obtain, financial benefit from the illicit
enclosure of common waste in various parts of the parish. The main Common of Mitcham, still important
in the economy of the village in that it afforded rough grazing for the commoners’ cattle and was also a
source of fuel, was vigorously defended by the Vestry against overgrazing and encroachment when the
threat came from non-parishioners. Small portions of waste of little agricultural value still existed in
various parts of the parish, and when these were used or enclosed by adjoining landowners, the Vestry
was quick to demand payment or to seek some other benefit for the community in recompense. Its authority
to manage the common waste is dubious, but the lords of the manors concerned evidently acquiesced in,
and, in so far as the payments demanded helped to reduce the burden of the poor rate, supported the
Vestry’s action.

Several examples may be quoted. In March 1769 an encroachment on parish waste near Merton Abbey by
Jonathan Meadows was reported to the Vestry, and it was agreed the following month that Meadows
should be threatened with prosecution. That autumn another encroachment was reported, this time by
John Anthony Rucker at Phipps Bridge. Having inspected Rucker’s encroachment, which arose through a
diversion of the Wandle below Phipps Bridge across a small strip of roadside waste to serve his calico
bleaching grounds, the Vestry gave their conditional assent. Rucker entered into an agreement whereby
he made an annual payment of £1 to the poor rate, accepted responsibility for the repair of Phipps Bridge
and also a new bridge over the cut he had created, for a term of sixty-one years. The following February
agreement was reached with Jonathan Meadows that he might retain the waste land adjoining “The Old
Shore Ditch” on payment of one guinea per annum to the poor rate, and on condition that he placed two
boundary stones marked MS 1770 in the ditch to show the boundary between Mitcham and the adjoining
parish of Merton.

In February 1773 the Vestry deliberated on the question of the enclosure of a roadside portion of Mitcham
Common abutting Park Place, the residence of Francis Gregg. Doubt could well have arisen as to which
manor had jurisdiction over the land, for whereas Park Place lay in the manor of Vauxhall, held by the
Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, the Cranmer family, as lords of the manor of Mitcham, laid claim to that
part of the Common now known as ‘Cranmer Green’, which lay on the opposite side of the road from Park
Place. In the event the Vestry agreed to give their consent “as far as in them lies” that Gregg might
enclose the ground in front of his house “in Consideration of Mr. Gregg paying one Guinea pr. An. to be
added to the poors rate”. Gregg signified his acceptance of this condition, and thereby added appreciably
to the value of his property.

For reasons which are not stated, the Vestry decided in October 1776 “that no more Encroachments be
made upon the waste Grounds of this parish”. They had, of course, been setting a dangerous precedent
which if carried too far would have tended to render even more of the poor a charge on the parish by
depriving them of their rights of common. Enclosure did, however, continue for socially justifiable
purposes, such as “a proper house for the Engine” (i.e. manual fire pump) on Whitford or Lower Mitcham
Green in the manor of Vauxhall in 1776, and the workhouse on Commonside East in 1781. Enclosure for
private advantage did not take place for another twenty years and then, at a time of great pressure on the
poor rates during the first phase of the war with Republican France, the Vestry in March 1797 allowed
Isaac Hillier (who five years later served as a Churchwarden) to enclose a piece of waste land of the
parish “nearly opposite his house” on payment of half a guinea per annum to the Overseers of the Poor.

IV – Wartime Stresses

It is not surprising to find that within a few years of the outbreak of war with France the strain imposed on
the internal economy of Britain should begin to bear heavily on those sections of the community least
able to make adequate provision for themselves in the best of times. From 1767 to 1789 wheat production
in England had fluctuated between the good years, when there had been an export surplus, and years of
poor harvests when there was a deficit and prices rose. The last year of surplus was 1792, and two years
later, in consequence of the very great price of bread-corn during the whole of 1794, Eden1 tells us that
“the distresses of the Poor were unusually great”, and the amount expended on their relief “beyond all
former example”. “That they have, during the last two years” (i.e. 1795 and 1796) “been subjected to
great distress, from a rise, unexampled within the present century, in the price of the necessaries of life,
everyone will readily acknowledge”. At this time, when labourers in husbandry were receiving from 9s to
10s. 6d. per week, the price of a quartern loaf was 10d., tea 4s per pound, butter 10d., beef from 6d. to 8d.,
and eggs one penny each. Milk at 3½d. a quart was beyond the reach of the bulk of labourers, who
nevertheless contrived to consume vast quantities of beer, and drank tea with every meal, much to the
disgust of social reformers, who considered this an inexcusable extravagance! Fuel costs were such that
“even the labourer’s dinner of hot meat on a Sunday is generally dressed at the baker’s, and his meals
during the rest of the week consist almost wholly of bread purchased from the same quarter”. Against
such prices, Mitcham Vestry’s allowance of two shillings per week to John Churchill “until he gets work”
in April 1793 hardly seems generous, and one wonders how Sarah Smith fared, allowed three shillings a
week for her children “at present”.

In his comments on the clothing of the working classes in the Home Counties Eden is also illuminating.
Virtually no homespun cloth was made, and the labourers in general purchased their clothes ready made.
“In the vicinity of the Metropolis, working people seldom buy new clothes; they content themselves with
a cast-off coat, which may usually be purchased for about 5s., and second-hand waistcoates and breeches.
Their wives seldom make up any article of dress, except making and mending clothes for the children”.

Samuel Whitbread’s Poor Relief Act of 1795 was passed at the end of a year of exceptional scarcity and
distress. (In Mitcham hot dinners for the scholars attending Sunday School were introduced in November
that year.) The Act authorised the dispensing of relief to persons in their own homes, and Justices were
empowered to give orders for poor relief to Overseers and Churchwardens which they had to obey. No
one was to be removed from a parish until actually chargeable. Whitbread’s laudable attempts to link a
minimum wage to the price of bread soon met with opposition from farmers, and were defeated by the
Government under Pitt. The famous Speenhamland decisions of the Berkshire Justices in May 1795,
regulating the scale of relief to the price of bread systematised the practice of giving allowances in lieu of
wages, and was widely copied. In many parishes, “relief was granted not only to the infirm and impotent
but to the able-bodied and industrious who had, very few of them, ever applied to the parish for relief, and
then only during temporary illness or disability. The resultant subsidisation of wages at the expense of
the parishioners as a whole was not foreseen at the time, but eventually had the effect of pauperising large
sections of the community, and in particular the agricultural workers. The larger the number employed,
the greater was the benefit derived by the proprietor, and when the work was seasonal in nature, as it
often was in the country, there was no need to retain hands out of season, for they could go on the Parish.
In Surrey the wages for agricultural labourers were fourteen pence per day, in the springtime 2/- per day,
and at harvest 2/6d. The result was that by 1802/3 13½% of the population of the County was on the rates
at one time or other throughout the year.”2

A succession of harsh winters and disastrous summers, in which crops failed to ripen and harvests rotted
in the fields, resulted in continuing food shortages and high prices as the century drew to a close. Inevitably,
given the economic structure and social policies of eighteenth century England, the burden fell mainly on
the poor, and the labouring classes were obliged increasingly to seek relief from the parish to stay alive.
The wives and children of militiamen, whether drawn by ballot or provided as substitutes, were deprived

12s.6d. per week. In some villages in Surrey, the wages on the farms were so small that 40% of the
population is said to have been on parish relief, the employers relying on the parish to augment the men’s
pay to bring it to subsistence level. Forty years later there had been little improvement, and Tom Francis,
commenting on the Mitcham of his boyhood, observed that “local wages of the agricultural labourers
were terribly low, yet families were reared clean, well-behaved and ‘respectable’ …”.4

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which appointed Commissioners with power to order cessation
of outdoor relief to the able-bodied pauper and his family, brought to an end the evils of the Speenhamland
system. It was now ‘all or nothing’, and if an able-bodied man needed relief he was obliged to receive it
in the workhouse. To all classes of pauper the Act of 1834 applied the principle of ‘less eligibility’ which
sought, by irksome restrictions and the reduction of food and social amenities to a minimum, to render
the workhouse so undesirable that only in the most grievous circumstances would a person seek admission.

In her study of Mitcham in 1838–9, four years after the Poor Law Amendment Act came onto the Statute
Book, Jo Sullivan observed “Not all the aged poor of Mitcham were destined to end their days in the
workhouse. Many lived with sons and daughters or lodged with families in the district, presumably paying
rent from savings or from their tiny pensions from past employers, while some were on parochial relief.
There were those, however, who were forced to enter the workhouse, being friendless or sick. The vestry
minutes show that although an annual vote of thanks was passed to Mr Haydon, the master of the workhouse,
it was often contested, and some of the most influential residents were concerned at the state of affairs in
the workhouse – more properly, perhaps, a poor-house, since the aged and afflicted who were taken there
can hardly have worked very much”.5

Under the 1834 Act Mitcham was joined with other parishes to form the Croydon Union, and in 1836 the
Vestry was instructed by the new Poor Law Commissioners to elect three Guardians of the Poor to represent
the parish of Mitcham on the Board of Guardians. Mitcham’s first guardians were James Moore, William
Simpson and William Hood Henmans. The parish vestries still had to meet the cost of relieving the poor,
and further instructions came from Somerset House to the effect that, after August 31st 1837, all poor
rates were to be based on the nett annual value of property held in the parish. For this purpose a new
valuation of the parish of Mitcham was ordered.6 The old workhouse on Commonside East continued to
be used for the reception of the poor until midsummer 1838, when the Board of Guardians transferred the
inmates to the Union workhouse at Duppas Hill, Croydon. Consideration was given to a scheme for
utilising the Mitcham premises as an industrial school for the children in the care of the Croydon Union,
but it was not proceeded with, and the Guardians decided to abandon the old workhouse, and to return it
to the possession of the parish. The Vestry installed a caretaker at fifteen shillings a week, and maintained
the empty building until January 1840. Then, feeling the continuing expense could be justified no longer,
they authorised the trustees to hand the premises back to the lord of the manor of Biggin and Tamworth,
James Moore.

of the franchise. The important innovation of plural voting, taken from the procedure of Joint Stock
Companies, was introduced by this Act, which allowed votes in proportion to the rates paid. The promoters
of the Act did not appear to envisage the difficulty of evaluating the votes cast, particularly in the crowded
Vestries of the new industrial towns, and the referendum became the device whereby the popular will was
determined. The system worked tolerably well in orderly parishes like Mitcham, where, as the Webbs
remarked, “The open vestry consisted in practice of a dozen or two respectable householders” and it was
quite feasible “for the Clerk to take down on the page before him the names of all who had voted, and to
figure out, there and then, the number of votes which each of them could cast for or against the proposition”.1

The second of Sturges Bourne’s bills, “An Act to Amend the Laws for the Relief of the Poor”, was
enacted in 1819. In addition to useful provisions regulating the granting of relief, the main object of the
Act seems to have been to legalise, for such parishes as desired it, the extra legal devices of a representative
Parish Committee and a salaried Overseer. (Mitcham, as we have seen, had been paying its Overseers
since 1797.) The Parish Committee of Incumbent, Churchwardens, Overseers and between five and twenty
parishioners could be elected at the Easter meeting of the Vestry, the appointments being formally confirmed
by a Justice of the Peace. Once elected, the Committee or ‘Select Vestry’ was invested with all the normal
powers for poor law administration usually vested in the full Vestry, to which a report had to be submitted
at least twice annually. Exactly such a consultative committee, i.e. existing alongside, and not in substitution
for the Open Vestry (but not, it should be noted, leading to a Select Vestry) had been formed at Mitcham
in May 1794, when the Overseers, finding themselves under some difficulties, wished to have the opinion
and advice of the gentlemen who had already executed the said office of Overseer, and therefore proposed
as a committee such gentlemen, to meet monthly at the Workhouse. The Act of 1819, being concerned
primarily with the Poor Law, did not make provision for similar committees to perform the other functions
of parish government, which were still left to the Open Vestry and their elected officers.

Following the disclosure of scandalous mis-management of the workhouse at St Pancras, Parliament
passed an Act abolishing the Open Vestry in that parish. Government at this time was not sympathetic to
democratic ideas, and the support given to the formation of a Closed Vestry at St Pancras led to frantic
efforts being made in 1821 by the inhabitants of Newington, when a similar Act was proposed, to enlist
support from neighbouring parishes to petition Parliament against such an Act. Mitcham considered the
appeal in May 1821, resolving to petition Parliament in support of the parishioners of Newington and
local democracy.

It was the opinion of the Webbs that the first effect of the Act of 1819 was good. “Orderly Open Vestries
like Mitcham … which had already working parish committees, were now able, under the Act, to endow
those committees with legal authority both over the distribution of the poor relief, and over the assessment
and collection of the Poor Rate.” In general, however, the Select Vestry experiment was a failure, and
even in cases where they incorporated only the best features, they were not regarded favourably by the
emergent democratic element in the new towns. At Mitcham the Select Committee system was tried on
two occasions before being finally abandoned because of “certain dissensions which arose between the
occupiers of land, and those occupying house property; it was badly attended by one party, never by the
clergymen, and considered exclusive by the other”. In their concluding remarks on this example of what
they call “successful government by consent” the Webbs say “and we may leave this model Open Vestry,
quick to take advantage of the Sturges Bourne Act of 1819, unanimously electing, in July of that year, a
representative Committee consisting of the Vicar, two curates, five resident landowners, and five substantial
tradesmen and farmers, on which executive powers were immediately devolved”.

A public notice published by Mitcham Vestry in 1830, and signed by John Chart the Parish Clerk who,
with his father, had been at the administrative centre of the parish for sixty years, gives the scale of
allowances to men who, for various reasons, were in need of parish relief.3 To us they appear meagre in
the extreme, but they must be seen in comparison with the lot of the bulk of the village labouring population
who at this time were employed bn the farms and market gardens, at a weekly wage of from 10s.6d. to

of the support of the bread-winner of the family and often found themselves in a serious plight. Forced by
hunger and cold to forego cherished independence and self-respect, many had no option but to apply for
parish dole along with the paupers. Thus on February 9th 1800, whilst the country impatiently waited for
the Government to take advantage of the command of the sea regained by Nelson and the British Fleet,
Mitcham Vestry grappled with the human problems of war, resolving that the families of Burriss and
King, who were serving in the London Militia, should be allowed the same weekly allowance as other
families on poor relief.

In 1797 paper currency became non-convertible, and the first decade of the nineteenth century was a
period of serious inflation. The years from 1793 to 1815 were, however, also a period of great prosperity
for agriculture, stimulated by the rising population and the consequent demand for food. Heavy taxation,
both national and local, might have been a source of bitter complaint amongst the property-owning classes,
but they were well able to weather the storm. The tremendous prices of wheat meant big profits for both
farmer and landlord, but the labourers’ wages did not rise proportionately, and their standard of living,
humble as it was, fell accordingly. Mitcham, unaffected by the enclosure movement, which elsewhere in
the country deprived many village labourers of their smallholdings and rights on the parish wastes, may
have suffered less than some communities. The war was certainly a period of ‘high’ farming, with
landowners like James Moore maintaining his land at a praiseworthy level of productivity. This was also
a time of expansion of the Mitcham herbal industry, labour intensive and catering for the luxury market
of the Metropolis. The consequent demand for field hands, admittedly seasonal, must have been the
salvation of many a village family, for here was work for both women and children, even the smallest
being able to pick rosebuds and the flowers of camomile in the midsummer fields for ld. a pound.4

As the war dragged on, the cost of maintaining yet more serving militiamen’s dependants fell on the
parish, and Mitcham Overseers were repeatedly called upon to find money not only for their own
parishioners’ families, but also for those of substitutes who often had a settlement in other parts of the
Kingdom. The demands were made either by the substitutes’ parishes or, presumably in the case of Mitcham
families living near the army camps, the County Treasurer. The burden was not inconsiderable, and in
January 1803, faced with having to meet the expenses incurred in the relief of militiamen’s wives and
children by the County Treasurer, Mitcham Vestry exercised typical caution, giving instructions that
before accepting liability there must first be a search in the muster rolls of the regiments to which the men
belonged in order to verify that they were actually serving when the monies were disbursed. When the
Vestry was informed on October 27th 1803 of another order made by the Quarter Sessions on application
by the Treasurer for a further payment of £117.11.1. to reimburse him for monies similarly expended, the
members reacted by resolving to take legal opinion on the parish’s liability, as well as the validity of the
amount demanded.

In November 1804, “because of the considerable increase in the price of flour”, Mitcham Vestry agreed to
a subsidy being paid to John Hall, then master of the workhouse, to cover the excess cost of two sacks of
best flour per week if this exceeded 55 shillings per sack. It was probably in an attempt to keep the price of
flour down for village families that James Moore, by then lord of the manor of Biggin and Tamworth,
sanctioned the enclosure of half an acre of land on Mitcham Common in 1806 for the erection of a windmill.
In accordance with ancient custom, John Barker the miller was obliged to swear fealty to the lord, to pay
‘suit of court’, and to perform such other services as were customary for the tenants of the manor. In
addition, and of great importance to the villagers, he was required by Moore to grind the grist of the inhabitants
of Mitcham on two days in every week for ever at a “fair and reasonable price”.2 As well as being lord of
one of the Mitcham manors Moore was, as we have seen, the principal farmer in the parish and one of the
largest single employers of labour. He was also a respected member of the Vestry, and active in poor relief
work. Whether he was prompted by altruistic or by pecuniary motives when he laid down the conditions of
Barker’s tenancy, his interest in the cost of living, and in particular the price of such a basic commodity as
flour, is not surprising. The economic climate of the time would also explain the apparent absence of any
opposition to the enclosure from the commoners and tenants of the manor.

Whereas in general the war was a period of agricultural prosperity, the years leading up to Waterloo saw
several bad harvests. Between 1811 and 1816 the unemployed poor were often on the verge of starvation,
and in Mitcham it was “unanimously agreed and ordered” to employ them on the roads at piecework
rates. James Moore voluntarily undertook the office of Overseer on several occasions until April 1816 in
order to carry out a “proper inspection in every case”. In 1815 complaints concerning the alleged inequality
of the poor rate assessments led to an extraordinary amount of activity on the part of the Vestry, and on
January 20th, at a crowded meeting held at the King’s Head under Moore’s chairmanship, it was
unanimously agreed to revise the parish poor assessments, hitherto “formed and grounded upon ancient
custom and not from the chargeable value of the property” which had led to inequalities over the years.
On a motion by Mr Cranmer it was resolved that three professional valuers, John Grantham of Croydon,
and Messrs Clutton of Reigate and Neale of Cheam be appointed to conduct a survey and valuation of the
parish, and to report to a committee of parishioners. A private Act of Parliament “For the better assessing
and collecting the Poor and other Parochial Rates in the Parish of Mitcham, in the County of Surrey” was
obtained in 1816.

The Act allowed, in the case of properties valued for rating purposes at less than £18 p.a., or let on a
weekly or monthly basis whatever the valuation, for rent collected to be inclusive of rates (subject to
certain provisions). Recovery from defaulting landlords was to be by distraint of goods, or direct from the
tenants in lieu of rent. The owner was defined as the person receiving or collecting rent.

Overseers were empowered to appoint surveyors or other competent persons for valuation purposes, and
also to appoint rate collectors. There were various provisions for enforcement, and penalties.

Occupiers of properties valued at less than £18, and tenants whose rates were compounded were not to
have a “vote or voice” in the Vestry – i.e they were disenfranchised.3 The full text of the Act is reproduced
in the Appendix on pages 29–45 of this book

V – Post War Depression and Poor Law Reform

As we have seen, since about 1770 the parish rates, the major portion of which went to the relief of the
poor, had been increasing steadily. Nationally the rapid rise in the poor rate in the hard times of 1813–
1814 was only temporarily checked by the peace of 1815, and the upward movement of relief continued
in the bad harvest years of 1817 and 1818, although there was a drop in the relief per capita for the
agricultural labourer. The Corn Law of 1815 was at its roots a measure to boost English agriculture in the
interests of national defence, and aimed at preventing grain “from being either so dear that the poor
cannot subsist, or so cheap that the farmer cannot live by the growing of it”. Importation of corn was
prohibited till home prices rose above 80 shillings per quarter, and it was largely the artificially high
price of food that led to a rising of the East Anglian labourers in 1816. The ten years to 1826 witnessed
poaching at a level hitherto unknown and the Game Laws, backed by repressive criminal justice harshly
administered by the local judiciary, were symptomatic both of the general misery and distress, and the
determination of the landed classes to maintain the status quo.

Mitcham seems to have avoided the worst effects of the recession and on February 14th 1817 James
Moore was publicly thanked by the Vestry, it being minuted that

It being very necessary in that times like the present the affairs of the Parish should be managed with discretion as well
as with humanity, particularly as it respects the distribution of Parochial rates, Resolved

That James Moore Esq, by his unwearied attention to the interests of the Parish of Mitcham, by the proper inspection
of every case which comes before the Vestry appears to be guided by a sense, no less of duty to the proprietors of lands
and tenements within the Parish than of compassionate consideration for the necessities of applicants who are right
objects of relief, and is therefore justly entitled to the unanimous thanks and approbation of this meeting.

The tribute may have been fulsome, but it has a convincing ring of sincerity. The Webbs1 commented that
Mitcham was typical of the “old fashioned parishes, stable in their social and economic relationships, and
only slowly increasing in population”, which were mercifully spared the overwhelming strain which was
imposed on the established parochial administrations of the expanding industrial towns of the Midlands and
Northern England.

The 20% rise in population experienced in Mitcham between 1801 and 1811 was not sustained, falling to
6.6% during the following decade.2 From 1821 to 1831 the population actually fell by 66 (or 1.5%), 47 of
whom were male. An explanation could be the migration of younger men to London or the Colonies in
search of work or advancement. There was serious depopulation in many rural areas at this time, due to
the depression in agriculture and the decline in the traditional means of supplementing income by spinning
and weaving. The abundance of labour plus the operation of the Speenhamland system kept wages low,
but the difficulties experienced by the impoverished unskilled labourer in migrating to industry were
great – it is often said that it was easier for the Irish to cross to Liverpool in search of work than for the
English labourer to leave his parish. This is probably untrue of the Home Counties where London provided
an irresistible attraction. Wage rates for all workers had risen during the war, although in many cases the
rise in prices had been greater. London artisans’ wages were higher than in the rest of the country, and
remained high even after the general fall in prices after 1815. The London skilled labourer was particularly
successful in maintaining the relatively higher standard of living he had secured in wartime, partly through
stronger trade associations, but mainly because of the sustained demand for luxuries in the capital.

Motivated more by alarm at the increasing burden of local expenditure, rather than by a desire to extricate
the vestries from the predicament in which they now found themselves, both Houses of Parliament set up
Select Committees in 1817 to look into the working of the Poor Law and, incidentally, to consider the
reform of the vestries. Many members, concerned at the inequity of allowing a number of small ratepayers
to outvote the larger property owners upon whom fell the main burden of parish rates, and appalled at the
chaotic inefficiency of the Open Vestries, voted in favour of Bills introduced by Mr Sturges Bourne in
1818. One of these, the “Act for the Regulation of the Parish Vestries”, which was passed that year,
applied to the majority of vestries, and laid down rules for the conduct of meetings and the determination