Poor Law Maladministration at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire

In the First Annual Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners in 1835, Assistant Commsissioner Edward Gulson, one of the officials setting up the new Poor Law Unions, described the state of affairs he found in the Berkshire parish of Sutton Courtenay.

I will here introduce one more example of the lamentable want of a controlling authority in parish administration, which the Commissioners are aware came under my notice early in my present official career, and which I am induced to include in my Report, to show the salutary effects which have accrued from the introduction and exercise of a judicious code of rules for its parochial government by the central board.
  The parish of Sutton Courtney, in the county of Berks, was, at the end of last year, notorious in that district for the abuses there prevalent in the administration of its poor-laws. On inquiry, I found that the parish contained 2,000 acres, that the poor-rates amounted to 1,300l. per annum, with only 830 inhabitants, making the cost 1l. 11s. 6d. per head on the whole population; and together with this expenditure, a state of feeling and habits of life were engendered fully bearing out the assertion, that the morality of a parish may be measured by the amount of its expenditure in pauper relief as compared with its population. Four men had been hung, and nine transported for life or fourteen years in this parish during the last five years, and the number of convictions in it had trebled that in any of the contiguous parishes, in proportion to the number of its inhabitants.
  The parish of Sutton Courtney was managed by a select vestry who had allowed a system of parochial mal-administration to be carried on for years, equally ruinous to the purses of the rate-payers and the morals of the rate-receivers. The legal and usual form of making a rate had been entirely dispensed with, and in lieu of it a notification was stuck on the church door by the overseer when out of cash, to the following effect, "A rate wanted," upon which a rate was granted.
  Upon inquiring into the mode of administering the rate thus raised at the vestry meeting, I elicited, that the paupers had been in the habit of receiving their relief entirely in articles of food and clothing. Bread, bacon, meat, grocery, and drapery were distributed at an enormous profit to the shopkeeper, and this shopkeeper proved to be the assistant overseer himself; the pauper paying 4s. for the same articles which he could procure for 2s. 6d. elsewhere. He was also allowed to run in debt in some cases to the extent of half a year's pay, by which means he was kept at the same market without any opportunity of extricating himself; thus were the rate-payers plundered for the benefit of individuals, the profits by this mode of relief being estimated at not less than 400l. per annum.
  At the vestry, I demanded a sight of the books, which were reluctantly produced, and on examination I found that no entry had been made either of receipt or expenditure since the preceding September, though more than 200l. had passed through the overseer's hands during the intervening time.
  The lavish expenditure of relief had totally extinguished among the lower classes that proper spirit and sense of independence which keep a man industrious and consequently moral, and the manner of its distribution had given rise to a strong feeling of injustice and oppression, and thus was produced a numerous class ready to revenge their real or supposed injuries, without restraint and without discrimination, whenever the opportunity occurred of doing so with impunity.
  It may not be irrelevant here to give an instance or two of the manner in which this feeling was engendered, and the extent to which it was carried.
  A Member of Parliament and a magistrate informed me that a poor man, a parishioner of Sutton Courtney, applied to him for an order for relief under the following circumstances :- He had been working for five years for the overseer (not on the parish account) and earning 10s. per week. Never having seen the colour of his master's money during this period, he at last ventured on a Saturday night when receiving his wages at the parish counter as usual, to ask for 2s. instead of goods to that amount, his request was granted, but he was immediately discharged, and all parochial relief was denied him.
  The following is the only other case that I would adduce :- A man with his family, consisting of a wife and four children, solicited permission to live in a wretched hovel belonging to the parish with an understanding that he should pay no rent and should support himself by his own exertions; this was complied with; his family increased, and he provided for them without parochial aid until the birth of his ninth child, an idiot, when a small sum was allowed him for its maintenance. He put his cottage into a state of tenantable repair, and lived unmolested, without any demand for rent for 18 years, receiving the amount of his earnings at the parish counter. At length, finding that by purchasing the necessaries of life at Abingdon instead of at Sutton Courtney he could make 2s. 6d. go as far as 4s., he determined to procure employment at that place, and thus, by earning his money at Abingdon, acquire the right to spend it there; he gave his master fair notice of his intentions, and being a good workman, got into an engagement there on his first application; but no sooner was this arrangement completed, and the stream of his hard-earned pittance diverted from its former channel, than he was marked out for oppression. A sheriff's officer, without any previous notice, was sent to him with a demand on the part of the parish for 4l., for 40 weeks' rent in arrear, and upon his inability to pay, the very bed was threatened to be sold from under him to satisfy his pitiless creditor.
  I will now briefly glance over the results which have ensued from the introduction of a controlling and systematic power for the government of the parochial administration of Sutton Courtney.
  At the request of the surrounding district not to be united with this parish, at all events in its present demoralized and disorderly condition, it was not included in the Abingdon Union, but the rules and regulations of the Board were ordered to be immediately adopted and enforced.
  In accordance, therefore, with my instructions, I dissolved the vestry, sealed up the books and dismissed the overseer from the duties of his office. The parish administration was then placed under the direction of a board of guardians, and the judicious exercise of their authority has been already sensibly and advantageously felt throughout the parish, although only seven months have elapsed since the change was effected.
  It is, however, necessary to remark, that in this new constitution of the parish they are still without that essential, a workhouse. The savings effected are at the rate of 400l. per annum, solely by vigilance and care in the distribution of relief; but the change in the moral conduct of the lower orders is improved in a still greater degree. This moral change is most strongly indicated by the different feeling evinced towards a connexion with Sutton Courtney by the parishes adjacent, which before were most averse to an union with so disorderly a neighbour; whereas now the guardians of the several parishes of Abingdon Union have willingly given their consent in writing, according to the provisions of the 32nd section of the Poor Law Amendment Act, for the incorporation of that parish into the bonds of brotherhood and good-fellowship, by which Sutton Courtney will be enabled to avail themselves of the use of a well-regulated workhouse, to the advantage of all, and to none more than to the poor themselves.

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