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Yorkshire from A.D. 1000

by David Hey

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This excerpt is from:

Chapter 3: The Tudor and Early-Stuart Era

The Poor

[section in its entirety]

The cottages of the humblest inhabitants of Elizabethan and early-Stuart Yorkshire do not survive, but scattered documentary sources reveal their nature. In 1578 the court leet of the manor of Sheffield noted a few encroachments at Owlerton; Robert Shawe had built 'a lytle house of the Lordes waste there conteyninge one Bay', for which he paid 4d. rent, and Widow Alfrey had built a two-bay cottage with a garden. In Sheffield town in 1616 Nicholas Shooter rented '1 small Cottage 1 bay thatcht', Hugh Mllnes lived in a similar one-bay, thatched cottage in Church Lane, and Alex Hydes had a two-bay house with a slate roof in Castle Green and 'an old barn of a bay an outshutt thatcht'. In many different parts of the county poor people set up home on the wastes and commons, especially in the western parts, but even on the Magnesian Limestone belt where a survey of 16S2 found 'foure poore houses built on the lords waste' at Braithwell. On the Coal-Measure Sandstones a 1638 enquiry at Cawthorne noted that nine men and two women 'being very poore people and standing need of releefe have within the compasse of fifty years last past erected poore cottages uppon the wasts within the said Mannor', and that certain freeholders had built cottages for their coal-miners. Areas with opportunities for industrial employment were particularly attractive to immigrant squatters.

The dissolution of religious houses, especially the hospitals, took away at a stroke much of the regular provision for the old and the needy. In the sixteenth century the poor were a perennial problem, a problem that became worse as the national population grew in Elizabeth's reign. York Corporation in particular were continually vexed by the task of dealing with immigrant vagabonds who entered the city in search of charity after leaving in despair the shrunken and deserted villages of the countryside. The government's answer to the administrative problem was to make each parish responsible for its own poor; by Acts of lS98 and 1601 unpaid overseers elected at Easter vestry meetings were empowered to raise local rates in order to set the poor on work, apprentice poor children and relieve the 'lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them being poor and not able to work'. Begging was forbidden and punished by whipping. When seven people were found guilty of being rogues and vagabonds at the Richmond quarter sessions in 1610 the women were whipped and the men were branded with a letter R. Similar punishment was meted out to eight men and four women at the Pontefract sessions in 1638 after their arrest in Wakefield. The West Riding JPs had been alarmed earlier, in 1612, about the 'greate aboundance of wandring rogues and concourse of beggers and strangers, forth of all parts of this and other countys adjoyning, more now of late than att any time heretofore'. A House of Correction established at Wakefield was said in 1614 to have 'much suppressed the number of sturdie and incorrigeable beggers and rogues and other dissolute and disordered persons', but at the Wetherby sessions in 1631 the JPs were disgruntled to find that their orders concerning beggars had been 'greatly neglected'. On the whole, parish officials were charitable towards their own deserving poor but were concerned to keep out immigrant paupers. Thus, the accounts of the Sheffield capital burgesses contain the following typical entries:

'1569 gevyn to John Hornor for the caryeage of a pore man to the next constable . . . l584 gyven to a poore man that had a Testimoniall from the Counsell at Yorke 4d . . . l585 delivered to William Skargell to gyve to a poore wench of Crosebyes going to servic . . . l595 payd Hugh Robertes the 14th Februarie 1595 to pay the Watchmen with when the Gipsees were in the towne.

Some parishes managed to convert their chantry lands into endowments for the poor and for other public purposes. At Ecclesfield fourteen feoffees were appointed in 1569 to administer 6S acres of former chantry land for the benefit of the church, the poor and the local highways; in 1638 feoffees' money usefully supplemented the poor rates when a parish poorhouse was built. In Sheffield the lands of the medieval burgery were divided in 1554 between two new bodies, the capital burgesses and the town trustees, and rents from burgess property were used to build the town's first workhouse in 1632. Rotherham's feoffees also helped the poor and eventually provided a school for local children. Such public provision was supplemented by private charity. W. K. Jordan has calculated that between 1480 and 1660 Yorkshire benefactors contributed £ 243,650.14s.0d. to charity, that no less than 8,632 people made bequests to churches, schools and the poor, and that a third of these bequests went to some form of poor relief. A great flood of benefactions towards the relief of poverty began in the last decades of the sixteenth century and continued unabated to the Restoration. Many of these bequests were small but some were major endowments. Few of the numerous almshouses or hospitals that were founded in Yorkshire during the century between the Dissolution and the Civil War survive in their original state, but a 1593 almshouse at Beamsley is still arranged in the ingenious manner of an Elizabethan 'device', with rooms forming segments of a circle and a central chapel rising to a lantern framed by tall chimney stacks; it was 'finished more profusely' in 1651 by Lady Anne Clifford.

In 1616 Gilbert, seventh Earl of Shrewsbury, ordered a survey of Sheffield and subsequently left £ 200 a year to provide for a hospital for twenty poor persons. The survey revealed that in the central, urban township 725, or about a third of the 2,207 inhabitants, were 'not able to live without the charity of their neighbours'. A further 160 householders did not contribute towards the poor rates, for they were 'not able to abide the storme of one fortnight's sickness, but would be thereby driven to beggary'. Only 100 householders paid for the relief of the poor and even they were 'but poor artificers; among them is not one which can keepe a teame on his own land, and not above tenn who have grounds of their own that will keepe a cow'. The greater part of the workmen and their children were 'constrained to worke sore, to provide them necessaries'. Some allowance has to be made for special pleading and perhaps for the particular circumstances of the winter of 1615 -16 when this report was drawn up, but no doubt most of Yorkshire's other towns could have told a similar tale.

The almshouses and schools that were founded by lords of the manor or other wealthy individuals were not only the product of religious beliefs which stressed the importance of charitable works, but personal memorials to generous benefactors, who often adorned their buildings with suitable inscriptions and a coat of arms. It is not certain that any of the county's schools has a continuous history from the Middle Ages. At least 46 Yorkshire grammar schools were founded before the Reformation and few of them disappeared upon the dissolution of chantries, but no school in the county retains any medieval architecture. A further 68 schools are known to have been established between 1545 and 1603, including some in remote rural places. Many were taught by clergymen and may have been the successors to earlier schools held inside churches; schools of this period are commonly sited close to the parish church, and the single-storey, simple, Elizabethan or Jacobean school at Felkirk actually stands in the churchyard.

A typical development is illustrated by Worsbrough Grammar School, which was founded on a piece of waste ground immediately north of the churchyard in 1560 after the suppression of a chantry school; the present building probably dates from 1632 when John Rayney, a local man who had made his fortune in London, made a bequest to attract a well-qualified master to teach 'learning, cyphering [and] the grounds of religion'. Rayney was a puritan who also provided a lecturer to preach regularly in St Mary's Church. In all parts of England at this time men who had prospered in the capital or in some great provincial city remembered their birthplace when they came to make a will. One of the most attractive small schools in the county is at Burnsall, the lovely and lonely Wharfedale village where Sir William Craven was born. Craven became Lord Mayor of London and in his will in 1602 provided for a school to be built next to the church, with a house for the master and dormitories for boarders. Like another Jacobean school at Laughton, it is built in the local style of the domestic houses of the period. The former Otley Grammar School (1611) is also rooted in the vernacular tradition, but on a grander scale as befits a school that served a market town. Wakefield Grammar School was founded in 1591, largely through the generosity of George Savile and his son, puritan gentlemen who had prospered in the wool trade, and Halifax Grammar School (1600) was the inspiration of Dr John Favour, the Puritan Vicar of Halifax.


End of the section on the poor, and end of all excerpts from "Yorkshire from A.D. 1000."





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