An Illustrated Social History

Walk 2.

TO CHELSWORTH COMMON AND DOWN CROFT LANE


This walk took us from the old mill bridge up the hill to Croft Lane. The road leads on to Chelsworth Common - though that was already an outdated term by the beginning of the 18th century, since none of the land in the parish was then held and farmed in common.


In the course of this account of our walk, as we think back to those days long ago, we can reflect on the condition of poor and aged people in the early eighteenth century, and the different kinds of provision that were made for their support. Afterwards, we will review the present-day pro vision for poor and elderly people.


Prologue - The Condition of Poor People in the early Eighteenth Century


Nothing of the common remained in public ownership in the 18th century; the poor people had been long since excluded from their traditional right to bring their animals up here. Unless they had other rights in respect of land elsewhere, they were without the means to raise their own cattle just as they had no access to the arable lands in the Town Field to grow their own crops, as in the days of their forefathers.


Life became much more precarious for the poorest members of society when the open fields were enclosed and the commons appropriated by the Manor. Until then, any mere peasant had the right to a strip of land and the right to graze a few cattle, sheep or pigs on the common land. True, the system was inefficient, and farming moved only at the pace of the slowest. But once these rights were taken away, although a fortunate minority benefited, more suffered; and the way of life of many villagers in effect reverted to the old feudal days when they could survive only by buying food and fuel with their labour. This apart, there were only the poorhouse and the charitable handout to save a poor family from destitution.


So far as Chelsworth was concerned, paupers were not all that badly treated in those days. Because of the generosity of a few in their wills - though it is a moot point whether “generous” is a fair word for their gifts, when they paid not from their own wealth but out of their heirs’ - there were occasional distributions of money to enable families to afford clothes and other necessities of life.


The main benefactor, in fact, was not even a resident of the parish, but of Kersey. As we saw in the course of the first walk, Robert Nightingale gave some twenty acres of land and pasture to the poor of the parish for ever; and in 1707 this earned ten pounds a year - the rent went up to twelve pounds in 1725. From this amount, in 1707, 25 parishioners received small but useful sums; by 1730, the numbers of those helped had risen to 43.

The second most generous, perhaps, was Elizabeth Thurloe, who left an annual sum of thirty shillings in the form of a rent charge on Barn Close, with which to buy bread for the poor every Lady Day (25th March). Unfortunately, the value of this money today is negligible. It has been estimated that we need to multiply the money of those days by a factor of 120 to equate to today’s - so thirty shillings per annum in the early 1700s would be £180 pa in 2001.


Others, particularly the clergy and those connected with them left cash sums to be paid after their deaths. For example, in 1711 James Andrews (brother of the late rector Robert Andrews) left three pounds; in 1733, two of the local clergy died: Thomas Thurloe, who had married the rector’s widow Elizabeth, left fifty shillings, and Chelsworth’s own rector Thomas Brundish left five pounds. But the most generous was Robert Andrews himself, who gave ten pounds in his will to the poor people of the village.


Then there was the poor rate, which was levied on the more well-off members of the community: in 1730, 17 people paid 27 shillings each, and eleven poor people received the benefit, mainly in