The parish books, containing the accounts of Churchwardens, Constable, Overseers of the Poor, and Surveyors of the Highways provide a window on the life of the parish, but a window which sometimes mists over at critical moments, giving an exciting glimpse and then blurring again. Sometimes what is revealed is comic, occasionally tragic, but most often a view of the everyday lives of the people of this village. The books themselves are stained with damp, and the ink is faded brown, but the writing is usually neat, and if the spelling is sometimes eccentric, they rarely fail to make their meaning clear.
One of the books contains the following inventory of the possessions of the late Thomas Turner, taken by Robert Dangerfield, Thomas Smith and John Spencer, on Feb 7th 1761, as was customary on a person’s death.
In the Kitching
Two stools, one screen, one table, one great chare, one looking glass, one salt box, three earthen platters, one spit, one toaster, one frying pan, a littlebrass kettle, a pair of hand irons, fire shovel and tongs, seven fire hooks, three tranchions, a glass bottle, a bacon crack, a candlestick, a pair of bellows.
In the Pantry
A half hogshead, a washtub, two cupboards, a lanthorn, two pails, two wooden bowls, a ladle, two hogsheads, three tubs, a pair of bedsteads, one bed, three blankets, two pair of sheets, one coffer and a trunk.
One axe, one bill, one thacker, one pike, one spittle, one knife and one ladder.
Wages in the 18th Century were still very low. Gaut1 gives these figures for Pershore, and Mathon’s were probably similar. Unfortunately they were to rise very little, while prices greatly increased towards the end of the century, lowering farm workers’ standard of living.
Day labourer 10d. per day with beer in winter
Carrying hay 1s. per day with board
Harvesting 30s. per month with board
Reaping 2s. 6d. per acre
Mowing 8d. to 1s. per acre
Threshing 1s. to 2s. 8d. per quarter
Yearly earnings Labourer £15 - £16
With wages so low, it was inevitable that any misfortune could make a man and his family a charge upon the parish. In fact, during the period between 1776 and 1803, the Poor rate in England rose from £1.5 million to £4 million2. In 1765, the parish book says that rates were so burthensome that it was decided that the children of those supported by the parish should be apprenticed to the local farmers, who in return were relieved of their share of the rates. The names were drawn out of a well-shaken hat, a gamble for both child and employer. No doubt the results were as varied as the range of human behaviour, and amongst a majority of kind employers, there must have been some who were hard and grasping, just as there must have been some lazy and rebellious children. What seems so sad to us today, is the age at which these children were taken from their homes - from seven years of age. Perhaps some were better fed and housed at the farms than their parents could have done, living as many did in primitive cottages and often with insufficient food and fuel. Mary Stead evidently found her place not to her liking in 1807, when she fled homewards, causing her father to receive a note, that unless he immediately returned her to her employer, his weekly allowance of 3s. 6d. would be stopped by the Overseer of the Poor. In 1765, Susannah (14), Margaret (10) and Elizabeth Dovey (8 years) were apprenticed to three different farmers, a mile or two apart. How did these children feel, leaving their homes, parents and sisters at such an early age? There would be no chance of Susannah acting as a substitute mother, and comforting the younger children as she might have done had they been together. And how did the parents feel, losing their family under the influence of poverty? Sarah (8) and Nancy James (7), Richard Nash (7) and Eleanor Jones (7) were other children apprenticed at this time. Older people will remember that this system sometimes continued in families into the end of the 19th Century. Young children were taken supposedly as a favour to them and their parents, whose homes were over-full, to live with relatives and work in their shop or on their farm as unpaid servants.
Perhaps the most poignant of the indentures in the parish records is the following:
An Indenture of 18.11.1800, sealed and delivered in the presence of Mary Dangerfield, William Jones, William Symmonds, Ann Bosley and Philip Ballard.
Between John Woodyatt of Netherley and William Jauncey (Chwdns) and William Jauncey and Henry Dangerfield (Overseers of the Poor) and Joseph Lloyd, Chimney Sweep, of Dymock.
“do put and bind Joseph M, a poor boy of this parish, (Mathon) being of the age of 9 years or thereabouts, to be apprenticed to the said Joseph Lloyd to learn the Trade, Art, Business and Mystery of a Chimney Sweeper ... and with him to serve during the term of seven years ... his secrets keep, and his lawful commands everywhere gladly do and perform. He shall not haunt ale houses nor gaming houses, nor absent himself from the service of his master day or night ...
Whereas it is necessary for the boys employed in climbing to have a dress particularly suited to that purpose, the said Joseph Lloyd is covenanted to find such suitable dress, and over and above one whole and complete suit of clothing, with suitable linen, stockings, hat and shoes... and further that the said Joseph Lloyd shall once in every week cause the said apprentice to be thoroughly washed and cleansed from soot and dirt ... nor shall Joseph Lloyd require or force the said apprentice to climb or go up any chimney which shall be actually on fire .... but shall in all things treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of ...”
Lord Shaftesbury’s Act of 1875 finally put an end to the infamous practice of using small boys instead of long brushes to sweep chimneys.
In the 1760’s 9 people were being supported by the parish, and a work house was established at the Brays, a farmhouse near Old Country. This was a radical change in the way of helping the poor, from the system of ‘outdoor relief’ i.e. helping them to continue to live their own homes, to ‘indoor relief’ - establishing a central house where they could live and partly support themselves by working. The parish accounts contain frequent references to food and drink, and materials for the occupants to work with.
1763 Mr. Smith for hauling a hundred of faggots for the work house.
Bridget Mathuce (Mathews ?) for looking after the work house for 6 months £6 10s.
For ale at Mary Jones’ berring 3s.
A peck of oatmeal
A hogshead of cider for the workhouse
Beef for the work house
Paid for mending shoes
Paid for a spade
Bread for the use of the work house
For work house - malt hops, cider, beef, cheese, wheat
Making clothes for the boys at the Brays
To be allowed for spinning done at the work house
Paid for half a stone of flax
But perhaps most interesting of all, is a tiny scrap of paper written probably by Mrs. Matthews: “Sir, there is a great complaint at the Brays for wood, beef and salt.”
As always, the parish officials were grappling with the problem of providing adequately for the poor, without making the workhouse more attractive than working in the fields in all weathers. Work house conditions probably varied greatly about the country, but in general the kind of work required was stone-breaking, oakum picking, gardening and household work. Probably the most irksome feature for the inhabitants was the loss of independence involved.
The records contain a document which gives some idea of the difficulties of obtaining a settlement in a parish in which a man wished to establish himself. John Ravenhill is almost certainly an ancestor of Thomas, who in 1840 owned the ‘Cliffe Arms’ and the cottage still known as ‘Ravenhill’, and land at Smith’s Green. Before he could settle in the village he had to satisfy the parish officials of his ability to support himself.
The examination of John Ravenhill, now an inhabitant of the parish of Mathon is the said county (Worcs.), Tailor and Staymaker. Taken upon his oath, the 5th of May 1756.
This examinant saith he has heard and verily believes he was born at Middleton in the County of Hereford, and when about 8 or 9 years old went with his father, Richard Ravenhill, who purchased a freehold estate at Kimbolton, value seven hundred pounds, where his father has ever since and now resides, and lived with him about six years, during which time he worked for him in the art of tailor and staymaker, and then left him, and went to work for William Webb at Colwall in Herefordshire by agreement at two shillings and eight pence a week, and to part giving a month’s notice to each other, and worked for him upwards of two years pursuant to such an agreement, and has not, to the best of his knowledge gained any settlement subsequent thereto.
It is interesting to notice that John, who came from a prosperous family, and who was a qualified tradesman, still had to be examined, and we may wonder how much more difficult it might have been for a labourer to gain a settlement.
The Constable’s Accounts are also to be found in the parish book. His year of office was an arduous one as he arrested criminals, moved on vagrants, inspected ale-houses, certified that no tobacco was being grown for sale (and it was a favourite crop) and supervised those drawn by ballot for the militia. He was responsible for the collection of rates and the enforcement of church attendance. Not infrequently he travelled on parish business, and then the expense item, ‘me and my horse -- 1s. 6d.’ appears in the account. ‘The apprehending of George Hill 15s.’ must have involved a considerable journey, and on another occasion in 1759, is the entry, ‘Expenses of meeting the Crowner at Great Malvern upon the account of the man that hanged himself.’
Towards the end of the century, England was at war with revolutionary France, and a legal obligation was placed on parishes to, find men for the Navy, and this was the occasion for an unusual entry in the Constable’s account. ‘A journey to Severn Stoke to procure a Sailor’. Parishes were authorised to offer monetary bribes to recruits, and probably Severn Stoke was thought to offer a better chance of finding an impecunious sailor, working on the Severn, who might be willing, for the sake of a few pounds, to enlist in the Navy of Nelson’s time. Men from the parish were also liable to be drawn for the militia, but they at east were liable for service only in the British Isles, and sometimes not outside their own county. Substitutes could be sent, often men who were out of work. One spring of nobility (not in this parish) who had been drawn in the ballot, sent as substitute, his 40 year-old butler. In 1826, the Constable of Mathon, Richard Gardiner, had to report that in spite of lengthy searching, he had been unable to find Thomas Caswell, who had been drawn for the militia, and had evidently decided that a soldier’s life was not to his taste.
Unfortunately the 18th Century ended in a black period for working people, and Mathon must have shared in this. Wages had hardly risen at all in the period 1780 to 1800, at least in the counties unaffected by the Industrial Revolution, where there was competition for labour. In Herefordshire 6s. to 7s. per week and two dinners and cider was the average pay at the turn of the century, yet prices had doubled, and in some parts of the country there were riots over the price of bread. During this time, the percentage of the working population employed in Agriculture fell from 45% to 35%. It must have been a difficult time for everyone who hoped to make a living from the land.
1. R. C. Gaut, History of Worcs. , 1939
2. W. E. Tate, The Parish Chest, 1946
Old Country Farm — Hopkilns reached the West Midlands in the early years of this century, and the first ones were round; later they were built square to house simple machinery.