Wisbech: Poor relief and apprenticeship

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'Wisbech: Poor relief and apprenticeship', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002) pp. 260-261. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp260-261 [accessed 11 April 2024]


As in some other towns the relief of the poor fell not to the churchwardens but to the Corporation, who had in any case inherited the function from the guild. The charter had enjoined the 'ten men' to distribute £3 15s. a year in charity. (fn. 1) This sum was supplemented in the latter part of the 16th century, by weekly collections from householders, certain benefactions, (fn. 2) and the interest on 'town stock'. In the period between 24 August 1591 and 1 May 1592 there were two collectors for the poor, who received £21 0s. 11d. and disbursed £21 17s. 7d. (fn. 3) In 1591 William Skortred sold a gelding to William Styrman to pay during his life 'the weekly payment for the collection for the pore of Wisbich'. (fn. 4) The town stock consisted of the capital of well-to-do orphans invested on their behalf by the Corporation as trustees. In 1584 it produced £11 17s. (fn. 5) The expense of relief was considerable, and before the end of the century the Corporation began to take steps to set the poor to work. (fn. 6) This soon justified itself; the accounts of the Corporation are difficult to disentangle from its proceedings at this period, but a fairly clear picture can be drawn for the years 1623 and 1624. In the former year the raw materials, mainly hemp and tow, bought for the poor to work up, cost £10 2s. 7d. Wages to those employed amounted to £4. The finished goods were sold in 1624 for £36 8s. (fn. 7)

In 1720 the capital burgesses resolved to build a municipal workhouse on a 3-acre site between the Horse Fair and the Quay. They ordered 260,000 bricks, and Robert Twells, then tenant of the land, was induced to surrender his lease for 2 guineas and the first year's production of hemp from the workhouse. In all, £2,000 was borrowed for the completion of the building, (fn. 8) which still exists as Nos. 1 to 6 Albion Terrace. It is a good example of early Georgian architecture, though badly repaired. The Corporation kept the management of the house in their own hands. Those incapable of work, the sick, aged, and very young were not admitted. The inmates averaged about 80. Children were admitted when 'big enough to read' and were taught to write and to spin. Raw wool was bought direct from graziers by expert managers, and stockings and very good yarn were made for the Norwich market, as well as all the inmates' clothing. (fn. 9) Brewing and baking were also done on the premises. The master and mistress of the house were paid a fixed salary and were under the control of a board of 'four or more of the most prudent persons of the parish'. By the time the house was in full working order it was reckoned that the rates had been reduced from 3s. 6d. to 2s. in the £. (fn. 10)

About 1815 the master, a Mr. Matthews, was said to be doing well out of the business. The inmates consumed half a stone of flour a head weekly. When this commodity was at 4s. a stone an agreement had been made allowing Matthews a similar sum weekly for each pauper. The price of flour had, however, declined, and while the master of the Leverington workhouse was getting only 2s. 9d. a week for each of his charges, Matthews still received 3s. 10d. His net profits were said to be £182 a year. Matthews claimed that the earnings of the inmates, who averaged about 70 at this time, were 20s. a week. (fn. 11)

In the early 1830's the Poor Law Commissioners reported that the house 'was not ill-regulated', and that the rates had greatly diminished since 1817 although the population had increased by 1,500. There was a professional overseer. (fn. 12) The workhouse served for a few years after 1834 for the whole of Wisbech Union, which included the Rural Districts of Wisbech and Marshland (Norfolk) as well as the borough. In the early 1840's the present Public Assistance Institution (now Clarkson Hospital) was erected in Lynn Road. This building, which was planned for 560 inmates at a cost of £6,900, is of most elaborate design, and 'has not only an air of comfort but of grandeur'. (fn. 13) In 1850-1 the average number of inmates was about 300, supported at a cost of 2s. 7½d. per head per week.

So far as is known the 'ten men' bound their first apprentice in 1576. (fn. 14) During the 17th century the number of apprenticeships varied between 5 and 10. At the beginning of the 19th century the capital burgesses seem to have apprenticed 3 boys regularly each year. (fn. 15) The premium paid to employers for taking pauper apprentices was raised in 1822 from 50s. to sums varying from £3 10s. to £7 10s. (fn. 16)

The badging of paupers began in 1681, when the town bailiff was authorized to purchase 180 badges, and a stamp. (fn. 17) Newcomers to the town were required to enter into a bond that they would not become chargeable to the rates; (fn. 18) those who did become so chargeable were given fourteen days' notice to remove. (fn. 19)

Thus to a great extent the Corporation undertook the duties of parochial officers. It is not surprising that it extended its activities to the audit of their accounts. For example, the surveyors of menworks (highways) had in 1588 collected £7 4s. and laid out £3 14s. 8d. Of the balance, 16s. 4d. was appropriated for paving the streets. (fn. 20) In 1603 £7 9s., and in 1604 £14, was allowed to the churchwardens of Wisbech St. Mary for repairs to their church 'by the consent onely of the Tenne men, as a benevolence, at the earnest sute of the said churchwardens'. (fn. 21) In 1615 the Corporation paid for three trees, at 6s., for the repair of the chancel of the parish church. (fn. 22)

At this time, in spite of the heavy demands of poor relief, the Corporation seems to have accumulated a surplus, which was used to buy more land. (fn. 23) It was the difficulties involved in these purchases that led to the first renewal of the charter.


  • 1. Mann Hutcheson in his MS. History of Wisbech (p. 2) states that this sum represented an annual payment by the Holy Trinity Guild, but the records are not now sufficiently complete to prove this.
  • 2. e.g. in 1596-7 there were: the gift of Robert Beste, £3 6s. 8d.; £2 interest on the £20 gift of Bartholomew Edwards and his wife; and £1 13s. 4d. and £1 given by Robert Girden and John Strigett respectively (Corp. Rec. ii, 373).
  • 3. Corp. Rec. ii, 258.
  • 4. Ibid. 247.
  • 5. W. Watson, Hist. Wisb. 164. The 'orphan stock' in 1594 amounted to £280 9s. Some was lent out in sums of £4, £5 &c., on bonded security; there were fifty-nine such bonds in 1604 and seventy-one in 1609 (Corp. Rec. iii, 35-36).
  • 6. V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 93.
  • 7. Corp. Rec. iv, 35b, 43b.
  • 8. Ibid. v (14 Nov. 1720, 15 Nov. 1721, 26 Oct. 1722).
  • 9. In 1686-7 the clothing of the 'town children' had been estimated to cost up to £40 (Corp. Rec. iv).
  • 10. Ethel M. Hampson, Treatment of Poverty in Cambs. 1597-1834 (1934), 74- 75.
  • 11. Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 5 May 1815 (Wisb. Mus.).
  • 12. 1st Rep. Comrs. Poor Law, H.C. 44, 596-7 (1834), xxviii.
  • 13. 1851 ed., p. 623.
  • 14. Corp. Rec. ii, 103.
  • 15. Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 28 Nov. 1812 (Wisb. Mus.).
  • 16. Hampson, Treatment of Poverty in Cambs. 1597-1834, 159 n., 161.
  • 17. Corp. Rec. iv, 222a.
  • 18. e.g. ibid. ii, 364 (1596); iv, 44b (1624).
  • 19. e.g. Corp. Rec. ii, 244 (1591).
  • 20. Corp. Rec. ii, 221.
  • 21. Ibid. iii, 30a, 32b.
  • 22. Ibid. 129b.
  • 23. e.g. Corp. Rec. ii, 352 (1595); see also Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 318.