Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): Social structure

Pages 81-84

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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Social Structure

As in other English towns during the 16th century and the early 17th, the social order at Gloucester was steeply graduated, as shown by the subsidy assessment of 1524. (fn. 1) The basic pyramid shape of the social structure continued, so far as one can judge, into the late 17th century. Within that relatively stable framework, however, significant changes can be observed during the late Tudor and early Stuart era. Members of the élite, particularly those engaged in the prosperous distributive trades, almost certainly gained in wealth and social standing. By the early 17th century they displayed their prosperity in new or enlarged houses, usually located in one of the central parishes like St. Michael or in the riverside parish of St. Nicholas. They also indulged in more elaborate household furnishings and in other forms of conspicuous expenditure like book-ownership. They aspired to gentility, styling themselves gentlemen and acquiring country estates: in 1624 at least five of the aldermen had houses in the inshire. (fn. 2)

Much less is know about the fortunes of middle-rank craftsmen and small traders. Some, like the shoemaker John Milton who died in 1633, were reasonably prosperous with a modest array of joined furniture, a carpet, and a few pieces of plate (fn. 3), but most probably suffered from the instability of the urban economy. At the bottom end of the social spectrum there was a growing incidence of poverty. The number of poor people relieved in St. Aldate's parish, for instance, advanced from c. 8 in the late 1570s to over 20 in the 1630s (fn. 4); those relieved comprised only a small proportion of the needy. There are frequent references to the large groups of impoverished folk in the city. The problem was most acute in peripheral parishes like St. Catherine and areas like St. Mary de Lode, which were close to the river and so vulnerable to flooding. (fn. 5) Poverty in Gloucester was generated by the growth of population which the urban economy was unable to absorb. It was also imported from the countryside through an inflow of unskilled landless labourers and unemployed migrants. The long term problems were aggravated by short term difficulties, such as harvest failure in the years 1585–6 and 1594–7, (fn. 6) trade depression in 1586 and the 1620s (fn. 7), and plague in the years 1592–3 and 1604–5. (fn. 8)

Social distress and tension erupted in disorder during 1586. After a bad harvest the previous year, food prices began to rise sharply in March and April. At the time 'work was very scant for poor people, very small utterance of cloth by reason of the wars in Flanders'; some folk claimed that they 'were driven to feed their children with cats, dogs, and roots of nettles'. At Easter 'great numbers of weavers, tuckers, and other persons', allegedly up to 600 strong (but probably fewer), assembled by the Severn near the city and seized two boats laden with malt for Wales and Bristol. Some of the rioters were prosecuted at the next sessions. (fn. 9) There was further disorder in the city in July 1586 because of fresh attempts to ship malt down river (fn. 10), though the official response is not known. During the great plague outbreaks of 1604 and 1638 more disturbances occurred (fn. 11) and social unrest may also have contributed to the disturbances during the parliamentary election of 1604. (fn. 12)

In general, however, popular protest was relatively muted at Gloucester in the years before 1640. One reason was the growing scale and sophistication of poor relief. There was nothing particularly radical or adventurous about Gloucester's measures, but by the early 17th century they were implemented with greater efficiency than before. Traditional neighbourly almsgiving to widows, the sick, and the elderly remained an important ingredient in relief. In 1594 one Swayne was described as 'a very poor woman and lives by the alms of the parish and begs from door to door'. (fn. 13) About 1550 the common council tried to restrict begging of that sort to a fixed number of local people. (fn. 14) Another traditional mechanism for aiding the impoverished was the hospital or almshouse. None of the city's medieval hospitals proved very effective at coping with the rising tide of poverty. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, by then ruinous, was granted by the Crown in 1564 to the corporation, which repaired and enlarged it. St. Mary Magdalen's Hospital was in decay in 1598 when the corporation was granted the patronage, taking full control in 1617 following an augmentation of the endowment. The administration of St. Bartholomew, St. Mary Magdalen, and St. Margaret's Hospital (which had been under civic control since the late Middle Ages) was reorganized by the common council in 1636 with the establishment of a common board of officials drawn from the magistracy. In addition to the old establishments, a new hospital, St. Kyneburgh's, was founded by Sir Thomas Bell in the 1560s and passed to the corporation in 1603, and a few small almshouses, mostly short lived, were founded before 1640. Their overall impact on poverty was limited, however. In 1640 there were probably no more than 90 almsplaces available in the city, (fn. 15) satisfying only a fraction of the demand. Moreover, town hospitals provided only selective help, mainly to elderly and sick citizens and their widows, rather than to the growing numbers of poor labourers and distressed migrants and their families.

From the early 1570s, if not before, Gloucester's parishes offered statutory poor relief. Here some labouring poor and migrants benefited from weekly doles and occasional handouts, though the sick and aged were the principal recipients. (fn. 16) At Gloucester there are signs that parish relief was being co-ordinated by the corporation from the late 16th century (fn. 17); by the 1620s and 1630s such relief was having a growing, though still limited, impact on poverty. During difficult times city leaders took other steps to relieve the needy. Special funds were set aside to supplement parish and charitable support. During plague outbreaks pest houses were erected and rates levied to help the victims and their families. (fn. 18) In years of dearth imported grain was purchased at Bristol, London, and abroad and sold in the city at subsidized prices to poorer inhabitants. A city grain stock was in operation under Edward VI (fn. 19) and was re-established at the end of the 16th century. In 1597 the corporation bought 400 quarters of Polish corn at Bristol and more was obtained later. (fn. 20) Poorer folk also faced fuel shortages in winter time, and the corporation, like other towns, maintained a civic stock to supply them at cheap rates. (fn. 21)

Less successful were attempts to set the unemployed on work. Loans or grants to various masters to employ poor children and others were usually unsuccessful. (fn. 22) The house of correction, first established c. 1579, (fn. 23) provided work in theory but was essentially a punitive institution harassing the idle, prostitutes, and the tramping destitute. Other weapons were also mobilized against the vagrant poor. In the 1550s there were civic overseers of the poor who prevented begging by newcomers. (fn. 24) Poor immigrants were rounded up by special beadles and ejected from the city, often after a whipping. (fn. 25) Inhabitants were fined for lodging outsiders. (fn. 26) In the 1630s provost marshals were appointed to act against vagrants. (fn. 27)

Rigorous measures were likewise employed against the local labouring poor on occasion. In 1591 over 100 were shipped abroad to fight in the English army in France. (fn. 28) Under Charles I considerable numbers of poor boys were transported to the West Indies. (fn. 29) The puritan leaders of early Stuart Gloucester also sought to enforce a reformation of manners on the lower classes. Alehouses, the popular meeting place of labourers, petty craftsmen, and newcomers, came under fierce attack from the authorities. (fn. 30) Almsfolk were required to attend church daily and a special lectureship was set up to preach godly obedience to the poor. (fn. 31) The magistracy dealt sharply with unmarried couples and others offending against the sexual mores of the ruling classes. (fn. 32)

Gloucester in the period was a city under considerable strain, but one where the pressures were contained and assuaged by growing poor relief and other mechanisms of social control.


  • 1. Glos. Colln. 29334.
  • 2. P.R.O., E 179/113/189.
  • 3. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 319; Blakeway, Glouc. map at pp. 48–9.
  • 4. G.D.R. invent. 1633/30.
  • 5. Glos. R.O., P 154/6/OV 1/1, 12–13.
  • 6. G.B.R., F 11/9; G 3/SO 4, Mich. 1640.
  • 7. Ibid. B 3/1, ff. 97v., 99v.; H 2/1, f. 79.
  • 8. P.R.O., SP 12/188, no. 47; Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. pp. 476–7.
  • 9. G.B.R., H 2/1, ff. 74–75v.; P.R.O. STAC 8/4/9.
  • 10. Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. pp. 458–60; G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 97v.; P.R.O., SP 12/188, no. 47.
  • 11. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 98v.
  • 12. P.R.O., STAC 8/4/9; G.B.R., G 3/SO 3, f. 162v.
  • 13. P.R.O., STAC 8/228/30; STAC 8/207/25.
  • 14. G.D.R. vol. 79 (Wiseman versus Richardson).
  • 15. G.B.R., F 4/3, ff. 19 sqq.
  • 16. Below, Char. for Poor, almshouses.
  • 17. G.B.R., F 11/1–17.
  • 18. Ibid. 9.
  • 19. Ibid. 9, 11, 15, 18; B 3/1, ff. 109, 143–4; F 4/5, ff. 45v.–46.
  • 20. Ibid. F 4/3, ff. 19 sqq.
  • 21. Ibid. B 3/1, ff. 165v.–167, 174v.
  • 22. Ibid. f. 240v.; 2, p. 3.
  • 23. Ibid. 2, pp. 109, 126; G 3/SO 1, f. 51v.
  • 24. Ibid. B 2/1, f. 79.
  • 25. Ibid. F 4/3, ff. 19 sqq.
  • 26. Ibid. B 3/1, f. 164v.
  • 27. Ibid. G 3/SO 2, f. 6 and v.
  • 28. Ibid. B 3/1, f. 550; G 3/SO 4, p. 2.
  • 29. Ibid. H 2/1, f. 58.
  • 30. Ibid. F 4/5, ff. 54, 70v.
  • 31. Ibid. G 3/SO 1, f. 39.
  • 32. P.R.O., C 93/20/25; Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 176; Glos. Colln. NQ 12.1, pp. 18–20, 32 sqq.
  • 33. G.B.R., G 3/SO 1, f. 66, et passim.