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The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
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Presenting Monmouthshire No.27, Spring 1969

Poor Law History In Monmouthshire Since 1834

The Formation of the Unions

by D. B. Hughes, M.A. (Wales)

The problem of poverty was not unknown before the period under review. The medieval world offered certain remedies for it and the Elizabethan legislation prescribed others. But no century, prior to the eighteenth, had to contend with the relief of poverty against the same bewildering background of industrial and agrarian change. The Berkshire magistrates who met at Speenhamland on the outskirts of Newbury little thought that they would be introducing a system of poor relief which would obtain until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. In 1795 they agreed to supplement the wages of the needy poor with allowances from the poor rate, such allowances varying with the price of bread and size of family. What was a temporary and local expedient, became a permanent system operating with varying degrees of inefficiency and corruption from county to county.

A study of the existing system in Monmouthshire before the implementation of the 1834 legislation is made difficult by the lack of original material. There exists certain material relating to the borough of Newport in the Vestry Minute Books and the Overseers' Accounts, but for the rest of the county no such documents exist. [In view of certain recent accessions to the County Record Office, this statement is no longer true. But it is unlikely that the material in these documents would substantially modify the general picture.] One has to rely on correspondence between the clerks of the Guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners, and on the minute books after the unions were formed in 1836. A tidying up process is reflected in the Guardians' deliberations and from this one may build a picture of what could well have existed before 1836.

The Newport Vestry Minute Books and Overseers' Accounts give evidence of a ramshackle, haphazard system: vestry meetings were held in private dwelling houses and inns, the overseers were unreliable and paid officials and regular inspection of accounts were arranged very tardily. (1) The work undertaken by such organisation was the distribution of outdoor relief, some grudging attention to the needs of pauper children and the provision of poorhouses. (2) These sources show that pauper children were lodged from a very early date with other paupers. In August 1789 the overseers were to "provide Two shirts and other necessaries toward cloathing the three children under the care of Ann Matthews (widow)". A whole family was lodged with Joan Williams, a widow in Mill Street in 1800 (May 19th). A girl was placed in a house in 1805, the recipient "to cloath, Keep and Maintain from the present Date till she shall attain to the Age of fourteen years". These unfortunates were also apprenticed to trades people. In 1776 (May 15th) it was agreed that the "two sons of Late Thos. Jones cord winder be putt apprentices as the Law directs and they are to be cloath'd with one hat each, one pair of shoes each, one outside and one inside garment, 2 shirts, 2 prs of stockings, 2 Handkerchiefs with other necessaries for each person as above". In 1791 "a poor child of the town" was apprenticed to a hoop maker in Caerleon; several other cases are recorded. Before the children were apprenticed they were "inspected and examined whether they are fit to be placed out Apprentices" (1799 Dec.) and by 1801 (May 29th) the problem had so grown that the overseers were instructed to prepare a list of poor children in receipt of relief "as are eligible to be put out parish apprentices". These, then, were the pauper children under the control of the parish who received maintenance and some sort of industrial instruction outside the poorhouse. The sort of moral atmosphere into which they came into contact was highly dubious, for the overseers in 1794 (Sept. 15th) were instructed to inspect houses "suspected of harbouring men or women of Ill Fame to cause such persons to be brought before the magistrate to prove their settlement". (3)

The condition of pauper children worsens the further one penetrates the interior of the poorhouses themselves. That there were poorhouses in existence scattered throughout the parishes of the county is clear from the Minute Books of the Guardians of the various unions. In the Newport union certain parishes, independently responsible for the relief of poverty prior to the new act, applied for permission to the Board of Guardians to sell certain properties, the proceeds from such sale to be credited to their accounts with the treasurer of the union. The rate-payers of Bassaleg in 1838 and those of Rogerstone, Bedwas and Mynnyddislwyn in 1839 wished to sell certain poorhouses. (4) George Clive, the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, who visited Moumouthshjre in June 1836 described the state of such houses: "In only one or two of these houses is there any attempt at a dietary or employment in none, classification, in the generality every kind of abuse. In Monythusloine (Mynyddislwyn) poorhouse the contractor keeps a shop; different families have apartments in the house; the whole is filthy to the last degree. In one room was a woman who has had nine bastard children, the last confessedly born in the house; and from the time she has been resident there doubtless many more". (5) It is likely that the contractor mentioned was one Roberts, who after being made Relieving Officer for the northern district of the union (in which Mynnyddislwyn lay) was required by the Board of Guardians to give up his beer shop. (6) He did so, but continued to be the cause of many complaints and was dismissed by the Guardians in December 1841. Clive went on to describe the Newport poorhouse: "The system is much the same in the Newport poorhouse, though no shop is kept; the inmates going in and out for work or pleasure; the whole being enlivened by a lunatic in rags who was running about where he pleased". (7) From a study of the Minute Books of the unions in the period 1836 - 1838, a similar pattern emerges for the rest of the county; ignorance, corruption, inefficiency, child neglect - all are marked and more pronounced the further one studies the rural parishes. The Newport system may have been haphazard; in most other parts of the county it was almost non-existent.

In the Abergavenny union a committee of the Guardians was appointed in 1836 (June 23rd) to make the existing poorhouses efficient. These existed in the parishes of Aberystruth, Bedwellty and in Abergavenny itself. A John Reynolds who combined the duties of Relieving Officer for the Abergavenny district with Superintendent of the Abergavenny poorhouse in 1836, was dismissed in 1843 for complete mismanagement of the new work-house when it was built. Either the increased task was too difficult or his inefficiency was now more obvious. Children were always a burden; sometimes they were passed from Abergavenny to the more industrial parish of Bedwellty in the hope of work being found or of their being apprenticed out of the poorhouse. (8)

The Chepstow union likewise contained poorhouses. The "Monmouthshire Merlin" advertised for tenders for supplies to the "various poor houses" in 1837. (9) They contained children, for when scarlet fever broke out in the Mathern poorhouse in 1838, it was resolved that the children were to be moved to the Chepstow poorhouse. (10)

The Monmouth union was criticised by Clive in the Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission: "In many cases I find the overseers entirely ignorant of the concerns of the parish. In Skeafrith (Skenfrith in the Monmouth union) the wife and servants of the overseer did not know that he was in office". He continued: "Mr. Harper Assistant overseer for Dixton (also in the Monmouth union) and contractor for Llantilio Cresseny states 'the effect of the old law upon the labouring classes here has been very bad. When they received their relief as they generally did in money it was in nine cases out of ten spent in the beer shops!" (11)

In the Pontypool union there were poorhouses in Goytre, Panteg and Pontypool. The Goytre parish wished to withdraw entirely from the new system, arguing that the poor of the parish were contented and happy and that the curate attended to their religious instruction. The reply of the Poor Law Commission on June 30th 1836 was that this was quite contrary to the law, and Clive, writing from Cardiff in the July, explained that, "the stuff from the recusant parish Goytree proceeded from an ass of a navy captain not even a rate payer" but who had exercised some influence over the overseer. (12) The Panteg poorhouse had an unsatisfactory history, certain parishes being instructed by the Guardians to terminate contracts with the keeper Ann Davies, "in consequence of the conduct" of this woman; her conduct is not specified. (13) The man Bowyer, who succeeded her in the August was also the Relieving Officer for Panteg and, after a series of complaints, was dismissed from the office of Relieving Officer in April 1842. (14)

In view of the haphazard, inefficient and corrupt manner in which the pre 1834 poor law operated in Monmouthshire, statistics relating to the number of pauper children are unreliable and almost non-existent, as they are for any other class of pauper relieved. The Commissioners complained in their First Annual Report of 1835: "A considerable number of the present parish officers being unlettered men, their Returns are, as might be expected, extensively defective". (15) Yet from Clive's description of poorhouses, from the mention of certain cases scattered throughout the Newport Vestry Minute Books and from the earlier records of the Boards of Guardians, one suspects the pathetic existence of an increasing number of orphans, illegitimates, and deserted children, whose only education under such conditions was a positive encouragement to join the pauper host as its youngest recruits. The effect of the system upon them is described in the Fourth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1838: "They rarely remained long with their employer, but returned to the workhouse which, so far from being to them an object of dislike, was regarded as their home and which they looked forward to as the ultimate asylum of their old age". (16)

The 1834 legislation was designed to extinguish the Speenhamland system and to remedy such defects as described in Monmouthshire. A central authority consisting of three commissioners and a paid secretary was set up by the Act and, throughout the country, parishes were grouped into unions, each union to come under the control of Boards of Guardians consisting of ex officio and elected members. (17)
In Monmouthshire five unions were formed in 1836; Abergavenny (April 27th), Chepstow (April 10th), Monmouth (June 5th), Newport (July 5th) and Pontypool (April 24th). (18) In the May of 1848, Graves the Poor Law Inspector met the Abergavenny Board of Guardians "on the subject of the revision of the union and lengthened discussion arose on the expediency of separating the parishes of Aberystruth and Bedwellty from the rest of the union". In spite of the unanimous rejection of this plan by the Guardians, the extraction from the Abergavenny union of these two very populous parishes was effected and the Bedwellty union thereby made in February 1849. (19)
The Commissioners described the manner in which they created the unions: "The limits of the unions which we have found most convenient are those of a circle, taking a market town as centre and comprehending those surrounding parishes whose inhabitants are accustomed to resort to in the same market. This arrangement had been found highly convenient for the weekly attendance of the parish officers and some portion of the guardians". (20)

A total reading of the Guardians' minute books and other local sources (21) clearly indicates an interplay between the socio-economic background and the several Boards; each union came to possess a distinctive personality which in turn affected its treatment of pauper children.

The Abergavenny union, especially after its division in 1849, led a placid existence, undisturbed by Chartist riots, largely unaffected by cholera outbreaks and remained quietly indifferent to the question of instructing its children. (22) Chepstow, formerly an important port, became the centre of a union whose records became lively from an educational point of view only when negotiations began with the local School Board in 1880. (23) The Monmouth union, like the Abergavenny union displayed a certain rustic inertia, rejecting the idea of a separate industrial school in 1848 and stubbornly refusing to appoint a male instructor until 1863. (24)

Newport, Pontypool and Bedwellty may be regarded as the industrial unions. The town of Newport was plagued by Irish immigrants as well as attracting the malcontents of the Welsh Valleys. (25) The Pontypool union was disturbed by the Chartist riots and also witnessed the troubled growth of new industry. (26) The Bedwellty union was always especially sensitive to the industrial fluctuations which lay at the source of its financial crisis in 1926. (27) The workhouse itself was embedded in a socially pathological area and the Guardians seemed unable to derive benefit from the fourteen years' history of the other established union workhouses.

These, then, were the six unions in Monmouthshire, each with its own chequered history. In the years before the formation of School Boards and County Councils and Boroughs, these unions discharged some of the duties of a local education authority, because a duty was laid upon them to provide instruction for pauper children.

1. Newport Vestry Minute Books. M.160. 352.9. 1773-96 and 1799-1812: Entries for April 8th 1790, May 2nd 1801, March 15th 1810.
2. Newport Overseers' Accounts f M.160. 352.1. 1709-1801.
3. Newport Vestry Minute Book; dates specified.
4. Minute Books. CSWBG. Newport Union. Dec. 15th 1838, Feb. 6th 1839, July 13th 1839, Nov. 23rd 1839.
5. Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1836 Appendix "B".
6. Minute Books, Newport Union. Aug. 13th 1836.
7. Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1836. Appendix "B".
8. Minute Books. Abergavenny Union, entries for August 4th 1836, July 21st 1836, May 4th 1843, Sept. 18th 1836.
9. "Monmouthshire Merlin" (in Newport Borough Library) Sept. 15th 1837.
10. Minute Books. Chepstow Union. April 14th 1838.
11. Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1836.
12. Correspondence from Unions to the Poor Law Commission. Public Record Office. M.H.12. 8152.
13. Minute Books, Pontypool Union, July 30th 1836.
14. Minute Books, Pontypool Union, April 28th 1842.
15. First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1835, p. 43.
16. Fourth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission 1838, p. 89.
17. 4 & 5 William IV cap. 76.
18. Union Averages 1854-96. Monmouthshire County Record Office.
19. Union Averages 1854-1896. February 24th 1849.
20. First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission, 1835. p.19.
21. This is a highly compressed paragraph: the" inter-play" is a theme in itself as is also a study of disputed elections to the Boards of Guardians with their related policy changes.
22. Minute Books, Abergavenny Union. February 4th 1841.
23. Minute Books, Chepstow Union. September 11th 1880.
24. Minute Books, Monmouth Union. October 25th 1848. February 4th 1863.
25. Minute Books, Newport Union. June 23rd and December 15th 1849. March 20th 1847.
26. Minute Books, Pontypool Union. February 18th 1841, Williams, D. 1950. A History of Modern Wales. London. Murray. (Chapter 15). Pritchard, A. J. 1957. Griffithstown, Pontypool. Griffin Press.
27. Minute Books, Bedwellty Union. 1926-7. August 22nd 1854. September 13th 1866.


Chapter II - The Workhouse Schools
Chapter III - The Caerleon Industrial School

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