Friday 26th Jan. Talk and AGM 7 and 7.30 Chris Forester on Rural Poverty

Our AGM took place promptly at and our Chairman Nigel Fox presented a report for the year which included the news that he and others have been investigating possibilities for the museum to expand in conjunction with the library, but that such moves need wait until Somerset County Council has decided on the future of the libraries in Somerset.

Our Treasurer Peter Jamieson, reported that our funds are in good order and accumulating steadily so when needed we could face some capital expenditure.  The current committee, all being prepared to stand again, were then elected as a group.  Nigel however pointed out that a members secretary is needed and there is room for more people on the committee.  If you are interested in Joining the committee because of an interest in our local history, you would be made most welcome and  are asked to contact Nigel Fox.

There was then a break for coffee and cake and Chris started speaking at 7.30 p.m.

His talk well illustrated with slides and excellently presented, He began by describing the land and class based society that was the norm in the nineteenth century which in the countryside provided little opportunity for social mobility.

Based on the extensive research Chris had carried out on Wincanton Workhouse and the census records of 1881 he explained how from the time of Thomas Cromwell poor relief came to be financed out of the parish rates which all property owners paid and this provided relief for the poor either in the form of cash handouts to those with homes or for the poorest placing them in a workhouse.  Wincanton’s workhouse, quite a grand and substantial building, now demolished, served a much wider area than Wincanton and included all the surrounding villages including Bruton and Castle Carey and at time had more then two hundred inmates. Separated by sex and age, dressed in a drab uniform, husbands, wives and their children were all kept apart and only allowed to speak to each other twice a week.  The work was hard and repetitive and children were placed with employers who paid the workhouse for having them.  Based on the principle that those being  supported should not be better off than the poorest labourer in full time employment this ensured that their lives were extremely limited and restricted. It was a last resort for the orphan, the destitute, the unmarried mother, the mentally ill, demented or chronically depressed.

Chris described how depending on such different factors as foreign wars and bad harvests the wealth of the area passed through cycles and when things were down it was the poorest with the most problem getting employment on the land or in service who ended up as paupers.

Paul emphasised that though very hard by our standards,  by theirs it was seen as more or less fair and that the guardians and top supervisors were quite ready to dismiss workhouse staff or managers who inmates complained about.  Harsh but fair?  He hoped so if not always, for there were obviously opportunities for different types of abuse to be inflicted on the hapless inmates.

It was a fascinating insight into our past, was enthusiastically received and provoked many questions as we all left glad we were not paupers in 1881.

John Baxter