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Charity and the Poor

Bradford on Avon Hundred, Wiltshire

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Red Cross Hospital, Avoncliff

The Bradford Union Workhouse at Avoncliff after conversion to a hospital

Before the welfare state was born in the late 1940s, the provision of support for the poor was haphazard. The sudden closure of a factory or a bad harvest or illness and accident could easily tip the vulnerable into poverty.

The Churchwardens administered poor relief and collected rates from prominent householders in each parish. The rate was very unpopular among the ratepayers of course and great efforts were made to support only those individuals and families that truly belonged to the parish. This was a result of the Settlement Act of 1662, in which people were entitled to be “settled” in a parish by having been born there, married a native or had worked there for a year and a day -needless to say perhaps some employers took workers on for a day less. Others were supposed to be supported by their home parish and people moving to another parish had to have a certificate saying that they would not be a burden to their new location. Frequently people were subject of removal orders and sent back.

Following the 1723 Workhouse Test Act the parish of Bradford established a workhouse or poorhouse in 1727. The parish provided “outdoor relief” to people in their own homes and “indoor relief” at the poorhouse. This was situated in Frome Road, just past where the railway bridge is now, under the charge of a relieving officer. An Act of 1784 allowed the parish to employ an overseer and were lucky in Mr Rayner, who did not claim all his salary and ran a fairly humane rĂ©gime.

Some individuals set up charitable trusts which paid out cash, clothing and often quantities of bread, usually to what were referred to as the “deserving poor”.

By the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, central government organised provision for the poor into Poor Law Unions of groups of parishes. The Bradford Union covered all the parishes of the Bradford Hundred, as well as, for a time, the parish of Freshford in Somerset (Freshford was rather cut off from the rest of the Bath Union). The Union’s workhouse was converted from a former woollen cloth industry building at Avoncliff, Westwood which is believed to have originally been a house for apprentices. The building was extended in 1837 to include a schoolhouse and a chapel. The number of inmates had become small by 1917 and the building was turned into a Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers, the remaining inmates being transferred to Warminster. The Poor Law was repealed under the National Assistance Act of 1948.

Friendly Societies provided another way of alleviating family disasters. The members paid into a fund upon which they could draw in hard times. One such society was in Monkton Farleigh; another met at the Seven Stars public house in Winsley. There were other mutual societies, such as the Freemasons, Buffaloes and Foresters who retained local doctors.

Poorhouses, Little Chalfield

Three small areas, Great Chalfield, Little Chalfield and Cottles (Little Atworth) together maintained their own poorhouses in Little Chalfield, now converted into one private house. In 1777 there was supposed to be space here for 16 inmates.

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