Charity and the Poor

In the Hundred of Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire


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 personal illness, age 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 have “settled status” 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 on their new location. Frequently people were brought before local Justices of the Peace could be subject to removal orders and sent back, at the expense of the home parish.

In 1721 Bradford Parish Vestry resolved to buy part of the Dutch Barton in Church Street from Anthony Methuen as a workhouse, but this may not have been carried through until, following the 1723 Workhouse Test Act, the parish established a workhouse or poorhouse in 1727. The parish provided “outdoor relief” to people in their own homes and “indoor relief” at the poorhouse. The poorhouse was situated in Frome Road in 1754, just past where the railway bridge is now, under the charge of a relieving officer. In 1732 it was reported that there had been up to 190 paupers, but generally fewer than 70. An Act of 1784 allowed the parish to employ an overseer and it was lucky in Samuel Rayner, who did not claim all his salary, made improvements to the accommodation and ran a fairly humane régime.

A small house by the canal in Murhill, Winsley was noted as belonging to “Winsley Poor” on the 1841 Tithe Map; Winsley was still part of Bradford Parish at that time. It may have been that rent income from the property went to local charitable use, rather than it being a Poor House.

Some individuals set up charitable trusts, usually by their Will, which paid out cash, clothing and often quantities of bread, usually to what were referred to as the “deserving poor” or to those not otherwise receiving relief.

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, which started in the next year, covered all the parishes of the Bradford Hundred, as well as, for a time, the parish of Freshford in Somerset (Freshford was rather geographically cut off from the rest of the Bath Union, which it eventually joined in 1883). The Union’s workhouse was converted, with a grant of £3,000 from the Poor Law Commissioners in 1836, 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, for which a further £1,986 was granted. It was originally designed to hold up to 250 inmates, but the number 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 Workhouse. The Poor Law was finally 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 nationally-organised mutual societies, such as the Freemasons, Buffaloes and Foresters, who retained the services of local doctors. Those who had to call on the funds were said to be “on the club”.

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.