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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Take Care

This phrase is now frequently used by people taking their leave, an alternative to “Good Bye”, (or as older people might remember “TTFN”, a catch phrase from “ITMA” on wartime “wireless”). My thoughts have taken a different turn today.

As a young man in the Round Table, with winter approaching it was agreed that we should purchase coal and kindling wood to distribute around the town to the poor and needy. We used a list from the local authority and bagged up the fuel. On my list was an elderly man and the other members, said “he won’t accept charity and is very cantankerous”. I took our five year old daughter with me and knocked on the door with trepidation, but when he saw the child he said “Hello little girl, would you like a sweet”, offering a grubby paper bag containing sticky sweets. She took one and he then accepted our gifts with thanks.

Looking back in history around the Norman period we can find no lists of poor and needy. If they were lucky their families might help them or possibly some wealthy individual might give them a helping hand. Hospitals, like St John’s on East Bridge, Bridport are recorded from 1200 to 1300, but seem to have taken in travellers like Richard III, en route to Exeter and not paupers. The Church was mainly responsible for providing help. Leper Hospitals occurred around the same time, but are likely to have helped only lepers until the Dissolution of Monasteries when the Magdalen Lane Almshouses took over from the leper hospital, to the west of Bridport. In 1536 there were so many poor people roaming the streets that a Beggars Act was passed. Apart from straight begging there were so called priests selling “pardons” and pieces of the “real Cross” as described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Some pretended to be ill or lame, despised by “Sturdy Rogues”. However at times “The Plague,” other epidemics and wars reduced the population and there was more work than workers! Generally almshouses appeared in the 1600s, for example Napper’s Mite in South Street, Dorchester established in 1616 by Robert Napier for 10 poor people and the Quaker Daniel Taylor gave dwellings adjacent to the Meeting House in South Street, Bridport in 1696 for the poor of Bridport. However they could not have catered for more than a few of the needy. The problem became worse, with more vagrants on the road and destitute old sailors and soldiers. Migration was proposed as a solution, but could only absorb a relatively small number.

The Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 had 3 categories, the first for the able and deserving out of work were given paid outdoor relief, i.e. they could still live at home. The second, the idle or unwilling, might be whipped(!) but the third category, the sick, old or very young could be given indoor relief, e.g. live in the Poor House. This relief was paid for by the parish, hence the expression “On the Parish” which is the way we seem to be going again now. The system became unworkable and in 1834 a New Poor Law Act was passed enabling parishes to form “Unions” and build, rent or buy “Workhouses”. Dorset established 12 Unions, locally Dorchester, Beaminster and Bridport, building in each area. Dorchester Workhouse was built in the shape of a cross, of stone and brick and later became Damer’s Hospital in 1948. Bridport Workhouse was built of local stone in Barrack Street, again a cruciform, in 1837 for 200 paupers and it should not be confused with the Cavalry Barracks, a little further north. The workhouse later became an Infirmary and then Port Bredy Geriatric Hospital in 1948. Beaminster Union Workhouse was built at Stoke Water, half a mile from Beaminster town, “Y” shaped of stone and brick, for up to 230 people. Completed in 1838 it contained a tailor’s shop and oakum picking for the occupation of inmates. Both Bridport and Beaminster have been converted into private flats, since closure. Many poor people were assisted by “Poor Relief” outside the workhouses. There was considerable stigma associated with “The Workhouse”, as Thomas Hardy recognised in Far From The Madding Crowd.

Latterly elderly folk moved into private Care or Residential Homes, paying for the privilege. In recent years we have heard of at least two of these being closed locally as they were not making a sufficient return and the residents were forced to find another home. We also know of an elderly resident being hospitalised for a major operation and then contracting two infections, which left her very weak only to be visited by her Home Manager and told “You cannot come back to the Home”. This was without the next of kin of the patient, or a nurse, being present. The hospital had hoped to pass the patient on to another hospital nearer her home, for rehabilitation, but found she had effectively been made homeless and could not qualify. Having to explain this situation to another home was difficult for the relatives. So the days of the overbearing manager described by Hardy and Dickens are still with us, but luckily we hope restricted to only one or two isolated cases. That patient has since been rehoused in another caring home and is happy and comfortable. Most Care Homes are just that, caring.

Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 14th March. Eric Galvin will talk about “Joseph Clark – a popular Victorian Artist and his World” at 2.30 pm in the United Church, Main Hall, East Street, Bridport. All welcome.


Cecil Amor,  Hon. President Bridport History Society.

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