East & West Molesey

A Dictionary of Local History

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1972

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In mediaeval times the responsibility for looking after the needs of the poor devolved upon the Church, mainly through the monasteries. When these were dissolved by Henry the Eighth, the church could no longer fulfil this charity. For a time no one cared until the distress and suffering of the poor became a national scandal. At various times during the sixteenth century Acts and Ordinances were made whereby the onus was put upon parishes to relieve their poor. Towards the end of the first Queen Elizabeth's reign a comprehensive set of Poor Laws was enacted. Each parish was ordered to look after its poor and authorised to raise money for this by means of a poor rate. An officer, known as the Overseer of the Poor, was to be elected yearly to superintend such relief. Numerous later Acts codified how this relief was to be administered. One of these, passed in the 1660s, defined that parishes were only responsible for their own poor, i.e. persons born or married into the parish, or of long settlement. This Act enabled parishes to prevent the settlement of non-native paupers who might become a charge on their poor rate, and forcibly return strangers to their native parishes. In 1808 East Molesey spent 40 in sending a woman home to Corsham in Wiltshire.

Parishes, however, were liable to relieve the legitimate demands of bona fide travellers in distress. Large numbers of soldiers and sailors were continually passing along the road between London and the naval base at Portsmouth, often with their wives and children, many of whom were sick and poverty stricken. They claimed support in the villages through which they passed. In the three years 1796 to 1798 the East Molesey overseers relieved over five hundred people on the move.

After the Napoleonic Wars the economic climate of the country declined; there were several had harvests, and the enclosure of the common lands threw many people out of employment. There was great hardship among the poor. Claims on the poor rate soared, and it was kept down only by administering relief with ever increasing harshness. Prior to this it had been convenient to sustain the needy by means of doles of money and supplies in the way of clothes, blankets, boots, and so forth. The aged, the sick, and others unable to maintain themselves, were given a pension of about three shillings a week. But now, to cut down costs, this comparative liberality was abandoned. In 1822 the two Moleseys established a joint workhouse in what is now known as "Old Manor House" in Bell Road. Here the paupers were accommodated more cheaply on a communal basis, and relief was generally denied to any who refused to enter the workhouse.

Even so the cost of poor relief developed beyond the resources of small parishes like the Moleseys. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act removed the responsibility from parishes and grouped them together into Poor Law Unions, each with a central poorhouse supported by the union members. The governing body of the union was a Board of Guardians, elected on the basis of one per parish. The Moleseys were combined into the Kingston Poor Law Union. Henceforth the local poor were required to apply for assistance at the Union Workhouse in Coombe Lane, Kingston. This system continued, with progressive amelioration of conditions, until it was abolished by the Local Government Act of 1929. The Kingston Workhouse was converted into a general hospital.

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