The Village Poor Houses of Eydon
By Kevin Lodge
The name ‘the poorhouse’ often conjures up the image of a vast, harsh, Victorian Workhouse, but in fact many villages had houses for their poor many years before Victoria came to the throne. For example, in 1723, Sir Edward Knatchbull's legislation allowed parishes the option to buy or rent houses for their poor. Initially they too were meant to be harsh places, but it was soon realised that this did not encourage their use and instead they were used to house the poor who had moved away from the village but still had a right to support from this Parish. This paper looks at what evidence these was for these poor house in the village of Eydon
In amongst the Eydon’s parish records at Northants Record Office (filed under 120p/etc) is a lease of 1783 between Sam Ritter, a baker of Mill Hill in Hendon, Middlesex, and Thomas Ivens and George Arnut, the Church Wardens and George Douglas and Edward Tew, the Overseers of the Poor of the parish of Eydon.  This was for a 50 year repairing lease for “a messuage (house and out buildings) with yard and garden” for the sum of £1/4s pa, lately in the occupation of William Wibbly (Willoughby?). The location of this cottage was given with reference to the occupiers of the four surrounding properties, none of which were described as being “the Kings Highway”, suggesting the cottage did not have a street frontage, but was up a yard somewhere in the village.
The occupier to the south was Devereux Brightwell, and we luckily know something about his family. In 1799 his nephew Thomas (eventually) inherited from him 13 acres of land and the house that he lived in. This is now known as Firtree Farm at the top of Hill View and it is a reasonable assumption that this was where Devereux Brightwell was living in the 1780s. To the north of Firtree Farm are now two small cottages. One, Fernlea Cottage, is on the roadside but down a track behind it is Lilac Cottage. This is an unprepossessing stone and slate structure that in 1910 was described as a three up two down cottage.  Interestingly, for such a modest building, it carries a date stone (within a carved shield) of “A" above "W P" and "1834”. We have not yet identified a suitable WA or PA in the village records.
It may be significant that the 50 year life of the 1783 lease of Lilac Cottage expired in 1833, a year before that recorded on the stone. Perhaps, despite the repairing lease, the cottage was in such a poor state after the parish returned it that the descendants of Samuel Ritter had to renovate it. They may almost have been a rebuild, as it now shows the flatter roof used with the Welsh slate available in the area after the Oxford Canal opened.
Lilac Cottage remained the only village poorhouse up to 1790 (the year Bridges described Eydon as having “… 90 houses, exclusive of the poor or town house”).  After this, the need to accommodate the homeless poor of the village must have increased sharply, which this small cottage could not meet alone. The village subsequently bought at least four more cottages. These were two freehold cottages, “stone & thatch with a small garden” bought from Sarah Bignell in 1791, and a further two freehold cottages with small garden and barn acquired from Benjamin Maud in 1802. Both these pairs of cottages were later forced to be sold “for the benefit of the Parish” by the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837. 
We know little at the moment about Sarah Bignall’s property, but the two cottages bought by the Overseers and Churchwardens off Benjamin Maud had been (in 1713) the 2-bay house of Richard Hinds, a labourer, and his family.  The Hinds house was sold in 1724 for £18 to John Bignall, in trust for his son, also called John.  (This is a different branch of Bignall family from Sarah, but one that seems to have died out after the elder John’s grandson.)
Further leases on cottages must also have been acquired, as by the start of the 19th century the Overseer of the Poor’s account books showed the Parish to have 12-13 cottages, probably almost 10% of the village houses. [8, 9] However, by this time there does appear to have been a change in use, as these no longer seem to have been used for lodging paupers who were homeless but were rented out and the income from them contributed to the Poor Rate.
They do not make much contribution, as most rents were 6d per week, with only two tenants paying 8d and two 1/- per week. This was at a time when the Overseers were paying out 1/- per week to Ester Taylor for “lodging Malmsbury”, and the same sums were given to several other paupers “for lodgings” in addition to the 3/6 a week presumably intended as keep.
The tenants seem to be in two groups, one of five young men in their twenties, some just setting up their families, whilst the second group were a generation older, men in their late 40s /early 50s. Where they can be found in the 1841 Census Returns, they are all agricultural labourers apart from Ambrose Higham, who was a weaver.  Whether they were paupers is not clear. None of the tenants’ names appear on the list of ‘Weeklies’ - villagers that were getting their total support from the parish each week - that also appears in the Overseers’ account books. However, weaving was certainly in decline at this time and farm wages were notoriously low. At the same time as they are paying rent to the Overseers, four of the tenants appear on the Overseers’ account receiving money. It looks as if they were sent out to be Roundsmen, with both younger and older men being involved.
Roundsmen were un-employed labourers who were sent on a round of local farms to see if they could be found work. If they succeeded, the Parish paid some or all of the wages for that day. Thus in Oct 1822 we see Thomas Wills, a farm labourer aged 28, being paid 6d a day for each day spent at different farms: “2 days Seaton and 2 days Willowby and 1 day Ashby”.
Nor do the cottages seem to be a regular source of income, for there are long gaps in the payment of rents. Some tenants are noted as being up to a year late in payment and Daniel Prestidge seems to be paying his arrears off at one point at 1½ weeks at a time.
Intermittent payments of rents for up to eleven cottages appear in the Overseers’ books right up to 1835, after which there is a tail off during the following year. During 1837, we find just James Wills and Daniel Prestidge still on the books, presumably still paying off their arrears.
This would imply that the Parish knew they would be forced to sell the cottages and made plans accordingly. It also means that the residents of the cottages were dispersed before the sale or the expiry of the leases, and so tracing where they all lived in the village in the 1841 census is not going to tell us where the poor houses were. This is confirmed by the fact that none of the residents were living next door to one another in 1841, as would be implied by the “pairs of cottages” sold in 1837.
It would seem that at the end of the Old Poor Law period, the village poor houses were no longer serving their original purpose and were being used purely as a source of income. To the Overseers they must have been a burden. They could not be used to reduce their outgoings, by moving some of their 1/- lodgings into the 6d a week rents. At the same time, the income was reduced by the existing tenants who built up significant rent arrears, which could not be cured by evicting them. You felt that the unanimous decision to sell the Parish houses reached at the meeting in November 1837 might reflect a heartfelt wish to be rid of them, rather than just facing up to the legal reality imposed by the new Poor Law Commissioners. 
1 Lease, Ritter and Oversees & Church Wardens of Eydon, 27th Sept, 1783: NRO 120p/Ep/36
2 “The long, long road to Zion”, Brian Rawlings, Paupers Pupils & Prisoners, EHRG Res. Rep, 2, 2000, pp54-61
3 1910 Finance Act, Field Books, PRO IR/59/59349 & 50.
4 “History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire”, Bridges, 1790
5 Sealed Orders of Poor Law Commissioners to Parish 1834 on: NRO 120p/123
6 Mortgage, Hinds et al and Gibbs, 1st May 1713: NRO 120p/203
7 Assignment of Mortgage, Stanton and Bignell et al, 27th Nov 1724: NRO 120p/206
8 Overseers of the Poor, Account Books 1822 – 36: NRO 120p/107
9 Overseers of the Poor, Account Books 1835 – 38: NRO 120p/163
10 1841 Census Return, Parish of Eydon: TNA HO/107/795