Caring for the Poor in Dover

  In ancient times the care of the poor was the legal responsibility of the Church.  In Dover, as elsewhere, the religious houses distributed food to the needy.  When Henry VIII. closed the Priory, along with the hospitals of St Bartholomew and the Maison Dieu, he passed a law requiring each parish to appoint two responsible people who would, along with the Churchwardens, make a collection for the poor on Sundays, "so that there might be no necessity for them to go a-begging."

Dover already had a Municipal Almshouse, built over the river Dour, between the parishes of St Mary and St James, from which Poor Relief had been distributed.  When the new law came into force, the Almshouse was moved to other premises in Queen Street, from where, presumably, the Poor Relief for the two parishes continued to be distributed.

As the population of the town increased it eventually became necessary for the parishes to have their own Poor Houses.  There is no record of the Poor Law arrangements in Dover during the Stuart period, but, early in the 18th century, St Mary's parish had a large Poor House on the west side of Limekiln Street, rented from the Corporation by St Mary's Vestry.  This building continued to be used until 1795.

On 2nd February 1770, Ann Knott, aged 23, was "brought in from Whitfield by Order of Removal, big with child".  On 11th May she was delivered of a child, Susannah, with the Midwife, Mrs Baker, in attendance.  The child died on 4th August; on 10th August Ann was discharged "thought able to look after herself."

On 9th September she was admitted again, "brought in with the small pox."  on 10th October she was again "thought able to provide for herself."

The workhouse was not a welcoming place.

On 11th July 1767, 16 year old Elizabeth Harvey "ran away."  Two days later, now aged 17, she was re-admitted, only to run away again on 16th September.

On 30th October 1768, now 18, she was admitted again, "without clothes and poxt."  She ran away again on 23rd April 1769.

On 7th November 1770 she was back again, "without clothes and covered with filth."  This time she stayed until 14th April 1771 before running away yet again.

On 6th January 1772, aged 22, she was admitted "without clothes and poxt."  She "broke the house and run away" on 3rd March 1772.

At the age of 28 she was re-admitted for what appears to be the last time on 12th January 1778; the admissions book records: "Whore, Thief, Drunkard. A complete sinner. I pray the Minister would convert her."  On 5th April she ran away again and I have not found any more reference to her.

The St James's Poor House was in Woolcomber Street, where able-bodied people who wanted relief were set to work combing wool.  Outdoor relief was paid by the Overseers of both parishes by order of the Mayor and Jurats.

In 1793 the River Poor Law Union was formed, and a Workhouse was built in that parish.  The Union included all of the parishes around Dover, including Charlton and St James, but refused to take the poor of St Mary's because they were too numerous.  The Poor House at the Pier becoming overcrowded, St Mary's Vestry purchased a plot of land on the north side of Peter Street, in Charlton, and built a new Workhouse in 1796.  The Workhouse was well designed, with plenty of surrounding land between Peter Street and Bridge Street to provide employment for the able-bodied inmates; however, the running costs were a huge burden on the parish.

The Dover Poor Law Union was formed in 1835 and the Workhouse at Buckland Bottom was opened the following year.  To reduce the costs to the parish, the Charlton Workhouse was closed and the poor of St Mary's went to Buckland.  Bavington Jones (1916) described it thus:

"The original house was built in the form of a quadrangle, with the Board Room and the Master's offices in front over the entrance, and a small hospital against the opposite wall, the rest of the square being occupied by the ward rooms and dormitories.  It was very much like a prison, none of the windows affording an outside view.  When St. Mary's Poor were admitted, a year later, the whole of the square was used for ordinary inmates, and a small hospital was built on the bank at the rear, where a much more extensive one has since been erected.  Further enlargements of the house were made in the years 1849, 1871, 1877 and 1903.  The Union Workhouse, from its commencement until the present time, has been controlled by a Board of Guardians, a Master and Matron, and other officials, including a staff of nurses, the hospital being the most expensive part of the establishment.  A separate schoolroom, dining hall and dormitories have been provided for the children, so as to keep them as clear as possible from the 'taint of pauperism'; but there has long been a project to remove them to a separate establishment.  That has not yet been done, but the children now go out to schools in the Town instead of being educated in the Workhouse.  The granting of Old Age Pensions has greatly reduced the cost of outdoor relief.  The ordinary indoor Poor are also decreasing; the most expensive part of the House being the hospital; but few will grudge that increase, for the worst of the sickness and suffering in the whole Union is concentrated there, and it is a satisfaction to be able to record that the sick and dying there are kindly and carefully tended.(J.B.J. 1916)