Before 1800

Homelessness, and its associated issues, is by no means a new challenge for Britain. Legislation dates back to the reign of Edward III, when the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers prohibited the giving of relief to able-bodied ‘valiant beggars’.

Prior to the arrival of the Black Death in Britain the rigid feudal system meant that the lives of the poorest in society consisted of little more than existence and survival, and were a constant struggle. Poor harvests bestowed a responsibility on landowners to help feed and clothes those on their land, and monasteries supported those who were severely deprived.

The mortality rate of the Black Death impacted so greatly on the population that labourers were in significant demand, and so it was ordered that anyone ‘able in body’ should be ‘compelled to labour for their necessary living’, rather than give themselves to ‘idleness and vice’. Those considered to be peasants began demanding payment for their labour and moved around the country to find the best deal from different landowners.

The 1349 Act was the first of a number of legislative orders concerned with idleness. The 1494 Vagabonds & Beggars Act stipulated that poverty and homelessness was punishable, stating that ‘[v]agabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights…and then shall be put out of town’. What is also interesting is the reference to the destitute person being the responsibility of the ‘[h]undred where he last dwelled, is best known or was born’. If you are familiar with housing legislation today you will know that this requirement, now termed ‘local connection’, must still be demonstrated over 500 years later, to qualify for support from a local authority.

Image 4 w300Vagrancy and idleness was met with brutal punishment during the 1500’s. Accounts of cruelty included people being tied to carts and publicly whipped until bloody, branding with the letter ‘V’ with hot iron rods, imprisonment and vicious torture.

While continuing to coerce or punish people who refused to work, the 1576 Act for Setting of the Poor on Work and for the Avoiding of Idleness introduced a classification system which identified the ‘deserving’ poor; those who were unable to work due to age, disability or illness.

The 1601 Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore, or the ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’, consolidated and formalised the system. The introduction of the Poor Rate, a compulsory tax which was collected and then distributed by the Overseers of the Poor (often wealthy landowners), relieved those who were unable to afford food or clothing, and supported able-bodied people to continue to work. While this offered reassurance and support to many in most need, it was also said to introduce migration towards the parishes which became known to be more generous with poor relief, and questions around which parish was responsible for someone who was destitute.

The 1662 Act for the Better Relief of the Poor sought to address this by laying out clearer policies as to responsibility, and stated that anyone trying to claim relief outside of their ‘hundred’ could be removed. With regards to children, a child would take the father’s settlement at birth and if apprenticed, would gain settlement in the parish of their apprenticeship.

It is believed that almshouses dating back to 1690 were erected on the site of a former chapel in the Bartholomew area of East Street, Brighton, in accordance with the Poor Law Act, but little is known about this. At the end of the 1600’s the 1697 Act for Supplying Some Defects in the Laws for the Relief of the Poor called for the ‘badging of the poor’, requiring those receiving relief to wear a red ‘P’ to identify them. This practice lasted 113 years before being discontinued in 1810.

[Ref: FA100624 Royal Pavilion & Museums]

[Ref: FA100624 Royal Pavilion & Museums]

In 1700, the population of Brighton or ‘Brighthelmston’ was approximately 1500. A new Workhouse Test Act of 1723 obliged parishes to establish workhouses for anyone wishing to receive poor relief.

The ‘test’ was whether claimants would be willing to undertake laborious work in return for food and a place to sleep. Brighton had experienced significant homelessness and destitution at the beginning of the 1700’s due to fatal storms and consequential destruction of dwellings. The town’s first workhouse was built, as part of a complex of buildings including a town hall and dungeon, on the Bartholomew site, on the west side of Market Street.

The Heritage Research Group visited the ‘Views of Brighton & Hove in the early 19th Century’ exhibition at Brighton Museum to view Edward Fox Senior’s watercolour ‘Market Street, 1823’, in which you can see the workhouse as the gabled building marked ‘1727’.

Gardner, who has extensively researched the subject, talks of the workhouse having ‘ten spinning wheels, a Brewhouse and bedrooms with 18 feather beds.’ ‘Inmates’, as they were termed, picked oakum and collected oyster shells to grind for pathways in local parks, and were later employed to maintain the roads by removing animal dung and washing away dirt.

During the 1750’s Brighton began its rapid growth in popularity, with housing being developed for high-society visitors to the town. This led to the local fishermen being forced out to the edge of the town, northeast of the Steine, which quickly became a densely populated neighbourhood that was out of sight of the fashionable, high-society visitors to the town.

[Ref: PAR 277/7/9/8 East Sussex Records Office]

[Ref: PAR 277/7/9/8 East Sussex Records Office]

The Percy and Wagner almshouses were built in 1795. They were the first buildings in the Lewes Road area of the town, which is evident from this etching dated c1830. The initial 6 houses, which were built for poor widows in the town, were added to in 1859, to provide further accommodation.

The Qualifications for Candidates dated 1874, viewed by the Heritage Research Group at The Keep, stipulated that candidates must be ‘50 years and upwards’, ‘[m]embers of the Church of England’, ‘[l]egally settled in, or belonging to, the Parish of Brighton’, and ‘[n]ot having been in receipt of relief from Poor Rates’.


A History of the Brighton Workhouses, James Gardner, Brighton James Gardner, 2012

Encyclopaedia of Brighton, Tim Carder, East Sussex County Council, 1990

The New Encyclopaedia of Brighton, Rose Collis, Brighton and Hove Libraries, 2010

The Strange Laws of Old England, Nigel Cawthorne, Piatkus, 2004

Views of Brighton & Hove in the Early 19th Century, Exhibition, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 2016

Old Poor Law, Elizabeth Hughes, Presentation, East Sussex Records Office, 2014