Poor Rates and the Price of Labour

by RW Standing

It is a truism that statistics do not lie, only the politicians who use them.  Or, rather, it is all too easy to quote a convenient set of statistics and omit to mention others that are related, but inconvenient.  Such selectivity would be all too easy for Angmering in the 19th century,  when facts and figures began to proliferate.


For those who research local history, one of the handy sets of information is that once found in the parish chest, but today more safely deposited at the County Record Office. This includes the overseer's poor rate books, which for Angmering survive covering the years from 1780 to 1863. Earlier and later years are missing.

Necessary but begrudged local rates, had their substantial origin in the Elizabethan Poor Laws, and were based on the ancient institution of the parish, which now had a purely secular function in poor relief.  The Vestry agreed an assessment on mainly landed property, at least once a year, and the assistant overseer had the onerous task of collecting this from landowners and tenants.  Fortunately for recipients, the local magistrates were required to agree the assessment and, although usually landowners themselves, were a legalistically fair counterweight to the vagaries of parish potentates.  When the Union workhouse was established the Visitor or manager of this had the right to audit accounts.

There is a run of over eighty years for these rate schedules, through the era of the Napoleonic Wars, industrial revolution and coming of the railways, and the founding of district government in the creation of Unions of Parishes with their workhouses.  Annual totals of rates collected should reflect how life fared year to year, and how well the poor were catered for.

In the late 18th century the amount collected ran around the £500 figure, but then for two decades after 1800 shot up remarkably to anything between £1000 and £2500.  Thereafter the figure fluctuated around £500 to as much as £1000. It is barely surprising that with the same picture found in other parishes, a Broadwater spokesman in the 1840s recalled, "Some years ago the rates had got to such a distressing state that the parish called a meeting and appointed a committee ...."  Angmering had no such committee but its vestry had the same concern.  

It may be noted here that there is also a set of rate returns made from 1801 to 1817, and these are slightly at odds with figures extracted from the rate books.  Most of the discrepancy is due to a new book being opened in 1814, and clearly one assessment was omitted.  The amount raised for the year should be over £1600, double what is shown in the graph with this article.  There is similar doubt in 1796, but no evidence, and again in 1838.  It should not be assumed all the funds raised went to the poor, much effort and legal expense went into removing people with no settlement qualification. A small amount may also have been used for the county bridge rate, to pay the village constable, and similar expenses.

When it is reflected how population was increasing, the rates burden in the early period was all the more marked.  With a fixed land area, only the building of a few more houses could increase the base on which rates were levied, labourers did not usually pay rates on cottages.


Which brings us to the matter of how many inhabitants there were in Angmering during this period.  Fortunately it coincides with the decennial census returns beginning in 1801, which provide exact figures for the population.  Except that this is not strictly correct.  The census enumerated the people who were in the parish at the time, and that included travellers and visitors, while an unknown number of absent residents were not included. If a French fleet had been in the offing very few inhabitants would have been at home. However, we can take the figures as representing the native population fairly accurately.

In 1801 the parish contained 708 people, and a gradual increase took place to a thousand in 1841 at which level it remained until 1871 and beyond.  The only earlier form of census took place in 1724, when the Rector claimed there were 64 families or households, probably derived from lost rate schedules.  That indicates a population at well under 400, even at six persons to the household. As in England, generally a continual rise in population took place from the 1730s, with births exceeding deaths, adding another 300 or so to the parish total by 1801. Indeed the surplus birthrate was such that rural areas, including Angmering, must have had substantial migration away to the towns and further abroad, even to the Colonies.

Dearth and Disease

But that leaves no account taken of crisis years, in which a combination of bad weather, poor harvests and consequent reduced food production, made people vulnerable to disease, the poor especially.  Infants and the elderly would have succumbed, leading to a small fall in the population, but then for a few years a death rate lower than average bringing a rapid increase.

There is some knowledge of the years of disease and death in England and the south in particular, but disease is often localised in extent, or much more intense in towns.  A terrible cholera epidemic at Worthing in 1893, with some 150 fatalities, was a very local affair due to contaminated drinking water. Typhus, influenza, smallpox, and Asiatic cholera all made their appearance, but it is the peaks in burials that indicate when a particular parish, Angmering, was involved.  1720 was the last year in Angmering for deaths to substantially outnumber births.  For the period in question recorded burials numbered from under ten a year upwards to over twenty, and in 1868 as high as 33. Such peaks as there were occurred in 1785, 1788, 1799 to 1803, 1812, 1819, 1823, 1825, 1827, 1830, 1832, 1836 and 1837, 1839 and 1840, 1844 to 1848, 1850 to 1853, 1863 and 1864, 1868 to 1870.  The significant years were those massed together, 1799 to 1803, 1844 to 1848, 1868 to 1870.

1868 was the worst single year with a death rate of 33 per 1000 population. Calculating rates for decades, these range from as low as 16.5 from 1854 to 1863, to 20 for 1841 to 1850, and a maximum of 22 per 1000 population 1799 to 1808.  The real rates are possibly slightly greater if all deaths were recorded.  But what this indicates is that Angmering was a rural area where mortality was relatively low, the death rate for the country as a whole beginning where Angmering was at its maximum of 22.  In modern Britain the death rate is under 10.

There were spectacular and disastrous events afflicting the country and Europe.  It is known that in1783/4 an Iceland volcano caused such pollution that a severe winter was followed by a summer with snow in August.  A nice coincidence that the parish church had a new peal of bells hung at this time. But it was 1786 when burials peaked in Angmering, with typhus scourging the south of England.  According to Arthur Young there had been a very bad winter in England to begin 1786.

Another volcanic eruption in 1815, gave rise the 'year without summer' in 1816.  Very uncomfortable and disconcerting it may have been, but not a cause for unusual mortality.  A poor harvest would explain the high wheat price the following year, although 1817 had far higher prices, followed the year after that by heavy mortality with 23 burials.

More mundane but unfortunate causes for large burial numbers, can be found, if accounts for the south of England are correct - in 1785 perhaps typhus, and 1788 influenza.  Then from 1799 to 1803 a combination of factors, including smallpox and typhus, with corn prices massively inflated no doubt signifying shortages, at least for sale to the towns.  Later on, Asiatic cholera became part of the rich mix of disease assaulting the nation, with the first outbreak in 1831/32 followed by further episodes in 1848/49, 1853/54, and 1865/66.  No doubt in the years about 1868 smallpox was part of the problem, with the workhouse busily engaged in providing isolation buildings for the sufferers.  Exact diagnosis of the various afflictions requires more research.

The supply of food was a factor in causing debility, and proneness to disease.  After 1840, stability and importation of fertilisers brought a generation of High Farming productivity and profit to landowners.

Then from about 1870 the industrial wealth of Britain, and the opening up of the prairies in America, allowed us to import corn and other crops.  Dependence on home grown food, with variable output due to the vagaries of our weather, came to an end for the next century or so.  But in the period under review wheat prices varied widely according to supply, and any cutting off of Europe meant that imports from there could not supplement home supply.  Wheat, meant bread, which was the principal part of the poor man's diet.  During the Napoleonic Wars that is what happened, Europe was closed except to smugglers.

Wheat Price

Wheat prices in England generally are well publicised, and no doubt reflect what was obtained by local farmers.  The accompanying data table (click here to see) and chart derived from that data (see below) has the yearly price of a load of wheat [a ton more or less] in pounds x 100, which is effectively a conversion to the modern pound of 100 pennies.  Late in the 18th century,  £20 was seldom achieved, but then in 1799 through the Napoleonic Wars era, prices rocketed - in 1801 almost £30, 1812 nearly £32.  Eventually, from the 1840s onwards, prices were often as low as £10 and only in about 1854 as high as £18.

According to lord Ernle [English farming ... 1936], the best harvests up to the end of the war years were in 1779,  1791, 1796, and 1813.  Between 1793 and 1814 fourteen years were deficient, 1795, 1799, 1800, 1809 to 1812 in particular were poor. But it may be assumed the compensating high price of wheat enabled the raising of equally high rates to provide adequate relief to the poor.  The coastal plain was a fertile belt, before being covered by houses, and in the war years largely devoted to wheat.

Rates and Wheat

A comparison of this series of wheat prices with that of rates is revealing.  In fair approximation, rates and wheat prices rose and fell together.  Although farmers and landowners were paying very large rate assessments at the turn of the century, it was because they were able to do so, such corn as was produced being highly profitable. If farm labourers were not paid a living wage, they could be paid doles out of the rates to compensate.  What happened in large towns manufacturing towns is another story.

Another feature of the graph is that while the rates and wheat series, as drawn, are close together about 1800, in the High Farming era beginning in the late 1840s there is a distinct separation with the wheat price series well above the rates.  This can be taken two ways - that paying the dole in 1800 was a problem, or that in the later period farmers were in clover.  The latter seems to be the truer picture.

Poor Relief

In Angmering and other local villages, half the labour force had the ostensible 'charity' of weekly payments by the Overseer, enabling farmers to avoid raising wages overly, which might be difficult to lower when normal times returned. Around 1802, Angmering had 30 percent of its population on poor relief.  By 1825, when rates were still fairly high, relief was being paid to 12 percent of the population most of whom were on permanent relief, presumably the old and those unable to work or with large families.

Union of Parishes

It is necessary to consider what was happening at the workhouse, or rather with the Union of Parishes and the guardians who ran it.  The Union was formed in 1791 under Gilbert's Act, hence a Gilbert Union. It was not joined by Angmering until 1806, but since the workhouse only took in young waifs and infirm old people, little difference was made to the running of parishes by their vestries. On joining, Angmering would have paid a hefty subscription for its share of the House, which was indeed enlarged at that date.

Analysis of workhouse accounts make it clear that from 1813 until 1822 paupers in the House were allowed better rations that in later years.  Before 1813, in those war years, there was some stringency, but not so marked as after 1822. It may be assumed this was reflected in provision for those on outdoor relief - the vast majority.  Broadwater, as mentioned, set up a committee to economise, and other parishes followed suit. Then in 1834 came the infamous Poor Law Reform, which did not in fact relate directly to East Preston Union, which continued as a Gilbert Union. But a report was made on the Union and its workhouse, and another tightening of the belt took place immediately afterwards.  Indeed the workhouse had to conform more and more despite its Gilbert status. 

It has already been noted how the graph series for rates and wheat prices diverged after about 1834, with rates falling dramatically, indicating a more stringent regime in the parishes. Nevertheless, in the 1840s, when the Union was again investigated, it was admitted the inmates diet was a good as in the best workhouses elsewhere.  Outdoor relief continued in the area after 1834, because it was a Gilbert Union.

Exhaustive study of rate books for the various parishes in Union may be needed to confirm these conclusions. Unfortunately Angmering does not have a good series of books covering expenditure, and specific details of how families were relieved.  Those books that do exist are not very informative about family incomes and circumstances.

According to various amendments to the basis for calculating the amount to be paid for pauper maintenance in the workhouse, the following amounts per week would have been obtained for each pauper each week, if the load of wheat had remained at a market price of £12.  (Old pence of 12 pennies to one shilling, 20s to a pound).  The rates are known to be correct for 1800, 1822, 1826, and calculated otherwise.
1800, 33d:         1804, 36d:         1813,  41d:        1822,  32d;        1826, 38d;         1835, 32d;
1838, 20d,         1841, 26d;         1843, 20d:         1847, 29d:         1850, 26d:
At £20 a load each amount would have been raised by 8d

Employing the Poor

In 1844 the Visitor [workhouse manager] defined the situation in Angmering very succinctly, 'the parish has a great number of poor, it is quite an agricultural parish, and they have not known at times what to do with them, and they have come down and asked whether I could do anything for them'.  At this time single unemployed men were often taken into the house. Married couples often had some of their family sent in, the others receiving relief in money and goods.

The Roundsman system had been used in Angmering, until the late Twenties. The present system was slightly different, as an agreement for each farmer to take one man for every £50 he was worth in rates.   The worst man taken on being moved about from farm to farm.

Farm Rents

In the matter of farm rents it is unfortunate that a good series of rentals and deeds do not extend into the 19th century adequate to indicate how these increased, and no doubt fell back again after the war years.

Recourse may be made to the rate returns, which presumably reflect land values.  In the 1780s the total parish valuation amounted to £1766, this rose to over £2500 by 1796, and then jumped to around £3500 at which level it remained until 1813.  1814 saw the absolute peak at just over £4000, followed by a slight fall back under £4000, but returning to the peak in 1820 and 1821.   A dramatic fall, the dropped the figure to £3400 and down to £2460 by 1824, but after that a slight rise to between £2500 and £2600 saw out the period under review. The peaks of £4000 did not mean a particularly unusual rate raised during those years, the charge was adjusted or number of rates reduced, to compensate.  However it is notable that ratepayers took fright in 1822, at both the valuation and the actual charge.

From what is known about farm rents in the 18th century through to 1811, taking into account the very varied nature of farmland in the parish, a doubling of rents in that period is evident. As elsewhere locally a fall back took place after the war period.

Swing Riots

One of the years that stand out in local history is 1830 and the Swing Riots.   These began in Kent for reasons best known to that county, and this part of Sussex was swept up by the frenzy later in the year.  The unfortunate incident at East Preston and its outcome is well known.  Angmering had a far more destructive arson attack at Old Place farm, where the barns with their harvest of corn were destroyed.  The lucky culprit was never discovered. 

As may be observed from the chart, 1830 was a fairly miserable time, the weather not good, and mortality fairly high for that period although not high long term.  Wages were not enough to support families with children, but there is no evidence that they were as low as in some other parts of the country.  it does not even appear to be a time when Union policy was at its most stringent, although the labourer's fear may have been of a return to conditions just after 1822.  Afterwards, the Poor law of 1834 and investigation of the workhouse had the net result of making economies all round with farm owners paying lower rates. 


The period of High Farming brought prosperity to landowners and farmers, by all repute.  This is not to say that this breadbasket region was not profitable previously, other than in years of crop failure.  But abundant wealth is evident from the rebuilding that took place.  Undoubtedly the final inclosures of open fields and the enlargement of farms at the expense of smallholders was a partial factor. 

Ham Manor was rebuilt as early as 1822, although Gratwicke had not increased his estate within Angmering.  Syon House or the Rectory was enlarged in 1815, but this may have been fuelled by inflated tithes.  Preston Place, built in 1838, was owned by an extensive landowner in Angmering as well as Preston.  West Kingston vastly improved about the same time, by another in the Olliver clan, who owned lands there since the beginning of the century.  That Ecclesden mill was built in 1826, is at least a sign of confidence in the future. Then the extensive remodelling of the church in 1837, and reconstruction in 1853, betoken surplus wealth.

The Tendencies

What the evidence indicates is a variety of tendencies at work in the district.  Exactly how affluent the ruling class of landowners and traders were at any time, and how relatively poor their labourers and others, is not evident.  The relief paid to families, their circumstances, and budgets, over a long period of time, is required but is probably beyond recall.

RW Standing
March 2008

(Page first uploaded: 11 March 2008)