Rochester’s lock-up for the lewd and disorderly!
The Six Poor Travellers – ME1 1LX
The next time you walk past the Six Poor Travellers in Rochester, High Street, look to the ground and to the right of the door as you face it. You will see the ‘grill’ to a cellar. Pause a while reflect of what you may have heard had you been standing there, say, 250 years ago. The cellar was used to house prisoners and to administer whippings to those so sentenced.
The story of the Six Poor Travellers will be told at another time – but it was not always used to provide a night of free accommodation for travellers. Over its time it has been an orphanage and a House of Correction – it is this last function that is the subject of this blog.
Many towns had such a ‘facility’ from the late sixteenth century that was ostensibly used to ‘reform’ the poor convicted of petty offences – through punishment! London had the first in Bridewell. As consequence many ‘houses of correction’ were referred to as Bridewells. Crimes that could lead to an offender being sentenced to a period in a ‘house of correction’ were often victimless or extremely minor by today’s standards.
Vagrants were seen as a social threat and a potential drain on the resources of a Parish if they were unable to support themselves. It is for this reason that travellers on leaving the Six Poor Travellers were given 4d (four old pence). This was the amount needed to ensure that when they travelled on into another parish they would not be regarded as a vagrant, and thus avoid imprisonment – and possibly a whipping – before being returned to the parish from which they had come.
The House of Correction could also be used by the gentry who fulfilled the role of Magistrates in towns and cities, as a means to assert control over the poor. One such ‘abuse’ occurred in Rochester.
In 1657 the Mayor of Rochester, Richard Wye J.P. committed Alice Towers to the House of Correction for leaving the service of Arthur Brooker, an innkeeper, before her time was finished. Alice appealed against this and sued the Mayor, in the High Court, for wrongful imprisonment. She won her case and the Lord Chief Justice decreed that the Mayor was to pay Alice £25 (about £1,800 in today’s money) damages and all costs.
It would be interesting to know whether she had a wealthy benefactor or perhaps a ‘prison reformer’ who provided the advice and resources to take the matter to the High Court. It is difficult to imagine how an employee in an Inn could have contemplated such an action.
The cellar in the Six Poor Travellers would have been a dreadful place to be incarcerated. The cellar room is about 4m x 4m, and the extremely poor conditions would have been worsened by the fact that the sink that can be seen in the hallway above, emptying directly into this part of the cellar.
The prisoners would have probably been expected to undertake hard labour. In the Medway area this could well have been the unpicking oakum. Oakum was old rope that had been protected from the elements with tar. The unpicked oakum was then used for caulking (filling gaps between planks) ships. The unpicking would have been very hard on the fingers and a specified amount per day would have had to been unpicked – so slacking was not an option.
A House of Correction operated from the Six Poor Travellers from 1653 to 1793 – over two periods. The dates of the first period was from 1653 to an unknown date, but it needed to be reopened in 1711 for more serious crimes, because lewd and disorderly persons were causing ‘great disorder’ in Rochester. The House of Correction finally closed in 1793 but it took another 5 years before the keeper, Henry Webb could be ‘evicted’.
It was reported that the old whipping post that is on display in Rochester’s Guildhall Museum (ME1 1PY), was once located in the cellar of the Six Poor Travellers. It has not been possible to verify this. Indeed it would seem unlikely as at the time the Six Poor Travellers housed the ‘house of correction’ whippings would have been public affairs in order to deter others.
What was located in the indents that can be seen in the cellar floor, in the following picture, remain, for present, a mystery. The cellar floor is at the level of the old Roman road. The surface of the cellar floor is probably cobbles placed on the old road.