The First Children’s Home in Medway? 1615!

Watts Uniform

Artist impression of the uniform of the almshouse children

Under the 1601 Poor Law passed by Elizabeth I, local authorities were required to make provision for the bringing up of poor orphans of their parish, in some occupation or trade so as they would not to remain a burden on the “commonwealth”. In 1615 the Mayor of Rochester, the Dean and the Bridge Wardens, decided that up to 16 children (10 boys + 6 girls) – chosen by the Mayor – would be cared for in the Rochester Almshouse – now known as the Six Poor Travellers – and funded by the Richard Watts’s charity. It was decided that the boys could be supported until they were 18 and the girls until the age of 16.

It was directed that the children were to be dressed in blue cloth with black capes and white yarn or cloth stockings. They were required to attend church every Sunday and on Holy days. (They would have undoubtedly been required to walk and sit together at church – really marking them out as charity children!)

The Uniform

Based on information contained in the accounts of the time, the blue was described as “Coventry Blew”. The shade is not known so the artist has used, for the illustration above, a colour based on woad which was extensively used at the time. Linsey-woolsey, a course cloth with a linen warp and wool weft, was purchased for the making of aprons. Welch (Welsh?) cotton was purchased possibly for the making of petticoats and the lining of bodices.

The capes were black and lined with white material. The length of the cape is unknown so is based on the fashion of the time. Stockings were white. The colour of the flat cap shown on the male figure is not known. The colour could be right as russet cloth, that was hard wearing and was used at this time, can be a greyish in colour.

Although the uniform would have clearly marked out ‘charity children’ it would appear that there was concern about their appearance. Clothing was altered so it would fit better – either as the child grew or it was passed down. Clasps were purchased for the coats of “maids”, as was “filliting” (ribbon) and hair lace for their hair. Caps (“quaifes” / “coifes”) were purchased for the girls working on a loom.

Structural changes – to the almshouse / Six Poor Travellers.

Six Poor Travellers

Six Poor Travellers c1939. The almshouse had Portland stone cladding added in 1771.

Before the children were admitted to the house it had a major makeover in 1615. This included repairs and structural changes. As there was later expenditure on repairing broken windows it is possible the windows were glazed.

A carpenter was employed to erect partitioning – presumably to create separate dormitories for boys/girls – possibly on one of the upper stories as a new staircase was installed at this time. A new entrance was also dug into the cellar. This could have been to create space for the children to work – or perhaps space for a laundry? 

Equipping the almshouse

In addition to the structural improvements, furnishings were purchased/made. A carpenter was commissioned to constructed 10 beds – seemingly being paid on the number of dovetail joints he had to make. Ten mats and 10 earthenware chamber pots were purchased, along with laundry equipment.

Although equipment was only purchased for ten children, some items of clothing – such as shoes – were purchased in multiples of 16. This suggests that provision was being made to support 16 children/young people. As the charity continued to make payments for Poor Travellers it would seem unlikely that the travellers’ rooms were used by the children. The accounts also show payments being made to “Goodwife …” for caring for a child, it is possible that some of the children were boarded-out locally with respectable women .

Almshouse closed as a children’s home in 1622?

In 1622 the accounts show a lot payments associated with the placing of children with families, and in apprenticeships. People who took on a young person as an apprentice was paid 40s (£2). Specialist clothing was also provided along with a set of clothes. One girl was taken into an apprentice by a woman but the accounts do not state the trade.

After 1622 the record shows no more purchasing of materials that could be used to make the prescribed uniform. It may be that the almshouse ceased to be used for accommodating children from this time. This may also be supported by the accounts showing the sale of beds and payments being received for taking in sick soldiers. Support continued to be provided to get young who were in need, into a trade. A mother appears to have been paid 40s so her son could train as a shipwright.

Almshouse reopens to train children

After the almshouse ceased to accommodate parish orphans it appears to have reopened around 1634 to provide ‘employment’ for children. Ann Saxby / Saxbie a widow who resided in the almshouse, was paid £5 / year from 1634 to set children to work; she was also supplied with coal. It was later reported in the accounts that the children were involved in button making under the tuition of Ann. (They were probably engaged in the making of thread buttons as this would not require any specialist tools.) As 10 stools were purchased this could indicate the number of children who were employed in the almshouse. No purchases are shown in the accounts for blue cloth or material to make other items of uniform clothing – although clothing was being provided for named children who appear to be with a family

What happened next?

I do not yet know the detail. The ‘historical story’ of the association between the children and the ‘Six Poor Travellers’ goes ‘cold’ after 1640 – but not regards the association between the Richard Watts’s charity and the support of children – which continues today.

However the parishes of Rochester would have needed to develop alternatives capable of

St Margs plaque

Plaque – above the front door of Old St Margaret’s – see below

supporting more far children and families than would have been possible from a small, old and ‘converted’, house on the high street. Although there were not the same sensibilities we have today regarding children it seems unlikely that the almshouse/Six Poor Traveller’s house would have been regarded as suitable for the bringing up of upright children when the ‘house of correction’ was opened in the basement in 1653. Rochester’s House of Correction

The continued support of children by the charity may have been in the form of providing funding for other almshouses – for instance, St. Margaret’s (see image of plaque which state the house was supported from the charity stablished by Richard Watts) and another in the parish of St. Nicholas – now gone.

St Marg

Old St Margaret’s – now part of the King’s School

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