If the Walls of the Six Poor Travellers house could talk!

It seems that many local people walk past The Six Poor Travellers‘ house on Rochester High Street (97 High St, ME1 1LX) without appreciating that it’s a building of historical significance. It first opened its doors to accommodate Poor Travellers at the time that Sir Francis Drake was fighting the Spanish Armada (1588), and closed about two weeks after the Dunkirk Evacuation in June 1940.

Every day for 350 years the house provided accommodation for up to six poor.

Before 1579 the ‘house’ was the almshouse for Rochester as the Will of Richard Watts stipulated that his bequeath was to ADD six rooms to the almshouse for Poor Travellers.

This led me to think – had there been just one Custodian over that period what would they have witnessed?  The following is only part of the story of the Charity that Richard Watts set up in 1579 – a charity that is still in operation, and the land it owns remains as pertinent today to any regeneration plans for Chatham as it did back in the 1850s – or perhaps sooner if Richard Watts’s land acquisition plans of the 16th century anticipated the expansion of the ‘first’ Chatham Dockyard.

The following is a potted-timeline of the events, some seismic, that the Charity has witnessed, lived through and not only ‘survived’ but ‘thrived’. What it also shows, if anything, is that history told through ‘events & dates’ can miss the impact they had on the everyday lives of individuals. 

National Event


Richard Watts’s

Henry VIII breaks from Rome

In order to marry Anne Boleyn Henry breaks from Rome in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon. As head of the new Church of England he closes monasteries and decides to make Chatham the main dockyard for his Navy. {A good sheltered place, and a place well positioned for intercepting any enemy fleet using the Thames to attack London.}

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Henry VIII





Richard Watts wealth grows

Richard Watts’s business of supplying provisions to the Navy takes off as more is invested in the Navy. The Elizabethan dockyard was located near what is now Chatham Bus Station. Ships would be beached in the mud and worked on at low tide.

Much of the land taken from the Church was sold – perhaps at bargain prices as so much land became available? Richard Watts purchased a lot of riverside land in Chatham that now lays between what is the bus station and St. Barts Hosp. Was he speculating that that would be the direction of any dockyard expansion? etween what is the bus station and St. Barts Hosp. Was he speculating that that would be the direction of any dockyard expansion


Poor in need of help

Elizabeth I recognised a major problem in providing for the genuine poor. Her father, Henry VIII, by closing the monasteries, had effectively removed a significant component of country’s welfare system. His criticism of the Church resulted in less donations / bequeaths being made that could have helped the poor. Elizabeth asked the wealthy to remember the poor in their Wills.

Richard Watts
  Richard Watts

Sept. 1579 – Richard Watts dies. 

A month before he died Richard Watts made a Will. Perhaps mindful of Elizabeth I’s wish, he left money to add six rooms to Rochester’s almshouse for six poor travellers. He left land to the Mayor and Citizens of Rochester to manage. The income from this land was to be used to fund his Charity.


Threat of a Spanish Invasion

Sir Francis Drake defeats the Spanish Armada and prevents a Spanish invasion.

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Spanish Amanda

Rooms Added for Travellers

Rochester’s almshouse is converted to accommodate six poor travellers in individual rooms with a chimney, and equipped with a good mattress – as required by the Will of Richard Watts.

‘Residents’ of the almshouse were responsible for receiving the travellers and ensuring there was a fire to welcome them. Each traveller was given 4d from the Charity to purchase food/fuel so as not to burden the parish. They prepared their own meal. 


Parishes need to provide for poor

Queen Elizabeth I introduces a ‘sympathetic’ Poor Law to be funded by a local tax. Parishes had responsibility for caring for orphans, providing work for the unemployed and punishing those who refused to work.

Richard Watts through his role as an MP and associations with Elizabeth I’s Court, may well have influenced or knew about the thinking behind this law. Elizabeth I stayed with him at Rochester in 1573.

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Poor in genuine need of work

Poor Provided with Work and aided to find Work

The provisions included in the new law (known today as the ‘Old Poor Law’) had been anticipated by Richard Watts. He had made provision in his Will for the purchase of materials such as hemp and flax that could be spun / weaved by the unemployed for which they received a payment. The Charity then sold the finished material to purchase more raw materials. In 1608/09 the Charity purchased three looms. By providing comfortable accommodation for poor travellers Richard Watts would have been helping those travelling in the hope of finding work.


Plague Outbreaks 1603 – 1610/11 

1610 accounts of the Charity show ‘extraordinary charges’ for the “relief of diverse poor people of the city who were in extreme poverty and sickness”.

The way outbreaks of the Plague were managed were not that different to how we’ve managed Covid. Click for more info on Medway Epidemics

Watts Uniform
Uniform of ‘Watts Orphans’

Travellers’ House becomes a children’s home

Many children left orphaned by the Plague. Mayor decides to accommodate 16 children (10 boys = 6 girls) in the Travellers’ House; many alterations made. Boys were supported until aged 18, girls 16. The aim was to place all in apprenticeships. Under the Capper Act 1571 – all males over the age of 6 years had to wear a woollen cap on Sundays.

Click image for more info about the house accommodating children

1620s -1630s

Frequent Outbreaks of The Plague

The outbreak in Rochester 1625 was particularly bad. Other diseases were also prevalent – many perhaps brought in by travellers / returning military.

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Pustules of the Plague

Social Distancing and Business Lockdown!

The Keeper of the Charity was unable to collect the cloth or spun wool from the homes of the poor who had been provided with raw materials as part of the relief they had been given.

However, special payments were received for taking in sick soldiers. In 1623 two soldiers admitted. One died. Charity paid a poor woman 12d to lay him out, 16d to have a grave dug, and 16d to four men to carry him to his grave.

Click image for blog of Medway’s Epidemics


Idle Poor to be ‘Corrected’

The 1601 Poor Law allowed for the use of ‘Houses of Correction’. In these ‘houses’ those who were unwilling to work could be set to work.

house of correction rochester six poor travllers geoff rambler
Door to the Cellar Cell – click image of a ‘tour’

Cellar Converted to hold miscreants

Part of a cellar made into a ‘House of Correction’ for minor offences. In 1657 Alice Tower successfully sued the Mayor for wrongful imprisonment. Her ‘crime’ was to have left her job as a barmaid before the end of her contract. She received compensation of £25 + expenses. When the ‘prison’ first closed is unknown, but it reopened in 1711 because of the lewd and disorderly conduct of the inhabitants of Rochester. It finally closed in 1793.

To explore the Cellar-Cell in 3D click on the image – use mouse to look around.


Charles II ‘Restored’ to the Throne

Charles II spends the night of 28 May 1660 at “Restoration House”, Rochester, before going onto London to be ‘restored’ to the throne. 

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Return of Charles II

Travellers & miscreants accommodated.

Children had left – possibly ‘fostered’ – but cellar is used as a ‘House of Correction’ to punish people guilty of minor offences. When Elizabeth I visited, those who could cause trouble were locked up. I wonder if the same was done for Charles II?


The Glorious Revolution

The ‘Men in Grey Suits’ were concerned about the prospect of the Country being ruled by a Catholic King. With the aid of the Huguenots – French Protestants, who had escaped religious persecution under the Catholic Louis XIV – arrangements were made for William of Orange to ‘replace’ James II.

Abdication House Plaque
Plague on wall of the now closed Lloyds Bank

King James II ‘Abdicates’ at Rochester

James was captured at Faversham whilst trying to make his escape to France. When recognised he was brought to the home of Richard Head. Head’s house was on the site of what was Lloyds Bank in Rochester High Street (69). It was from here that James was ‘assisted’ to make his escape to France on 23 December 1688.


Streets need to be Safer – Sound familiar? 

Across Europe towns and cities were introducing street lighting – presumably to protect travellers from accidents and help prevent attacks.

Rochester High Street to be lit

Law passed in Rochester that required all dwellings along the high street to place a lighted candle in the window between the hours of 6pm to 8pm from 1st Nov to 2 Feb. There was a fine of 4d for every night a candle was not lit. Money raised through the fines was used to relieve the poor inhabitants of the parish of St. Nicholas.


Better connections needed between towns

The Pavement Commissioners were set up by an Act of Parliament to administer the paving, repairing and cleansing of the streets, the prevention of nuisances and the lighting in the town.

(In 1844 they were superseded by the Improvement Commissioners.)

Six Poor Travellers House
Six Poor Travellers – click image for a ‘tour’

1771 Travellers’ House Improved

A considerable amount was spent on repairs. The roof and chimneys were repaired and the house clad in Portland stone.

Perhaps this is an indicator that the income received by the charity was greater than that being spent on providing for the travellers. The makeover would have also complemented the work being undertaken in the Parish of St. Nicholas by the Pavement Commissioners to improve the city.

To explore the house in 3D click on the image – use mouse to look around.


Political Upheaval – Nationally

Victoria becomes Queen at a time of politics being in turmoil – people demanding to have more say in the way national and local affairs were managed. This led to the Reform Acts of 1832 & 1835 – reforms made in the hope of avoiding a revolution similar to that of the French.

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Young Queen Victoria

Political Upheaval – Locally

Control of Richard Watts’s Charity was removed from the Mayor under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. He was most unhappy with this and initially refused to cooperate the new trustees. The new trustees first met in the Bull Hotel then set up a Board Room in the Six Poor Travellers – on left as you enter the house.

The running of the charity became a local issue between the Tories and Radical Whigs. Soon complaints were being raised about how the non-municipal trustees were managing the Charity’s assets. They were largely Radical Whigs and were accused of favouring their supporters.


National concern about the management of ancient charities

Of particularly concern was how income in excess of what was needed was being used by charities set up centuries back.

Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope (Barchester Chronicles. 1867) were both novelists who drew attention to this. 

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Charles Dickens – Want to know more about Dickensian Rochester? Click on Image

Charles Dickens visited the ‘Six Poor Travellers House‘ in May 1854 and included his critical findings in his 1854 Christmas story – The Seven Poor Travellers. 

In the book he criticised Trustees for the way the charity was run and Mrs Cackett, the matron, of wanting the whole house to herself. She apparently received damages of £10 for this unjustified accusation. 

Want to know more about the Rochester Dickens would have known? There is a fundraising book available click for more info.


Charity Commission Enquiry

In 1855 the Charity Commission started reviewing the running of the local ancient charities – Richard Watts Charity was first, then the Dean & Chapters’ running of Kings School Rochester and St. Barts Hospital.

Watts Almshouse
Watts Almshouse – Construction started 1858

Oct. 1855 new scheme introduced for the Richard Watts Charity.

Travellers to be given a hot evening meal; an almshouses was to be provided for older needy people, a nursing service for the residents and laying-in mothers was to be provided; public baths to be provided, and £4,000 to be given towards the building of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital + £1,000 / year towards running costs. Later increased to £1,500. Payment continued until the NHS took the hospital over.


Smallpox spreading across Kent.

Fear that travellers were spreading it.

Local people and their families who had the disease were moved to a quarantine ship on the Medway.

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Travellers’ House did not close.

Consideration was given to closing the house to travellers. It was decided not to do this but to appoint a doctor to exam all applicants.

Click image for blog of Medway’s Epidemics

June 1940

World War II

Dunkirk Evacuation occurred. Invasion thought to be likely. Deep GHQ Trench dug across Isle of Grain to slow the advance of an invading army. Pillboxes and anti-aircraft positions can still be found along this ‘line’.

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Retreating Troops

Chief Constable orders closure of the Travellers’ House

The Chief Constable was concerned that casual wayfarers posed a significant risk to the security of Rochester – with so many strategically important targets such as the bridges, aircraft factory and the dockyard. It never reopened.

After the war new health and welfare laws reduced the need to provide accommodation for poor travellers.


Richard Watts: A Man of his Time and a Charity of its Time

A Man of his Time

It’s inevitable that over a period of 400+ years there will have been periods when things went better than others. However, overall, it would appear that Richard Watts was a man of his time, if not a progressive of his time. His land acquisitions could well have been speculative investments, and his Will of 1579 anticipated much of what was legislated for in 1601. The basis on which he set up his Charity ensured it had a perpetual income – an income that has not just lasted for centuries, but has significantly appreciated.

The land originally bequeathed by Richard Watts to the Mayor and Citizens of Rochester generated, at that time, an income of £60 / year. This was used to run his Charity. Over time the value of the land bequeathed to the Charity significantly increased. New agricultural methods – fertilisers, crop rotation and drainage – increased productivity and in turn the value of the land. The commercial value of land in Chatham also increased as the town expanded as the dockyard grew in size and importance. 

A Charity of its Time

Towards the end of the 18th century the income received from the land left to fund the Charity exceeded what was required to provide for six poor travellers. With no direction as to how the excess money should be used the Mayor choose to subsidise the Poor Rate rather than add to the services provided for the poor. This meant there was no need for those who should have paid the Poor Rate to pay this tax. The Charity’s income therefore benefitted the rich rather than the poor – something that Richard Watts would not have wanted.  As it was only the rich who had the vote in the early 19th century this gave the Mayor a political advantage over other candidates. The changes in the management of the Charity brought about by the 1835 Municipal Reform Act, and later the Charity Commission in 1855, effectively removed politics from the management of the Charity and its income.

Over time, largely in response to external forces, the Charity has provided services in addition to those required for Poor Travellers. The Charity set up some 440 years ago, utilising the bequeathed assets to perpetually fund its activities, continues to be available to provide assistance to people in need who live in the postal districts of ME1 / ME2.

An Invitation?

So the next time you pass the anonymous looking building on Rochester’s High Street, that’s next to the Visitor’s Information Centre – and see it is open – go on in; there is more to it than a quaint garden out the back. 

I believe the history of the house stands alongside the Cathedral, the Castle and the Bridge Wardens – but its history is less obvious and very much closer to the lives of everyday people.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

2 April 2021