On the fourth of April 1692, the city fathers of Winchester assembled at one of their splendid quarterly courts to judge criminals, hear disputes and resolve pressing civic concerns. As was often the case, one of the poor souls who found herself standing before them was an alleged vagrant. The magistrates probably examined dozens of vagrants in a typical year, but this one was a bit different – she was over 100 years old.
The clerk described her as ‘Mary Stevens a Vagrant aged about 101 yeares’ and noted that she swore ‘upon her oath that she was born neare the College of Winchester (as she often had heard her Father say)’.
In other words, this was a woman had apparently been born sometime around 1591, in the final decade of the reign of Elizabeth I, only a few streets away from the court where she now stood. She had outlived four monarchs and Oliver Cromwell. She had survived a decade of civil wars, another decade of republican rule, the country’s last great visitation of the plague, and then yet another revolution only three years earlier. And, given her description as a ‘vagrant’, she had probably spent many months or years on the road and seen the effects of these upheavals with her own eyes. Yet here she was, back in Winchester.
So why had she come back? The examination does not tell us. Perhaps she had come on her own accord. Or perhaps had been sent back from somewhere further afield, whether a neighbouring village or halfway across the country.
This wouldn’t have been unusual. Beggars and paupers were regularly seized by the constables and brought before the local Justices of the Peace. If they were accused of ‘vagrancy’ – a criminal offence usually defined as ‘wandering and begging’ – they could be punished by whipping or imprisonment in the local house of correction, before being expelled to their place of birth. In other cases, they might be defined as one of the ‘deserving poor’ and escape punishment, but still be sent to a ‘home’ they had long-since abandoned.
What we do know is that once Mary Stevens had arrived back in the area, she was then sent back and forth between the city of Winchester and the parish of ‘little St Swigins’ (St Swithuns) next to Winchester College, presumably just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Neither the city nor St Swithuns wanted to pay the cost of supporting her.
We can only hope that the new order issued by the Winchester authorities – sending her to St Swithuns ‘to be provided for and setled according to Law’ – was the conclusion of this petty jurisdictional argument. There she may have finally become a ‘lawfull & settled Inhabitant’.
With luck, Mary Stevens’ days of ‘wandering and begging’ were over. At age 101, she deserved a rest.
Hampshire Record Office, W/D3/1, fol. 79: examination of Mary Stevens, 4 April 1692
Some Further Reading
A.L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (1985)
Steve Hindle, On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c. 1550-1750 (2004)
David Hitchcock (ed.), ‘Poverty and Mobility in England, 1600-1850’, Rural History, 24:1 (April 2013), special issue.
Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (2004)
sounds a lot like the arguments between hospitals and nursing homes over who has a bed available that you hear reported in todays news
Could not agree more with the comment above. The comparisons between late 17th century life for the labouring sorts and today grow ever more uncannily alike.
Yes, I suppose there are some similarities. Then, as now, everyone seemed to agree that a women in her circumstances was entitled to aid, but they argued over who would pay for it.
That said, I wouldn’t want to stretch the analogy too far. Ultimately the welfare/pension/health system is much more centralised today which has changed the character of such disputes.
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