Poverty and hardship

Author Jane Austen portrayed the middle and upper classes in her novels,

THE people portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels are the middle and upper classes; the bulk of the population who laboured to survive are hardly mentioned.

She depicts an affluent, privileged and educated minority whose lives were preoccupied with socialisation and leisure. It was an epoch where social mobility was rare, with the church exhorting the lower classes “to be happy in the station in which God has seen fit to place them”.

There was even an under-class comprised of the unemployed, widows, orphans, the infirm and the aged; abject poverty was their common lot and for many the workhouse beckoned.

The records demonstrate that there was real poverty in Lyme during the 18th and 19th centuries, the under-classes having to rely on parish relief and charity. The churchwarden’s accounts for 1834 lists 41 sailors and sailors widows who received five shillings each, just enough to purchase a few loaves of bread.

Victorian poor were encouraged to engage in ‘industrious application’, which translates into poorly paid menial employment. Within a port ‘picking oakum’ was a prime example, it involved untwining and picking into pieces old rope which was then used for caulking the seams of vessels to prevent leaking.

In 1831 three townswomen and their children unpicked 500 ropes for which they were paid 40 pence; it does not state for how many hours they worked.

On a more charitable note, it was the custom to supply coal during the winter to the poor at half price. The offer assumes that they could afford to pay the reduced price of two shillings and sixpence for 56 pounds of coal.

In January of 1868 a newspaper reported ‘Distress in the Town, a soup kitchen had been opened and unemployed men found work repairing roads and streets’. The rate of pay was not stated.

A major blow to the town’s economy was the closure of the three cloth mills; by 1847 some 300 workers had lost their jobs, it marked the end of cloth making in Lyme For the poor.

Lyme was not a healthy place, The river was little more than an open sewer and cleanliness in the streets also left a lot to be desired, harking back to Elizabethan times a part-time ‘street scavenger’ was employed at the rate of £9.2s a year.

Sickness took its toll on the young; of the 72 recorded burials in 1857, 39 were to children aged under 16 years. The main causes being a lack of a clean water supply, poor sanitation and over-crowded living conditions.

In 1876 The Builder Magazine printed a censorious hygienic appraisal of the town. It stated that “sewage gas is very offensive. Half the houses in which the working class live should be condemned, families of six to eight sleeping in one room. Many of the properties are in danger of falling down and one-fifth of the population resort to the river for their requirements”.

The report’s final statement concerned children who “were running the streets semi-nude and whose language is as offensive to the ear as the stench of the drains to the nose”.

Times have changed, all to the good, yet in 2019 the town needs a food bank!

Peter Lacey,
Local author and historian

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