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Harrogate Story 





Workhouse Master and Vestry Clerk

In an interesting article, one of an "Old Harrogate" series that appeared in the Harrogate Herald during the winter of 1892-3, W. H. Breare mentions the election, held some fifty years before, of the first Town Improvement Commissioners. He is giving details about each of the candidates in turn when he frankly confesses, “Henry Peacock I have not heard of." In a later article he remarks, "I am wondering if Harrogate ever had a Poor House of its own." As the township records were not available in Breare's time, he was unaware of the connection that exists between his two comments. Harrogate had a Workhouse of its own for nearly fifty years, and for thirteen of them Henry Peacock was its capable and energetic Master. The records of the Workhouse throw much light on life and conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century, but the character of Peacock is a matter of more personal interest.

Like other people, he had his good and bad qualities, but he clearly had an energy, a vitality, much above the ordinary. As is usual with such characters, he aroused admiration, respect and, possibly, warm affection, in some; in others, dislike and something not far from contempt. Starting in poverty, he was determined to make life give him what he felt was his due and as far as possible to control circumstances.

Under the date June 2nd, 1825, in the Overseer's expenses account is the laconic entry : "collecting new Master and Mrs. for the Workhouse." The persons thus collected were Henry Peacock and his wife Elizabeth. After three years' service at the workhouse of "Aldborough and Boroughbridge" they had come to the much larger one at Harrogate at the joint salary of £50 a year and "all found." A flattering testimonial, signed by township officers and "principal inhabitants," gives as their reason for the change "they consider they can better themselves." In Henry's case, at any rate, this phrase was no formal one thought up to suit the occasion. It was a concise expression of his rule of life. Of Elizabeth we know nothing more than that she was a good wife, being kept hard at work, and was always ailing. She died in January, 1827, not unexpectedly. In a letter she received some month before a woman friend tells her - in a rather awkward attempt at sympathy - that at their last meeting she had had the feeling they would never meet again. Henry's chief concern seems to have been to collect a little money that was due to her.

In August, 1828, he married Jane Dodd, for the Workhouse had to have a Mistress. She helped by her frugal management to keep down the cost of each pauper to about half-a-crown a week, and she also added a little to the joint income by extra duties. Besides supervising the washing and baking for the whole "family" of fifty or so she probably had in her charge also the brewing, for quantities of malt were bought, and the weekly item, "Jane Peacock : yest, etc," crept up to 15s. a week. Jane had been maid to Sir Charles des Voeux, of Woodhall, and had accumulated during her years of service a balance of about £150 in the York Saving Bank. In November, 1828, this account is put in her husband's name.

When Peacock had been appointed Workhouse Master in 1825, he had become Vestry Clerk too. Overseers were nearly always busy men - here they were innkeepers, farmers, tradesmen, even one manufacturer - and as township duties increased they were ready to hand over all routine matters to a paid official. This was the Vestry Clerk, and after 1832 it was the Assistant Overseer. Peacock held the latter office as long as he remained Workhouse Master, that is to 1838. Besides spending the township's money he had therefore to collect it, and this involved making out the Rate Books, with their assessments. Though he got help once or twice in collecting the Poor Rate he, on the other hand, sometimes collected the Highways Rate for the Surveyors, of course for a fee. In addition to these official activities he became steward for some half-dozen property owners at a commission. Once he received payment in kind - a salmon - for his "good services," the nature of which is not stated.

He was an enthusiastic, though perhaps rather a "slapdash" public official. Possibly, even for him, there were too many irons in the fire. He received many letters from Overseers, for those were days when poor relief was an exasperatingly complicated business. Each township acting independently and being responsible for all paupers who could claim a settlement in it, Overseers set themselves to disclaim responsibility whenever there was the least chance of doing so. On occasions Peacock received abuse: on others, compliments. "For God's sake don't waste our time - you know the man belongs your township," wrote H. Frost, of Knaresborough. Another correspondent wishes that "other overseers gave him as little trouble."

He and the Overseers received a host of letters - many pathetic, several decidedly truculent - from those applying for relief. Incidentally, these do not fit in with the popular idea that the poor at that time were usually unable to read and write, or even to express themselves well and often cogently. As Peacock quite often made copies of his own letters, his correspondence may almost be described as voluminous. But in addition he had the true collector's instinct. Mixed up with official papers are private letters and documents (such as the Bank Book!) some of which present him in a favourable light, but there are others that a less self-confident man would have been careful to destroy.

The poverty of his own family, and that of his first wife, is obvious enough. A brother-in-law writes. in 1831: "the landlord has been and he has sold all that we have. he brought with him what we call an odds and ends man. and he sold all there was for £3 19s. and i wanted to buy the Bed back again and he would not let me have it under £2. my mother takes it as well as can be expected for i have encouraged her by you." Peacock himself, apparently, is the one hope of the family. Yet he allowed his own mother to receive poor relief, at least from 1829 to 1834, and to be buried by the township in which she died.

Possibly because he knew from the inside the life of the poor, he quite often showed sympathy to those who were down on their luck. At the same time he was a keen detector of malingerers and charlatans. But, above all, his experience made him determined to force or flatter people into giving him what he wanted, and this was not little, for he had large ideas, spending freely when he had either money or credit.

How to meet his private bills was his perpetual problem. In 1825 some follow him from Boroughbridge, accompanied by dunning letters - but some honest folk have a similar experience! It is from notes he left among the township papers that we can piece together something rather more serious.

One of his financial transactions covers many years. In 1819 he had got .a loan of £20, at the then, usual rate of 5 per cent., from a James Dickinson, of Burley. This friend was either gullible or, as is more likely, generous and long-suffering. The year following, instead of paying interest, Peacock obtained from Dickinson a further loan of £5, giving him some twenty yards of cloth. Interest was then allowed to accumulate, year after year, until the marriage with Jane, when most of the debt was cleared. The payment of this and other accounts, and certainly a bout of spending (as his private 'bills show), explain the reduction of Jane's balance of £150 to a mere £20 in under two years and its complete disappearance soon after. The curious item of cloth is not explained till 1835. In that year, a Thomas Briggs returned from abroad to reclaim 26 yds. of "Peleice cloth," worth 8s. 9d. a yd., that he had left with Peacock in 1816 for safe keeping. When Briggs asked for his cloth, Peacock refused to give it or its value in money "on account of what he had to do for his own family," and went on to blame Dickinson for "helping him into his, present situation." Hearing later that Briggs had reported this conversation, Peacock wrote hurriedly to Dickinson to assure him that he could "fully explain." No doubt he did!

The taking-in of a newspaper is a minor matter, but just for that reason it is likely to indicate a man's financial habits. From December, 1823, Peacock took the Yorkshire Gazette, which cost him 7d. a copy, the usual price in those days of taxed newspapers. At rare intervals he paid half of the overdue account; but in June 1827 he still owed £3. By June, 1830 we find him taking the Leeds Mercury.

The episode of a Robert Taylor of Leeds again shows the patience of his creditors or his own plausibility. In January, 1828 this man requests the immediate payment of an old debt of some pounds, with a painted reference to the "respectable situations " that his debtor had " so long held," but in February, 1831 he is still demanding the same sum, with the same pointed reference. Peacock does not .pay in the end, having, he says, "taken benefit of the Insolvent Act." Taylor then asks for a personal interview, at which he intends to take other measures. Peacock engages to meet him - I have the principal of a Man about me" - and if Taylor wants an assurance that the promise will be kept, he can refer to - James Dickinson of Burley!

In August 1831, a certain "James Firth, late Overseer of Fewston," asked for the immediate repayment of ten shillings. Peacock had obtained this from him, he says, "on the pretext of it being usual for Out-Townships to make a present" to the Harrogate Workhouse Master. Firth had discovered a little late that "no such Gift had ever been made or even applied for" before, and 'his township had disallowed the item.

There is little doubt that, some time in the early 1820's, Peacock "took religion." His wife Jane was a devout Methodist, and it is 'probable that his first wife Elizabeth had been one also. The evidence of his own attitude is not so much his paying for "seats" in the local Chapel as the number of letters he received, particularly from women, of a strongly religious tinge. Among those for whom he managed property were John and Mary Knaresborough people who had moved to Bradford and, curiously enough, liked the change. In a letter from Mary, mainly concerned with business details, there is a passage showing how her particular group looked at things. "I have got one of the best of Husbands and as far as Earthly comfort can go we are happy indeed, but yet there is one thing lacking. my Husband tho, an excellent Moral Character is not a Religious Man, but yet he never throws any hindrances in my way. We always go twice or three times to Chapel on the Sunday and he is always ready to accompany me on a Weeke Night and he will not engage himself or me on that Night because he knows I like to go. . . ." The fact that Mrs Pullan considers a "Religious Man" like Peacock to be in some mysterious way superior to a "Moral Character," such as her positive paragon of a husband, is one more confirmation of the Yorkshire saying: "There's nought so queer as folk."

On a "yest " bill in August, 1828, the Leeds brewer has written, "Should it be correct, I wish you every blessing connected with your h'onourab'le and happy state." Presumably it was "correct," for the marriage with Jane 'must have been a fairly .happy one. She showed deference, apparently, to her more gifted husband, but was hardly a nonentity. She played her part not only in the work of the institution, but in establishing human relations between the members of what they all called the "family" within it. But, like her predecessor Elizabeth. she was often ill - right from the time when, within two months of the marriage, Peacock tells a friend that his "Dear Wife" is very "poorly." But there is plenty of evidence that she did her many duties till not long before she died.

Henry and Jane did more than their official duty towards some of the inmates. There was, for example, a man called Franklin, a member of a good family that tried to forget his existence. He was well educated, as his many letters show, but he suffered from what is called to-day "nervous breakdown," during one spell of which he had committed some minor crime that sent him to the House of Correction at Ripon. When, afterwards, he came into the Workhouse, the Peacocks treated him with understanding and sympathy and gave him, obviously without any hope of reward., as much freedom as institutional regulations would permit, and small luxuries such as tea and coffee. In the ordinary way these were given to paupers only on a doctor's prescription. There is a letter, too, from John Hagley, uneducated but hard-working and honest, who finds himself in York Castle for debt. After asking for a loan to be begged for him from any one of Peacock's well-to-do Harrogate friends, whom he mentions by name, he adds,. "You have both singular and plural eased my troubled mind, for which I shall never never forget."

One of the few letters written by Jane - dated August 17th, 1833, and addressed to her husband at Scarborough - gives in its naive way a feeling of the atmosphere of the Workhouse community and a hint of its day-to-day activities:
I Take up my pen to wright to you according to your wish. I have not anything particular to say. we are all very quiet and peasable as yet. we have got Oddy's Children: Mr. W. and Mr. Allinson. brought the few things yesterday. Mr. W. had Mr. Pullon and. Mr. Ripley with him yestarday to pay the Power, and as you was not at home we had the Beason out. they drank your good health and Safe Return. I hope you find yourself better but you cannot tell in so short a time, but I cincearly hope it will do you good. I had Mr. Benn this Morning to say Joseph Bramly is to go to Mr. Wright's on Munday Morning. he will giv 5 shillings per week with him. as I was wrighting Jane was Standing by. She said who is that for Aunt. is it for uncel. giv my love to him. I shall be so glad when he cums home again. we are both well and all the Family Except. Joseph belongs Spufforth. He waists fast. he looks at present as though you would not see .him any mor. and old William Sissens likewise. the other old man is no worse. I Conclude with kindest love and Effection ever. - Jane Peacock.

The "Power" were those who received out-door relief each week and were known as pensioners. "Mr. W." was probably Martin Wilson, then, Churchwarden and a prominent draper in the town. Joseph Bramly is an inmate who will work at a coach-builder's during the day, and the township will benefit: on the credit side of overseers' accounts there is sometimes the item,. Labourage. The "Beason" (i.e. basin) appears to have been their private name for a bowl or tankard. Jane, the niece, lived with the Peacocks for a number of years.
Peacock was very busy in the early 1830's with township business; for he had an eye to the public profit as well as his own. He 'managed to reduce expenses, in the Workhouse by putting the paupers on an almost completely vegetarian diet. He made the placing of poor children as apprentices very lucrative for the township by imposing a fine of £10 on any who refused to take one.

In 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners demanded elaborate reports, preparatory to the passing of the new Poor Law, which was to make drastic changes in the system. This work, in the township; was left largely to Peacock, and it was done efficiently. Shortly after, he was given a "bonus" of £12 or so, a private subscription by prominent townsmen.

This windfall, which he himself, as appears from his notes, had "shaken from the tree," was not enough to save his desperate financial situation. A fresh embarrassment is revealed in letters from John Ragg, Overseer of Pateley Bridge. Peacock's 'mother had received poor relief in Holbeck for the previous four years, and she had been given a pauper's funeral. Her "settlement" was in Pateley Bridge, so that township had to reimburse Holbeck. Pateley Bridge, in its turn, naturally hoped to recover the money from her apparently well-to-do son. A letter from Ragg; dated January, 1835 - following lengthy negotiations - makes clear the threat to Peacock's official position. "I am again instructed to write to you respecting the expences of your mother's order of suspension. The rate payers here don't feel inclin'd to pay the whole without they cant help themselves, but they have order'd me to say that they will sacrifice the £15 already paid if you will pay the remaining £20, which I advise you to do, for you must own she was your mother and it will 'be the last duty you have to perform... . In case of your refusal I shall have to lay the case before the Poor Law Commissioners giving them to understand how the parties are situated.. I think your Salary is 50 or 60£ Per Ann. as head master of the Workhouse for Bilton cum Harrogate and 8 or 10 adjoining Townships, with meat drink, etc., etc."

This further composition with his creditors - though, in this instance, rather regrettable - is a tribute to his negotiating ability. His enforced resignation, here hinted at, he managed somehow or other to put off for three more years. When it came he had made due preparation for it.

In spite of her poor health, his wife continued her duties until 1837, but in the summer of that year her illness became more severe. After her death„ a woman friend wrote, in a letter of condolence : "It was a happy change for her, as her life in the state she had been in some time certainly was not desirable. When in health she lived the life of a true Christian." It was in the early autumn that Jane died.

Some months later; in February, 1838, the Workhouse Committee resolved "that Mr. Henry Peacock shall be served with his notice to give up his situation as Governor of Harrogate Work House on the twentieth. Day of May next ensuing. "In the same month his successor as Assistant Overseer was also appointed.

His service as a public official was ended, but not his career. Since the time when he had been "collected," thirteen years before, he had cultivated influential friends and improved his social standing. Even the Committee in its dismissal notice attached the then respectful title of "Mr"; and "Mr Peacock, Harrogate" was the only address on many of his letters. He had not been an "Unjust Steward," but he had one point in common with the man in the Parable: when he failed, he had a habitation into which he was received. The Harrogate Advertiser in August, 1838, records his marriage to: Mrs Waudby, of the Brunswick Hotel. This time he is married in the Knaresborough Parish Church by the Vicar (the Rev. Andrew Cheap). The following issue of the Advertiser shows that he has become landlord of the Brunswick as successor to the widow. 'This inn " by the Great Pillar " was not of the size that it has since grown into as the Prince of Wales but it was already a " Posting House" and rivaled the Swan of the period, though hardly the Granby.

For the next eleven years. Peacock was to belong to what was probably the most influential group in Harrogate life at that time, the "innholders." If he had left his public offices under a cloud this was forgotten. for the township asked his advice 'on Rating. In 1841 he got many votes (though he just failed of election), when the first Town Improvement Commissioners were chosen, and the following year, through the resignation of some Commissioners, he was actually called to office. As a reminder of how soon men, even officials, are forgotten, it was this particular candidate of 1841 who, to a knowledgeable Harrogate man, only some fifty years later, had become just a name.





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