The following article appeared in the 'Reading Standard' of 17th August 1945.
The contributor was anonymous, but we suspect that it may have been Beatrice
Simonds, who was a keen amateur local historian who was involved in the
Local History Recording Scheme.
In addition, Beatrice's late father John Simonds had been an Overseer of the Poor for many years, so Beatrice already had knowledge of the system.
Life in a Berkshire Village
Before the coming of modern communications and consequent easy access to the towns, the inhabitants of most villages found employment on neighbouring farms or in the houses of the gentry. Arborfield, however, boasted several small industries which allowed rather more choice of occupation.
Thus successive owners of Arborfield Hall utilized the water power of the nearby River Loddon, at different times, to work a paper mill, to grind corn, and to run a flourishing laundry. Nearer at hand in the village itself was a wheelwrights’ shop, and not very far away the old brick kiln, commemorated today by the Brick Kiln Cottages which stand by the site. By 1861, when the paper mill was accidentally burnt down, the population had risen from 171 in 1801 to 316, a figure not exceeded again until after the first great war.
Much of the life of the villagers, particularly when they fell out of work, can be gleaned from the pages of the parish overseer’s register. Long before the days of social insurance he is practising a wide range of charitable activities. The unemployed of those days received either money, or gifts in kind, such as a pair of shoes and nailing, or 2-lb. of mutton, or ten bushels of coals. A man is paid thirty shillings for housing a 1,000 of turf for the poor, and another three shillings for digging and planting an old ladies’ garden. In lieu of death benefit a coffin is bought for a man to bury his wife, and the parson and clerk paid for bread and cheese and beer. A girl going to service is fitted out with a gown and petticoat, two aprons, one shift, one pair of stockings, two handkerchiefs, and a pair of pattens. A lad, likewise, with a smock frock and a jacket, a pair of "britcher", and a pair of stockings, while another has to be content with nine yards of calico and a fustian jacket.
VISITING READING – AN ARDUOUS TASK
The benevolence of the overseer is not always confined to his own village, as is shown by his payment of sixpence to three sailors in distress. Two other interesting payments noted in the register are five shillings for "nockelating" a girl at Reading with the "cowpock", and sevenpence for the postage of a letter to Basingstoke. It is not surprising that the overseer often ended the year with the book in debt, necessitating an increase in the rate – a few shillings in those days. Later, some of the well-to-do inhabitants organized coal and clothing clubs, and hired out implements to those who had an extra plot of ground to cultivate. The often monotonous diet of the poor was augmented in the autumn by the "gleanings" or "leasings" which the family gathered after the harvest, and took to the mill to be exchanged weight for weight for flour. For recreation there were penny readings, mayings, and a cricket club towards the end of the century, the latter taking over the once flourishing rifle club. Visiting Reading was an arduous business. One either tramped the whole way, or got up at four in the morning to catch the carrier, arriving home at about eight o’clock at night.
The past forty years have seen many other changes in Arborfield life, but space, time and circumstances do not yet permit their narration here.
With acknowledgements to Surrey & Berkshire Media
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