Winchelseas descent from its prominence in earlier centuries into poverty was accelerated in the sixteenth century by the dissolution of the monasteries and the closure of its three hospitals. The presence in the town of the Grey Friars and the Black Friars had provided at least a limited support to the community and the three hospitals (almshouses provides a closer modern equivalent of their purpose) took in the deserving poor on recommendation from the town authorities. Things became so bad that, when a group of Huguenot refugees established a Walloon church Winchelsea in 1560, the town being poor and decaying, most of the refugees, shortly after landing there, proceeded inland to London, Canterbury or other places where settlement had already been formed. (The Huguenots: their settlements, churches and industries in England and Wales by Samuel Smiles, 1905 p.118)
These letters (PAR 511/35/1/1-370) provide a telling illustration of how, particularly in the early nineteenth century, Winchelseas parish of St. Thomas the Apostle (its ecclesiastical dedication at the time) struggled to administer the complex poor laws which then applied in the face of heavy demands made by those residents (paupers) trapped in the poverty still prevalent in the town after a further three and a half centuries.
The requirements of those laws had become increasingly demanding and complex through much national legislation after the consolidation of earlier Acts in 1601 and the subsequent Act of 1662 which established the Law of Settlement. This controversial legislation, initially well intentioned as a way of preventing itinerant paupers from benefiting from a parishs resources and then moving elsewhere, required that everyone had a home parish. A settlement could be established by various means the principal of which were by birth if parents were legally settled, by marriage, by paying parish taxes, by renting a property rated at £10 per annum or more, by being hired as a servant for more than twelve months, or by being born a bastard (a term in universal use at the time). This last automatic qualification could lead to unseemly disputes, as when Winchelsea, unjustifiably as it turned out, accused the neighbouring parish of Pett of smuggling a girl in labour across the boundary (PAR 511/12/1 22 Oct 1815 & 30 Dec 1816). Paupers like William Morris whose right to settlement had been disputed frequently suffered (272). It was, however, the residence away from the town of paupers with Winchelsea settlements, and their expectation of support while away, which gave rise to the majority of these letters.
A number of factors beyond the control of the parish officers brought about a considerable increase in the cost of relieving the Winchelsea poor, particularly in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Winchelseas population grew, a series of poor harvests brought about agricultural depression, the ending of the Napoleonic Wars released large numbers of soldiers many of whom failed to find work, and rapid increases in the price of food far outstripped wages. An innovation known as the Speenhamland system by which parishes made up low pay to subsistence level discouraged employers from making wage increases and left paupers who were actually working as a drain on the parish funds. The extent to which the Speenhamland system was adopted in Winchelsea is difficult to assess, only one letter (328) referring directly to it. Indirect, although late, evidence is that of the seventy-eight agricultural workers listed in the 1841 census, sixteen had earlier received relief from the parish, fourteen of them regularly. It should be emphasised here that Winchelseas at this period was a predominantly rural economy.