Village Life

How Debenham land helped the poor in 16th century plagues

It should be no surprised that people are twice as likely to die from corona virus in the poorest areas and those living in more affluent places. It has always been so, certainly since the plagues of the Elizabethan period.

During an outbreak of plague in 1579 nearly 5,000 people in Norwich died out of a population for 17,000. The numbers of deaths in Ipswich is not recorded but there is nothing to the outbreak was particularly severe.

A clue which leads to a possible explanation of this discrepancy can be found in the 19th century Debenham tithe map recently digitised by the history society. It shows that two large swathes of the parish were owned by Ipswich Corporation.

In 1551, Henry Tooley, the richest merchant in Ipswich, left most of his fortune for the care of the town’s poor. He also provide a substantial sum to improve the road between Debenham and Ipswich.

Part of his estate was the manors of Ulverston and Sackvilles in Debenham. Over the centuries these farms continued to make a substantial contribution to the care of the poor in the county town.

Ipswich brought together charities, like the Tooley Foundation, and the corporation’s resources, including a poor rate, to provide a co-ordinated approach to the relief of poverty.

In his book, Poor Relief in Elizabethan Ipswich, John Webb writes:

From time to time there were periods of exceptional distress wwhen the authorities were forced to devise special measures to supplement those normally available for the alleviation of poverty.

Outbreaks of plague, for example, meant the shutting up of houses, and sometimes whole streets, which were considered to be infected. Since most of the stricken families usually belonged to the poorest section of the community, and had no savings upon which to draw during the period of enforced segregation, the authorities were obliged to supply them with food and drink, and other requirements.

Poor Relief in Elizabethan Ipswich, published by Suffolk Records Society.

In the 1579 outbreak each parish was required to have a copy of the central government’s official book of plague orders for reference. The grammar school was closed until further notice. Women were recruited as “keeper”.

Every sick person without resources was provided with food, drink and medicine. Wood was also provided to keep infected houses aired, and the “keepers” told to ensure this was done.

Watchmen were appointed to ensure no unauthorised person entered or left the stricken area.

During a further outbreak in 1584 healthy inmates of the Pountney almshouses in Lower Brook Street were evacuated to safer surroundings, the sick isolated and and part of the neighbouring lane cordoned off.

That outbreak appeared to have ended towards the during the winter but re-appeared in 1585 in Lady Lane. An order was made for the slaughter of the residents’ cats and dogs. A wooden barricade was erected at each end of the street to ensure isolation. The footpath from St Nicholas’s church to Friars’ Bridge was closed and watchmen appointed to ensure the isolation rules were obeyed.

During the months of this outbreak each poor person in isolation was granted a weekly maintenance allowance — 18 pence for the elderly and 12 pence for the young.

Besides being an historical curiosity I am not sure what this tells us except that isolation and support for the most vulnerable is an age-old response to epidemics.

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