18th Century Gloucester

During the 1700’s Gloucester was controlled by the gentry rather than the merchants and it was they who usually occupied the two parliamentary seats. The elections were frequently rigged by the local Mayor and Alderman. As only Freemen were allowed to vote, if the election result was in doubt, they simply created more Freemen. As the reader can see, corrupt politicians are nothing new.

This practice did not always work of course and in 1727 there were riots when the Whigs tried to create too many new Freemen. Finally in 1734 both parties agreed to share the two seats.

Gloucester at around this time was becoming a social centre. During the Winter season the rich would come to Gloucester for concerts and plays. The Bell Inn was one popular venue.

Many fine brick buildings were built in this period and also some of stone. Eagle House ( in Westgate St. ) was a fine example and this became known as the Duke of Norfolk’s House. The 11th Duke of Norfolk was Mayor of Gloucester several times . He was well known for his hospitality and for his dirtiness. It’s rumoured that his servants had to wash him when he was drunk, because he couldn’t stand the thought of washing when he was sober. When complaining one day that he had tried everything possible to cure his rheumatism the gentleman replied ” Pray my Lord, did you ever try a clean shirt ? “. He also discovered the first Gloucester Spa spring behind Eagle House, and for a time it was fashionable to ” Take the Waters “

So life was good for the aristocracy, but the poor were doing badly. Through the early 1700’s the harvests had been poor. In 1727 a committee known as ” The guardians of the poor ” was formed and this committee administered relief to the whole City.They managed the poor house where the destitute were set to work, often on pin making. Conditions were very harsh, and even very small children were expected to work long hours. In theory they had a School to go to, but it would have been rarely used.

Freemen who fell on hard times had other options. Several charities existed to pay for apprenticeships for the sons of poor Freemen and the City hospitals gave priority to Freemen and their families. The ordinary poor, of course came last.Nevertheless, there was a genuine desire to reduce the number of the poor. Because of this the authorities were extremely tough on women who gave birth to illegitimate children. These ” lewd women ” were whipped and detained for three years in the Bridewell. In the workhouse, these women were made to eat separately and fed on scraps and leftovers.

There were those that campaigned for improved conditions including Robert Raikes who ran the ” Gloucester Journal ” . The newspaper campaigned for reform and Robert Raikes, together with the Reverend Thomas Stock were convinced that religious education would keep the poor from a life of crime. This was the beginning of the Sunday School movement. At these Schools the basics of reading and writing were taught as well as religious teachings. They were in theory non denominational, but it comes as no surprise that non conformists soon opened their own Schools.

Quakers first came to Gloucester in 1655 but they were persecuted continually and the Mayor beat them with canes and closed their meeting house.