A Brief History of The Six Poor Travellers’ House
When Richard Watts died in 1579 the house was probably over a hundred years old and called the Rochester Almshouse. Watts’ will left money to the almshouse for the construction of six rooms to house poor travellers “for one night only unlesse sicknesse be the cause”. The house opened to travellers in 1586 and continued until July 1940.
Above the front door is the inscription:“Richard Watts, by his will dated 16 August 1579, founded this charity for six poor travellers who not being rogues or proctors may receive gratis one night’s lodging, food, entertainment and four pence each.”
Travellers were given four pence since The Poor Law Act of 1576 stated that if you had less than that you would be a vagrant and could be whipped and returned to your own parish. The upper floors of the main house are still in use today as an almshouse but the atmospheric ground floor, the Travellers Rooms and the Tudor Physic Garden in the courtyard are open to the public. Visitors can see the travellers’ rooms furnished as they always have been, ready for travellers to arrive.
There was an agreement in 1615 that the terms of Richard Watts' will be extended to include poor children of the City of Rochester. In 1653 the City of Rochester Council made part of the cellar into a House of Correction for minor offences. In August 1711 it became a House of Correction for more serious offences until 1793 when it was closed.
Charles Dickens visited the house on 11th May 1854. In November 1854 his story, The Seven Poor Travellers, based on his experience of the visit was published.
Children in the House
Watts Charity began in 1579 at the Poor Travellers House where Richard Watts provided for overnight accommodation for six poor travellers and care for the needy of Rochester.
The name of the house refers to the better known, but not necessarily most interesting, usage of the house, for which the two back additions were built in 1587 and 1845.
The main part of the house was, for over four hundred and thirty years, used for the care, protection and education of the less fortunate, and for the correction of the less law abiding residents of the city, both young and old.
As well as stipulating in his will that bedrooms should be built for the benefit of six poor travellers, Richard Watts, instructed that Hempe, Flaxe, Yarne, wool and other necessarie stuffe be provided to sette the poore of the said cittie to worke ….and for the further reliefe of such as be poor and impotent.
Among those recorded as beneficiaries of Richard Watts Charity many were children who were not only described as poor, but also fatherless, motherless, orphans or ready to perish. In 1624 two of the children, Thomas and Joan Raifielde were described as poor, fatherless children. The following year they were also motherless, their mother having died of the plague.
When the children left the house they were provided with new clothes. James Pope, bound to Philip Pitman a butcher, received two pairs of breeches made of russet cloth lined with black cotton, two shamway [chamois] skinnes for the inner linings, two coarse doublets, two new shirts, a dosen points, two pairs of shoes, two pairs of cloth stockings and a Munmouth cap.
The new outfit for Malyns girl, when being sent out as an apprentice included a russet waistcote and two smocks. At other times the payment to a new master included money for the apparelling of the apprentice as in the case of Henry Forman who was apprenticed to Robert Miller of Maidstone.
Some of these charity schools, such as Christ’s Hospital still survive whereas others, faltered, were adapted and finally merged with other foundations. At Rochester the scheme disappeared, possibly as a result of the1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, but not without trace. The Education Foundation, set up by the trustees of Watts Charity in the 19th century, continues in to the 21st century providing scholarships to Rochester Grammar School for Girls and Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School as well as apprenticeship premiums.
The House of Correction
The Poor Travellers' House has also been used as a house of correction or bridewell (a prison or reform school for petty offenders).
The first bridewell was set up in Henry Vlll’s Bridewell Palace, built on the site of St. Bride’s Well. Henry’s son, Edward Vl, gave the disused palace to the City of London to house homeless children and disorderly women. Bridewells and Houses of Correction were set up in many towns and cities.
In 1653 the Rochester City Council agreed that, in view of the disorderly behaviour in the city, a house of correction should be set up at the almshouse and that George Terry should be put in charge of it. Terry was later enrolled as a Freeman of the City in respect that he hath taken over the care of the House of Correction.
The correction was set up in the cellar where the thick plank oak door with an iron grill remains today.
Most prisoners appear to have been guilty of minor offences such as lewd and disorderly behaviour. One woman was guilty of bearing a bastard child. There was no mention of the father.
In 1657 the Mayor of Rochester, Richard Wye J.P. committed Alice Towers to the House of Correction for leaving the service of Arthur Brooker, an innkeeper, before her time was finished. Alice appealed against this and sued the Mayor for wrongful imprisonment in the High Court. She won her case and the Lord Chief Justice decreed that the Mayor was to pay Alice £25 damages and all costs.
On 18th August 1711 an order was made by the City Council that "whereas there was formerly a house of correction or bridewell kept in the almshouse near the pump within this city for several years past has been discontinued and whereas many lewd and disorderly persons have committed very great disorders for the preventing whereof for the future it is this day ordered that the said bridewell or house of correction be renewed and kept in the said almshouse as formerly".
In September 1793 an order was made to close the House of Correction and in February 1798 the last keeper Henry Webb was given notice to quit. He was obviously reluctant to leave until October of that year he was served with a ’Declaration in Ejectments’