The Lindfields of Chailey, Part 3: Katherine – Saint or Sinner?

My father once remarked, when reminiscing about the past that, “most families seemed to have a simple daughter, who was kept at home, to look after the house and care for the elderly parents”. However, despite this, the only unmarried women our researches had discovered so far had been qualified as seamstresses, milliners, and in one case as a teacher.

One of Hasted’s younger sisters was Katherine, born in 1831. When she was 20 their father, William Lindfield, married his third wife, Eliza Holford and was retired at 63. All his children, except for Katherine, were either married or qualified. As the years went by, Katherine remained at home at New House farm. Hasted, and his wife Mary Miles, also lived there with their first two daughters until old William died in 1862. Then the farm was taken over by William’s son-in-law, John William Avery, with wife Martha Lindfield and their large family.

Unexpectedly, in the census of 1861 we had found another child living at New House in addition to the known family – a four-year-old boy named William H and described as ‘grandson’. This was a mystery. He was not the son of either of Katherine’s brothers and if he had been born to Eliza, now 46, why was he not described as ‘son’ ? Similarly, if he had been a great nephew, why was he living at New House farm as a grandson, instead with his own family? The possible solution presents itself that he was Katherine’s child.

As a matter of course, couples would marry after a pregnancy had occurred, especially when the girl was very young. But there is no record that Katherine, now 30, ever married. There is no birth record for William H. and his parents cannot be traced. A child born out of wedlock, if not adopted by the family, would have suffered the social stigma of being a bastard. But why should old William have taken him in as a grandson if he had not been Katherine’s child?

We can only speculate as to who young William’s father may have been. Could someone have taken advantage of Katherine if she was rather naïve, or if she had been a ‘simple daughter’ such as my father spoke of? As a house servant and farmer’s daughter her life would have been mostly at and about the farm. She would have come into contact with the labourers and any visiting trades people. She might have gone out to attend church on Sundays, but Katherine was not a member of the Bethel Chapel congregation. Old William and Eliza had married at the Jireh Chapel, Lewes, and both her brother William, who had married Mathilda Fry and her sister, Elizabeth, who had married Peter Agate, had married at the parish church of St. Peter’s Chailey. A secret romance is not likely as the couple could have married, or if the father had already been married, the child would more probably have been raised in his family.

The next time we find young William he is 14 and living in Keymer with Katherine’s sister Elizabeth Agate and family, as their nephew and servant. It is supposed that he went to them and was raised by them when old William died. He did not stay at New House with John and Martha Avery or go with Hasted’s family to Scaynes Hill. There is no record of what happened to Katherine until we find her as a middle-aged woman in the Workhouse! We do not know how long she had been there or why she went or was sent, and why she had not been wanted within her extended family as a help with the house and children. People could come and go in the Workhouse, they did not all stay for life and become institutionalised – but Katherine did.

Entry into the Workhouse was a lengthy procedure. Inmates were stripped and bathed and kitted out in their Workhouse uniforms. For Katherine this would have been a long dress, with an apron and shawl and a mop-cap. Clothes were washed and packed away with any personal possessions. There was a lot of paper work. This process had to be carried out every time an inmate came in or went out. To be in the Workhouse was regarded as degrading.

How had the institution of the Workhouse come about? It was very different from the old Poor Relief, which had been raised in parishes by a tax on property owners, a system which survives in today’s Council Tax. Aid was distributed to the needy within the parish in their own homes. It took the form of money, food, fuel and clothing. To reduce the expense of this, parishes were given the right to house paupers in a poor house, where conditions and diet were often better than outside, so that they became known as ‘paupers’ palaces’. At the end of the 18th century, parishes could join together to create a Union Workhouse, with a Spartan regime and monotonous diet intended to discourage ‘idlers and scroungers’. The first Chailey Union Workhouse was formed of the three parishes of North Chailey, Dirchling and Ringmer.1

Katherine was quite lucky in that conditions and diet had improved considerably over earlier in the century, when the lack of competent management and adequate supervision had led in some cases, particularly in London, to the kind of horrific situations described by Dickens.

When Katherine entered the Chailey Union Workhouse, it had become a union of eleven parishes. It had a substantial, dedicated building and infirmary, built in Honeypot Lane, East Chiltington, at a cost of £10,500 plus land in 1873. So we know that it was after this time that Katherine was admitted. There was much work to do within the Workhouse though inmates, especially agricultural labourers, could work outside. Katherine was classed as a pauper and domestic servant. There would have been work in the laundry, the kitchen and general cleaning, also work in the vegetable garden and sewing. We do not know what Katherine did or what she was capable of doing. She would almost certainly have been illiterate, as her father had been. The diet still included a lot of gruel – a kind of thin porridge. Bread and cheese were staples, but now augmented with meat and vegetables from the kitchen garden. Ale was provided quite plentifully, but spirits were forbidden. Inmates were given a small wage.

One item on the menu was mentioned in my childhood, though I do not remember ever having it. This was hasty pudding, another kind of porridge, but made with oatmeal thickened with flour. Also of interest is frumety, the downfall of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. This time, it was made with cracked wheat, so it contained part or all of the bran, sweetened with dried fruit and possibly also containing milk and eggs. It sounds both nourishing and tasty – even without the rum!

Yet another puzzle arises in Katherine’s story. With her in the Workhouse in 1881 was a child, Mary Lindfield, aged nine and classed as her niece. Again, no trace can be found of this girl amongst Katherine’s siblings or, indeed, the wider Lindfield family. Mary would have been born in 1872, near the time when it is conjectured that Katherine entered the Workhouse. Is it possible that this was, once again, a child of Katherine and, if so, was she even told? Whether or not, we do know that Mary would have received a basic education from the resident schoolmistress, which was a big advantage for children for children in the Workhouse and would have been a good enough reason for them to be there. It is to be hoped that Mary would have been able to go into an apprenticeship when she reached her teens and find a good life outside.

However, there is another, disturbing possibility for Katherine. There was a strong emphasis on moral and religious education in the Workhouse, with a regime of “Early to Bed and Early to Rise”. There were Bible readings every morning, Grace at meals and compulsory attendance at religious services, following Church of England rites. The local parish priest was responsible for the moral welfare of the inmates. Moral censure was severe in society and if Katherine had had a child out of wedlock, she would have been held a sinner and her child a bastard. We know that unmarried mothers were put in the Workhouse and classed as mentally ill for no other reason. They could be discarded by their families and never come out. Could this have been Kate’s fate?

By 1891 Katherine was classed as ‘lunatick’ and was a patient in the Infirmary. It is possible that she had developed dementia. Understanding of mental illness was practically non-existent. People were categorised , such as ‘imbecile’ or ‘idiot’ and given no help beyond their physical care, alongside the sick, the elderly and patients with venereal disease, who were often disowned by their families and put in the Workhouse. Until Katherine’s time, when there was a resident nurse, infirmary care had been in the hands of other, untrained and frequently illiterate inmates, who would not even have been able to read the labels on medicine bottles. There must have been much suffering.

When an inmate died, the relatives were given the opportunity to carry out the funeral. When Katherine died, only her brother Hasted and sister Naomi survived her, but they lived away in Scaynes Hill and Cuckfield. She was buried at the parish church of St. Peter’s Chailey on 20th October, 1902 at the age of 72 as a resident of the Timon Infirmary of Chailey Union Workhouse. Probably none of her family attended.

The Workhouse at East Chiltington became a hospital after the second World War and was converted to residential use in the last decade of the 20th century.

1 More details and pictures of the workhouse may be found on Peter Higginbotham’s excellent web site The Workhouse.

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