The Six Poor Travellers House is a 16th-century charity house in Rochester, Medway, founded by the local MP Richard Watts to provide free lodgings for poor travellers. Watts left money in his will for the benefit of six poor travellers, each of whom, according to a plaque on the outside of the building, would be given lodging and "entertainment" for one night before being sent on his way with fourpence. The house was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' short story "The Seven Poor Travellers" (with Dickens himself, as narrator, being the seventh traveller). Watts' benevolence and the Dickens story are remembered during Rochester's fancy dress Dickensian Christmas Festival, when a turkey is cooked and ceremonially distributed to "the poor" at the house. The house features restored small Elizabethan period bedrooms, along with a herb garden in the rear, and is open to the public from March through October.
The original charity created the post of "provider" to run the charity. The provider was appointed by, and reported annually to, the mayor. His role encompassed supervision of the house, collection of rents and provision of materials to the poor. Provision was also made for housekeeper to "be resyant [resident] there ... clean make the Bedds wash the linen ... and look well to the furniture." Both posts could be held by one or several persons, and that of housekeeper specifically mentions 'he or she or they'. A further agreement between the mayor, bishop, bridge wardens and aldermen in 1615 provided for "..poore children ... who would otherwise lyve in Idleness and be fitt for noe use..."
On this basis the charity continued uneventfully until 1671. The original will had used the terms 'Parish of St. Nicholas' and 'City of Rochester' fairly interchangeably, however the indenture consistently refers to the city. The problem arose because the city at that time included three parishes: St. Nicholas', Rochester (the area of the medieval walled town, based on the Roman town walls); St Margaret's Without (the area outside the city walls stretching southwards) and St. Nicholas', Strood (the other side of the river). In the early part of 1671 the parish of St. Margaret requested that the outdoor relief should include their people. The charity refused the application so the following year St. Margaret's and Strood jointly applied to the Court of Chancery for a ruling which was decided in their favour. The parish of Strood utilised some of the money to provide a workhouse for the poor - 'To the Honoour of God. and for the Benefit of the Poor of this Parish, This House was. Built with Mr. Watt's Charity. A.D. 1671 in which the Sick and. Aged are taken care of; ye Ignorant. instructed, Such as are Able to. Work Imployed, & a Comfortable. Maintenance Provided for All.. Go and do Thou Likewise.' Inscription above Strood workhouse.
In 1693, there were allegations of misemployment of the revenues. A new agreement was drawn up whereby the Mayor's role was replaced by the 'Committee for Charitable Uses'. It was to consist of nine members selected annually by the Grand Jury of the Court Leet. It was to meet at least four times a year and to examine the Provider's accounts. The arrangement lasted until 1836. In 1808 the parish of Chatham followed the lead of St. Margaret's and Strood in filing a bill in Chancery for funding. It was not until 1833 that the matter was settled and Chatham received some help from the charity. The funds for poor relief were now split into 32 parts: St. Nicholas' parish received 20 parts, St. Margaret's 6, Strood 4 and Chatham 2. Watts' original will had provided that leases on the lands and property he left were to be for a term no more that 21 years. While this was reasonable with sixteenth century artisan buildings and farms, it was not suitable for nineteenth century brick and stone developments. Indeed on at least one occasion there was no response to an invitation to tender for four houses on land owned by the charity. Eventually the trustees had to apply to the Court of Chancery for permission to extend leases to 99 years, which permission was given.
The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws rethought the whole problem of relief for the poor. As well as establishing a national system of poor relief it also lead to charities coming under consideration. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 replaced the mayor and citizens of Rochester and the oversight of the charity passed to the municipal trustees appointed by the Courts of Chancery. The Charitable Trusts Act of 1853 brought a large number of independent trusts and charities under the supervision of the newly created Charity Commissioners. Watts' Charity was no exception. A new scheme was devised for the running of the charity. The charity was run buy municipal trustees who appointed a clerk and receiver. They also appointed a master and matron to manage the poor travellers house. £4,000 was used to build a new set of almshouses for 20 people in Maidstone Road. £100 was set aside to provide an apprenticeship premium for children who had distinguished themselves at school. £2,000 was spent on the building of the Watts Public Baths with £200 per annum for maintenance. In 1935 they passed into the hands of the Corporation of Rochester though the annual grant towards costs continued for a further 20 years. £4,000 was granted to the trustees of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, Rochester to enable them to build a "Hospital and Dispensary for the relief of the Sick poor". The charity was also to pay £1,000 (later raised to £1,500) per annum to the hospital and gained the right to nominate as patients up to 20 people at any one time. These donations were maintained until 1948 until the hospital came under the control of the National Health Service.
In 1886 there was a further scheme extending the work of the charity. 11 outpensions of 7/- (35p) per week were established and two exhibitions of £100 made available annually, one each to Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School and Rochester Grammar School for Girls. There were five exhibitions for pupil teachers, each of £6/5/0 annually for three years. The Watts Nursing Service was established with two full-time nurses (one midwife, one district) and six occasional nurses. The 1934 supplementary scheme increased certain payments and handed the baths over to the council. The 1942 Beveridge Report led to the establishment of the modern British Welfare State. The previous, limited, National Insurance Act 1911 was extended to most workers by the National Insurance Act 1946. The National Health Service Act 1946 introduced universal health care and the National Assistance Act provided a safety net replacing the old Poor Laws. The upshot was that by 1950 much of the charity's former purpose had been taken over by the state.
'RICHARD WATTS, Esq. by his Will, dated 22 Aug. 1579, founded this Charity for Six poor Travellers, who not being ROGUES, or PROCTORS, May receive gratis for one Night, Lodging, Entertainment, and Fourpence each.' Inscription on charity entrance. The small almshouse now known as the Six Poor Travellers existed before Watts left it money in his will. His will refers to "the almshouse already erected and standing", desiring it to be "reedified" [rebuilt] as well as extended with rooms for the travellers. The will was not without its problems. Some of the properties disposed of were jointly owned with his wife, who therefore became the sole owner on his death. Some of the lands he had bequeathed had reverted (either on death or previously) to former owners, including a set of tenements which the Bishop took back. Marian did remarry and according to the will should have lost the house. However she and her new husband, a lawyer named Thomas Pagitt, wished to keep the house. In 1593, a document was drawn up between the four parties interested in the will: Thomas & Marian, Mayor & citizens, Dean & Chapter, and the Bridge Wardens. The document was called the "Indenture Quadripartite". In brief (the indenture is over 14 pages long when set in modern print) Marian was allowed to keep the house in return for giving up all other claims and returning the 100 marks left to her in the original will. The bulk of the document establishes the form and government of the charity which now bears Richard Watts' name.The work had been completed before the signing of the Indenture Quadripartite in 1593, probably around the time of the remarriage of Marian in 1586.
Whilst the exclusion of rogues seems obvious, that of proctors has led to local controversy. In 1772 Denne claimed that Watts used a proctor to write an early draft of his will, and the proctor perverted Watts' wishes for his own ends. Later authors claim that the proctors in question were beggars on behalf of lepers. A statute of Edward VI provided for lepers and bedridden people to appoint proctors to beg on their behalf. There had been a leper hospital a short distance away since 1315. W Gibson Ward describes them as "... mendicants who swarmed ... under the pretence of collecting Alms for the support of Leper houses...". The English Heritage listing entry includes "...or proctors (ie lawyers)" but does not elaborate further. In 1615 the charity admitted poor children to the house. There were to be up to ten "men children" who could remain until aged 18 and six "women children" who could remain until 16. There was provision also for the children to be apprenticed to "some honest citizen, or tradesman, or husbandman". Vouchers from this period show the Mayor requesting "Mr. Provider" to assist those "ver ill" or "poor and impotent". Occasionally the definition of traveller was stretched somewhat as in 1703 when the Mayor requested "relieve these 127 prisoners with fourpence each". It appears that the travellers presented themselves to the Mayor, or a deputy, who would then issue a chit for the Provider.
The trustees kept the house in good repair and in 1845 added a sitting room for the use of the travellers in the evening. In 1855 the supper provided for each traveller "every evening at 7 o'clock" was 1⁄2 lb (0.23 kg) of meat, 1 lb (0.45 kg) or bread and 1 imperial pint (0.57 l) of coffee. In the morning a further pint of coffee was served and the traveller sent off with fourpence. After 1880 when Watts Public Baths were available the selection of inmates was performed at the baths, which the travellers were obliged to attend. In 1923 bathrooms were added to the house, however in 1935 the council (who had taken over the public baths) were still allocating facilities for the Inspector of Poor Travellers to make his selection there. Electric light was installed in 1935 with electric radiators in the bedrooms the following year and in the dining room by 1937. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 prohibited casual wayfarers in Protected Areas such as Rochester. Following notice from the Chief Constable the house finally closed its doors to travellers on 20 July 1940 after 354 years of continuous service. The building was converted in 1948 to provide two flats for two elderly couples, the ground floor being retained as a museum. In 1977 the building was surveyed and repaired. The building was returned to its former state with the ground floor and travellers' rooms as a museum with a residence above.
In 1950 the building was listed as grade I, number 1086479. The 1858 structure is still the original timber framed building but with the 1771 Portland stone facing. Originally there was one room per floor, but the 1604 rebuild (the "reedified" mentioned above) included the rear stair turret and probably the dividing of the rooms. The remarkable (according to the listing) survival is the extension for the poor traveller's rooms. Modelled on a contemporary coaching inn it has three rooms opening onto the courtyard and three opening onto an unglazed gallery above. Below the handrail the gallery is filled in with lath and plaster, the whole supported on four large chamfered uprights to provide a dry walkway below. The rooms each have a door, window chamfered ceiling beams and a brick firepalce. There is a cellar (not currently open to the public) which contains a "rubble wall that may be early". The house was the inspiration for Charles Dickens's short story, "The Seven Poor Travellers". Watts's benevolence and the Dickens story are remembered during Rochester's fancy dress Dickensian Christmas Festival, when a turkey is cooked and ceremoniously distributed to 'the poor' (that is, anyone passing by at the time) at the house. Henry Lucy described a visit to the house in "Christmas Eve at Watts's" in Faces and Places and throws an interesting light on Dickens' story through the words of the house-keeper.
The museum is wheelchair accessible. The courtyard and herb garden attracts many visitors in the summer. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Six Poor Travellers House, 97 High Street, Rochester, Kent ME1 1LX
Transport : Rochester (National Rail) then 3 minutes. Bus Routes : 01, 133, 140, 141, 149 and 150 stop outside
Opening Times : March through October, Wednesday to Sunday 11:00 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Free (in keeping with the Will)
Tel. : 01634 845609