The old people who dwell in them are often as picturesque as their habitations. Here you will find an old woman with her lace-pillow and bobbins, spectacles on nose, and white bonnet with strings, engaged in working out some intricate lace pattern. In others you will see the inmates clad in their ancient liveries. The dwellers in the Coningsby Hospital at Hereford, founded in 1614 for old soldiers and aged servants, had a quaint livery consisting of “a fustian suit of ginger colour, of a soldier-like fashion, and seemly laced; a cloak of red cloth lined with red baize and reaching to the knees, to be worn in walks and journeys, and a gown of red cloth, reaching to the ankle, lined also with baize, to be worn within the hospital.” They are, therefore, known as Red Coats. The almsmen of Ely and Rochester have cloaks. The inmates of the Hospital of St. Cross wear as a badge a silver cross potent. At Bottesford they have blue coats and blue “beef-eater” hats, and a silver badge on the left arm bearing the arms of the Rutland family—a peacock in its pride, surmounted by a coronet and surrounded by a garter.
[Illustration: Ancient Inmates of the Fishermen’s Hospital, Great Yarmouth]
It is not now the fashion to found almshouses. We build workhouses instead, vast ugly barracks wherein the poor people are governed by all the harsh rules of the Poor Law, where husband and wife are separated from each other, and “those whom God hath joined together are,” by man and the Poor Law, “put asunder”; where the industrious labourer is housed with the lazy and ne’er-do-weel. The old almshouses were better homes for the aged poor, homes of rest after the struggle for existence, and harbours of refuge for the tired and weary till they embark on their last voyage.
[Illustration: Cottages at Evesham]
The “oldest inhabitants” of our villages can remember many changes in the social conditions of country life. They can remember the hard time of the Crimean war when bread was two shillings and eightpence a gallon, when food and work were both scarce, and starvation wages were doled out. They can remember the “machine riots,” and tumultuous scenes at election times, and scores of interesting facts, if only you can get them to talk and tell you their recollections. The changed condition of education puzzles them. They can most of them read, and perhaps write a little, but they prefer to make their mark and get you to attest it with the formula, “the mark of J——N.” Their schooling was soon over. When they were nine years of age they were ploughboys, and had a rough time with a cantankerous ploughman who often used to ply his whip on his lad or on his horses quite indiscriminately. They have seen many changes, and do not always “hold with” modern notions; and one of the greatest changes they have seen is in the fairs. They are not what they were. Some, indeed, maintain some of their usefulness, but most of them have degenerated into a form of mild Saturnalia, if not into a scandal and a nuisance; and for that reason have been suppressed.