In the early years of Victorian England clothes were much more expensive in real terms than they are now. Jackets, shirts and trousers were patched and re-patched. Some families could not afford enough warm winter clothing. For generations, Bunwell overseers of the poor and churchwardens had given articles of clothing to those unable to purchase them. Changes in the Poor Laws in 1834 removed much responsibility from parish officials. The poorest folk of Bunwell could no longer rely on such help.
In many Norfolk parishes charities had long been established, and a few had clothing charities, such as that at Swanton Morley which annually distributed cloth or blankets to the poor of that village. There was no charity in Bunwell which could be utilised to provide clothing.
So ‘Bunwell Clothing Club’ was established by philanthropic local persons as a charitable act to assist the industrious poor. The poor were encouraged to make small regular payments (from two pence to six pence a week), which were held by a treasurer and accrued a small amount of interest. Better-off people, who included the Bunwell clergy, farmers, tradesmen, and others owning land within the parish, annually subscribed amounts varying from two shillings to five pounds. The amount subscribed was then allocated equally among the poor members of the club (usually between 80 and 90 heads of families), to be added to the sum saved into the scheme by each poor member.
In early December, the club members would attend Bunwell school-room, adjoining the church, where the distribution of clothing would take place. The clothes were brought by Messrs. Turners of New Buckenham, and the members would select their choice of clothing up to the value of their own saving plus the amount allocated them from the subscribers’ fund. After the distribution in 1848 an observer reported, ‘It was delightful to see the women bearing home their burdens with cheerful and grateful countenances, and to reflect that so large an amount of clothing was thus secured to their families.’ It is not known if Bunwell Clothing Club placed any restrictions on the kind of clothing: at Wymondham the Penny Clothing Club there would only supply items considered suitable for the poor - ‘print, stuff, flannel, calico, fustian, corduroy, sheeting, stockings, cotton handkerchiefs, buttons, tape and thread.’
In the 1840s the average amount saved each year by the poor members of Bunwell Clothing Club was about fourteen shillings, and the usual amount given to each member from the subscribers’ fund was five shillings. Thus, in this era before savings banks, the poor were assisted in saving towards purchasing clothing, and those who did so were given a bonus to enable them to purchase more than they could otherwise afford. Wymondham Penny Clothing Club had around ten times more members than Bunwell Clothing Club, but on average they saved less. The subscribers to the Bunwell club were also a little more generous on average than those at Wymondham.
John Herne, February 2012.