A 16th-century refuge for poor travellers holds some valuable lessons in human charity, writes Bernard Adams
The old road from London to Dover passes through Rochester High Street in Kent. It is pedestrianised, so it is easy to walk comfortably, passing the second-oldest cathedral in Britain until you reach a modest doorway. Above the ancient wooden door is an inscription that reads: "Richard Watts Esq., by his will dated 22 August 1579, founded this charity for Six Poor Travellers, who not being Rogues or Proctors (licensed beggars) may receive gratis for one night lodging, entertainment and four pence."
At the back of the house are six small bedrooms on two floors. Each has a bed with a canvas base tied to the frame, a fireplace and a candlestick.
Slippers were also provided. Some 700,000 travellers spent the night here between Watts' time and 1940, when the Second World War made travellers scarce.
It was never easy to get a bed at the Six Poor Travellers, and Rochester town hall took the charity very seriously. Every day for 350 years, the mayor had to choose six respectable persons, often from a large number of hopefuls, and the accommodation was for one night only.
"Vagrants were not chosen," says the curator, Andy Nimmo. "They wanted to be sure when they saw applicants at six o'clock each evening that the chosen ones would behave themselves, so they went for semi-skilled workers (perhaps looking for work at Chatham docks), those genuinely seeking work, and the deserving poor. Vagrants were unlikely to be selected. The six were given a chit and sent up to the house."
One poor traveller in the 1920s wrote: "I entered a very snug room at the back of the house. I was next requested to wash my feet, which I did after obtaining water from a big copper. Next came supper! A big plate of meat (more than I could eat), half a loaf of bread, and half a pint of porter! Happy and contented, I mused with five other friends on our varied experiences."
Records suggest a varied clientele. In the 17th century, for example, Dutchmen and Turks were frequent visitors. It seems that the charity sometimes allowed travellers to stay for a second night, and that in certain cases the handout was increased from four pence to a shilling.
Charles Dickens visited the house in May 1854, shortly before he moved to Gad's Hill Place in Rochester. He later wrote a story called "Seven Poor Travellers".
The house is ideal for primary pupils studying the Tudors and Victorian England, and there is a small museum in the house.
"But it's the touching little bedrooms, bare but hospitable and secure, that pupils like best," says Andy Nimmo.
Two common expressions come to light here. "Good night, sleep tight" refers to the string that binds the canvas to the bed frame. If it is loose, the canvas will sag. Meanwhile, candle-holders explain the phrase "burning the candle at both ends". There is a space for the traditional tallow candle, but also a clip for a square rush candle that could be lit at both ends to give better light.
A useful worksheet is also on offer. Pupils are asked to find a Roman toy (the house is built on a Roman site), to calculate how many pints of beer the travellers consumed in a week, and a range of other related activities.
This is a short and simple visit with some clear messages about charity. And if you have time left over, the cathedral and Dickens'
house are not far away.
The house is open from March 1 to October 31; Tuesday to Saturday, 2-5pm.
School visits by arrangement. Telephone 01634 845 609; www.medway.gov.uktourism