PETER and sarah Percy

Subject Name :  Peter (b 1802 – d 1881) and Sarah (b 1805 – d 1883) Percy

Researchers :  Pauline Sieler, Mike Brock, Carol Thompson

Peter and Sarah Percy were an elderly married couple residing in the Guildford Union Workhouse in 1881 but were nonetheless feisty and knew their rights, as less than two years earlier, after they had been forced to live apart in the Workhouse, they took on the authorities and won!

Peter and Sarah had married over 50 years earlier on 23rd September 1827 in Langley Marish, known now as Langley, in Berkshire.  Peter was age 25, having been born on 20th March 1802, the son of James and Mary Percey sic and baptised at St Peter’s Church, Woking on 18th April. Sarah was from Bristol, daughter of John and Sarah Collingham and baptised on 8th December 1805 at St James’ Church, Bristol.

About a year after their marriage, Peter and Sarah had a son, Peter, baptised on 7th September 1828 at St Margaret’s Church, Uxbridge, Middlesex. The family were living in nearby Hillingdon with Peter noted as a carpenter. Sadly, their son only lived for ten months, and was buried at St Mary’s Church, Staines, Middlesex on 21st June 1829. No records have been traced to indicate that Sarah and Peter had any further children.

The 1841 Census showed the couple living at Walsham Lock on the junction of the River Wey and the River Wey Navigation Canal, near Pyrford. Both were age 35 with Peter still a carpenter. This was a valuable occupation in that area where much timber was transported to London and beyond via the River Wey Navigation, an artificial waterway constructed back in the mid-17th Century from Godalming via Guildford to the River Thames near Shepperton.

Peter and Sarah’s whereabouts in the 1851 and 1861 Censuses have not been identified, but by 1867, 65-year-old Peter’s health was failing.  The Guildford Poor Law Accounts (which only exist for 1864-1871) show that between 1867 and 1870, Peter, living in Ripley and suffering from ‘rheumatic gout’, received in total over £30 in financial and in-kind assistance. 

There were many advertisements by chemists at that time claiming their pills could cure a whole range of afflictions – rheumatism, gout, flatulency’ were just three of the problems ‘Dr De Roos’ Compound Renal Pills’ could apparently solve.  Whatever treatment Peter was given, it did seem to have had a positive effect on his condition, as over the six-month period up to March 1870, the aid he received was greatly reduced, with nothing at all noted for the remaining 18 months of the accounts book’s publication.

Peter and Sarah were still in Ripley in the 1871 Census, living in Reading Room Yard.  Peter, now 69, was noted as a carpenter born in Send, and with no record of them receiving any financial aid at that time, it seems that he was able to work to pay for their upkeep.  Sarah, four years younger, was not in paid employment but was clearly dextrous, as in July 1874, she won a prize for her plain needlework at the Send and Ripley Horticultural and Cottagers’ Society show.

There are no records to show exactly when Peter and Sarah entered the Guildford Workhouse, but a report in the Surrey Gazette & West Surrey Times from September 1879 showed that they were living there and successfully challenging the authorities therein.

The newspaper said that on Saturday 6th September, the Guildford Union Board of Guardians had considered a letter that Peter Percy, a 78-year-old inmate, had written to the Local Government Board in which he protested that he had been separated in the workhouse from his 74–year-old wife ‘without just cause’.  He went on to write that this ‘was not the law of the Bible’ adding ‘those whom God had joined together, let no man put asunder’.

The Clerk to the Board ‘explained the Law, which was to the effect that people above the age of 60, and infirm persons, were permitted to live together subject to the approval of the Board, and the fact to be reported to the Local Government Board’However, it was discretionary, and application had to be made to the Board of Guardians.

It appears that Peter had left the workhouse without permission to write his letter of complaint to the Local Government Board. He claimed he was not aware that he needed to ask permission from the Board of Guardians.

The Master of the Workhouse, Mr Davis said he did not object to Percy living with his wife, but ‘it was necessary for the maintenance of order in the House’ to recognise that Peter had left without permission. This was one reason for refusing Percy permission to live with Sarah, the second being that Percy had not made an application ‘as any other pauper would do’.

The Board of Guardians clearly sympathised with Peter, but also recognised that he had done wrong. Mr Davis ‘had no objection to Percy living with his wife’, so the Board of Guardians decided to mark Percy’s failure to comply with the rules by withholding butter and sugar from him for a week.  So it seems that everyone was satisfied! 

A married couple over 60 in the Guildford Workhouse was not common – in 1881 there were three in total, including Peter and Sarah.  It was not until 1906 that specific quarters for married couples were built.  

The 1881 Census listed the Percys together in the Guildford Union Workhouse. Peter, 78, was noted as a carpenter born in Send, with Sarah, 74, a carpenter’s wife from Bristol.

Their life of over 54 years marriage was soon to end, as Peter passed away on 9th November 1881 in the Workhouse age 79 from ‘decay of age’. The Master of the Workhouse Richard Davis, with whom Peter had won his residency battle two years earlier, was the witness noted on the death certificate.

Sarah almost certainly remained in the Workhouse before she died there on 5th August 1883 from ‘valvular disease of heart’, age 77. Both were buried at St John’s Church, Woking.

December 2020, updated September 2023

Sources / British Newspaper Archives
      General Register Office
      Surrey History Centre, Woking
      The Spike Guildford Union Workhouse Museum & Heritage Centre

For a full list of references click here