Soham appears in the early records, as practising a different kind of compulsion. "Five young women of Soham, for instance, were ordered, in 1667, to choose between going to service or to prison" - possibly a 'great ryott' at Soham the same year, was connected with the attempt to enforce economic regulations like these, which made it legally compulsory to accept work at wages fixed by the magistrate. As an example of how each parish looked after its poor in the seventeenth, eighteenth aid nineteenth centuries, we have chosen Soham, the largest parish and one with plentiful records. It is impossible to give details of how the poor were looked after in all the parishes.
In 1687 we find that the Churchwardens were from time to time paying out money to the needy: 'gave to a man with 4 children by doctor's orders, 2s.' and 'gave to a man, 2 women and a child with a letter of request, ls-6d'. These entries were in Henry Ridley's accounts. The other Churchwarden, John Chambers, also paid out 2s-6d 'to 2 men and 2 women with a letter of request', 2s-6d to '2 gentlewomen who had a letter' and 2s-6d to '2 men, wives and 5 children', in the same year, 1687. Most of this was organized Christian Charity to passing strangers whose genuine need was respectably certified. A similar entry in the Vestry records is in 1696 - 'allowed a Gent who lost £4,000 by a ship being taken by the French, 2s-6d'.
Responsibility for the local poor rested on the Overseers of the Poor and their accounts only survive for a later period, the end of the eighteenth century. Twelve almshouses existed in Soham, as a result of the Charitable bequests of Richard Bond (1502) and Thomas Peachey (1581). The vestry paid a bill to Gill Long for claying the almshouses in 1703 and in the same year the Church-wardens' accounts contain the entry, 'paid to J. Bosham work done at almshouses, 4s-8d.' Miss Hampson claims that 'at Soham the largest workhouse in the county was fully organized in the (seventeen) sixties. In 1776 there were sixty residents there. The Master was paid a quarterly salary of £5, the expenses of maintaining the house being met directly by the overseer. Paupers entirely incapable of work were not sent to the house, where spinning was the chief industry. The sums received for work varied from £4 to £7 per month and were paid in full to the overseer. The income from this source at its highest amounted to but one-quarter the cost of the workhouse upkeep, despite the rigorous discipline under which labour was exacted.
James Chambers, 'the poor poetaster', born at Soham in 1748, describes his personal recollections of life in the local 'mansions of industry':-
By day I must dwell where there's many a wheel,
And a female employed to sit down and reel;
A post with two ringles is fixed in the wall,
Where orphans, when lashed, loud for mercy do call,
Deprived of fresh air, I must there commence spinner,
If I fail of my task I lose a hot dinner;
Perhaps at the whipping post then shall be flogged,
And lest I escape my leg must be clogged.
While tyrants oppress I must still be their slave,
And cruelly used, tho' well I behave:
Midst swearing and brawling my days I must spend,
In sorrow and anguish my days I must end.