England Old Poor Law, 1601 through 1833 (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Old Poor Law
1601 Old Poor Law
The important Poor Law enacted in 1601 was really a re-enactment of the 1597/8 law with slight amendments, and was actually considered a temporary measure. Since it was found to relieve the symptoms of the problem, though not the causes (Burchell), it was made permanent in 1640. The official title was An Act for the Relief of the Poor but it is often called 43rd Elizabeth as it was passed in the 43rd year of her reign, and that is how laws were dated. It was the first effective action for dealing with the effects of poverty and formed the basis for the administration of the poor for over two centuries. The civil parish was affirmed as the unit of administration of poor relief, although private and some public town charities continued to supplement these resources. The essential elements were:
- The Overseers of the Poor were to be the churchwardens and a few other substantial landowners in the parish, chosen annually.
- Poorhouses were to be erected in each parish for those unable to live by themselves. In London they were also known as leatherhouses.
- Paupers had to be maintained and set to work.
- Costs were to be covered by a tax on the inhabitants, holders of land, those in receipt of tithes, and by parish fines.
- Sturdy beggars, rogues and vagabonds were dealt harshly.
- Relatives were to support one another if they were able to do so.
David Hey in The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History discusses the Old and New Poor Laws and gives many references for the historically minded to pursue. In some parishes the system called houserow was in force whereby some parish offices went by annual rotation house to house. As some duties were unpopular this was a fair system, but it didn’t allow for the fact that not everyone was suitable for certain positions!
It should not be assumed that poverty was immediately alleviated over the whole country and that everything worked smoothly for the next 230 or so years. Legislation needed to be enforced in order to be effective, and this depended on the persistence of supervision by the Privy Council and the responsiveness of the administrators—the Justices of the Peace. ‘Nothing could be successfully enforced if the gentlemen on the county benches dug their heels in’ (Williams). Many parishes did nothing at all until after the Restoration in 1660, the Act being used only in times of crisis when the usual private charity failed to cope. There was, in fact, an enormous increase in the 17th century in private endowments of almshouses, hospitals, grammar schools, university scholarships and public libraries as well as in providing sums for apprentices, prisoners and newlyweds.
There were 221 public general acts affecting the poor between 1601 and 1834, and over 100 local acts (Keith-Lucas); only a few are mentioned here.
1662 Act of Settlement
Prior to this date anyone able to work had been free to move wherever they wanted to, but this was changed in 1662. The Act of Settlement established the concept of each person being settled in one parish that was responsible for them. Previously a person’s birthplace had always been considered his true home, and if this was not known then any parish where he had lived one whole year became his settlement.
New provisions included:
- New methods of acquiring settlement included renting a house worth £10 per year, being in the parish for 40 days without a complaint being made, or if a woman, being married to a parishioner.
- Overseers could send or remove a newcomer if he had no prospect of work within 40 days, or if he did not rent property worth £10 or more a year.
- A sojourner, one who was a temporary inhabitant, for example for the harvest, had to bring with him a certificate from his home parish indicating that they would take him back.
- After 40 days residence a stranger could then claim settlement in his new parish.
- Persistent vagrants were variously punished, including by transportation to North America.
1691 Highways Act
Authorized raising of a highway rate and better keeping of accounts.
A further law required a register to be kept of those receiving poor relief. Until 1834 expenditures on the poor can be found in several documents, typically the overseers accounts, a separate poor book (if kept), churchwardens accounts and vestry minutes.
1697 Settlement Act
Strengthened the current law by:
- Requiring all strangers entering a new parish to possess a Settlement Certificate showing which was their home parish that would guarantee to take them back if in need of relief.
- Paupers and their families were now required to wear a badge with a capital P together with the first letter of the name of their parish on the right shoulder of their outermost clothing. If they did not they could lose their support, be imprisoned, set to hard labour or whipped. Paupers were thus called badge-men or badgers from this time, but the term badger also meant a pedlar.
First workhouse or house of industry, opened in Bristol.
1722/3 Knatchbull’s Act
From this time:
- Parishes were encouraged to either build or rent a workhouse and were allowed to contract out its maintenance and supervision.
- A small parish might now unite with another to provide a viable workhouse.
- Vagrant’s children could be apprenticed against their parents’ wishes.
- A person harbouring a vagrant could be fined up to £2.
- Illegitimate children did not now receive settlement in their parish of birth, but usually in their mother’s parish. (However some texts give the date of this improvement as 1732/3 and others as 1743/4). This humanized the former draconian treatment of unmarried pregnant women being sent from parish to parish as their confinement drew near. If the overseers could ‘persuade’ the father to marry the mother then the child’s settlement would then be in his parish, and the father took responsibility for mother and child from then on anyway.
Costs of removal to be born by the parish of settlement.
A mother carrying an illegitimate child was obliged to declare this fact and to state the name of the father to the overseers. Men charged as fathers of bastards to be apprehended and committed to gaol until they gave security to indemnify the parish from expense. Removal of women who were pregnant or within one month of childbirth was prohibited.
Parishes ordered to keep proper accounts. Reward of 5/- offered for apprehension of any vagrant.
Parishes were enabled to buy or rent premises for a workhouse and to employ a workhouse-keeper.
1782 Gilbert’s Act
Gilbert’s Act attempted to ameliorate workhouse conditions by:
- Restricting indoor relief to the impotent poor, and allowed the able-bodied to obtain work outside the workhouse.
- Not separating children under 7 from their parents.
- Boarding out orphans and foundlings to have a more home-like environment, and paying poor women to look after them, or to nurse the sick.
- Paupers were not sent to workhouses more than 10 miles from their former homes.
- The pauper’s badge was no longer required to be worn by those of good character.
- Building of workhouses by unions of parishes was encouraged, and about 70 such voluntary Gilbert Unions were in existence by 1834.
- Provision of more economic workhouses was stimulated.
- Inspectors were appointed to enforce these laws
Removal was only to be enforced when a person actually became chargeable, not on mere suspicion that they might become so. Justices were now allowed to suspend removals for those who were sick, and the bills for non-settled paupers were sent to their own parish for reimbursement.
1795 Young’s Act—Speenhamland System
A meeting of Berkshire Justices of the Peace in the parish of Speen took place during a time of low wages and high prices. These men inaugurated a system of supplementing wages from the poor rates, based upon the current price of bread that was widely copied in southern and eastern England. Although seemingly progressive and fair it was found to:
- Encourage employers to underpay their labourers knowing that they would receive additional money from the overseers.
- Increase the number of people applying for relief.
- Cause holdings to be abandoned in areas where poor rates were high.
- Cause a general demoralization amongst recipients.
1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act.
1808 Care of Lunatics
Formerly most mentally ill were dumped in the workhouse along with the indigent poor, unmarried mothers, orphans, and the physically sick and elderly. There were a few private lunatic asylums patronized by the wealthy, but the new act allowed magistrates at the Quarter Sessions to construct a special county lunatic asylum available to all who needed it. Public Record Office leaflets D 104 and D 105 give further information about care and records of lunatics
No pauper was now required to wear a badge.
A further act ordered parish overseers to send lists of their pauper lunatics to the Quarter Sessions via the Clerk of the Peace.
An act restricted the distance that London children could be sent for apprenticeships to 40 miles.
An act made it possible to arrange the conveyance of vagrants to Ireland and Scotland by contracting with shipping companies.
Earlier and Later Laws
For information about earlier and later poor laws, see:
- Introduction to English Poor Law and Parish Chest Records (National Institute)
- England New Poor Law, 1834 through 1948 (National Institute)
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