Settlement Examinations in England and Wales
Some time late in the year 1783, 25-year-old Thomas Aylott of Walkern in Hertfordshire took his wife and two young children to live in a house belonging to his brother-in-law James Oakley, in the neighbouring parish of Aspenden. Although he had a lease which said that he was to pay £8 8s 0d a year for the house and surrounding land, he actually paid £10 8s 0d. There was a note confirming this arrangement on the back of James Oakley’s copy of the lease and James gave Thomas receipts for the full amount. However, in 1788 James Oakley rented the land to somebody else and his curious agreement with Thomas Aylott, made solely in order to evade increased payments of Land Tax, came to the attention of the authorities.
The story is told in the document transcribed below and it is typical of the many thousands of partial biographies of ordinary people, not necessarily paupers, to be found across England and Wales as a result of the operation of the Poor Law.
At the request of the Overseers of the Poor, Thomas Aylott was interviewed by two Justices of the Peace and examined as to his place of settlement:
Hertfordshire The Examination of Thos Aylott now residing in the Parish of Aspeden [now Aspenden] in the said County taken on oath this 25th Day of January 1790 by us two of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the said County.
Who saith that he is thirty one years of age and upwards was born as he hath heard and believes at Walkern in the said county and that about six years ago last Mich[aelm]as he hired of James Oakley and Elizth his wife by an agreement in writing a messuage or tenement lands and premises in the parish of Aspeden as a tenant thereof from year to year at the yearly rent of eight pounds and eight shillings as expressed and reserved in the said agreement which he now produces That in pursuance of the said agreement he entered upon and took possession of the said messuage or tenement and lived therein for six years and is now the tenant thereof and that he also occupied all the land belonging to the said house for the term of five years when all the premises aforesaid were sold and the purchaser thereof took the land into his own hands and this examinant saith that altho’ the rent reserved by the said agreement was eight guineas only yet in truth he did agree to give and did give and pay to the said James Oakley the yearly rent of ten pounds and eight shillings for the said premises during such his occupation thereof for the term of five years aforesaid and this Examinant also saith that the only reason why the said rent was and by the said written agreement was expressed to be eight guineas only and not ten pounds and eight shillings as the agreement actually was, was this, that the said Oakley requested that the agreement might be so worded in order that he the said Oakley might not be raised in the Land Tax Assessment and further that he the said Thomas Aylott did really and bona fide originally hire the premises aforesaid at ten pounds and eight shillings a year and further he now produced receipts for the said last ment[ione]d rent of ten pounds and eight shillings under the hand of the said James Oakley and which rent he saith he did from time to time actually pay and that he is married and his wife’s name is Susannah by whom he hath five children now living viz Sarah aged about ten years, Wm aged about eight years, John aged about four years, Frances aged about two years and three quarters and Elizabeth aged about one month and that his wife and children are all now with him in Aspeden aforesaid.
Signed and sworn on the day and year Thomas Aylott
First above written before us
[In the magin] NB he says that on the back of Oakley’s part of the agreement it is ment[ione]d that he has to pay 40s more than the £8-8.
The importance attached to the amount of rent actually paid in this instance results from one of the provisions of the famous Poor Relief Act of 1662 [confusingly often wrongly called the Act of Settlement; the Act of Settlement, as every schoolchild used to know, was the Act of 1701 which settled the Crown, after the death of Princess (later Queen) Anne, on the Protestant descendants of Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover] which empowered two Justices to make an order, if asked to do so by the Overseers of the Poor of a parish within forty days of the person’s arrival, for the removal of any newcomer who did not rent a house (or ‘tenement’) worth more than £10 a year and if they thought it likely that he would need to be supported from (or ‘become chargeable to’) the rates of their parish.
By 1790 Thomas Oakley had five young children and if he could not support himself the whole family would need assistance from the poor rate. By proving that he had paid £10 a year he had shown that Aspenden was his ‘place of legal settlement’ and that he could not be ordered to return to Walkern where he was born.
Each parish was legally obliged to relieve its poor under a series of statutes which culminated in the Poor Law Acts of 1597-8 and 1601. The parish estimated the amount it might need to raise and then levied a rate on the householders within the parish, usually twice a year. The money collected was used by the annually appointed but unpaid Overseers of the Poor (there would be two in each parish though larger parishes might have more) to relieve and maintain the poor, to find work for those who were able-bodied and to apprentice their children. If there was any dispute the Overseers could take it to the Justices of the Peace sitting in Quarter Sessions. From 1691 the procedures were strengthened, lists of the poor being compiled and read over and amended in public vestry meetings in Easter Week each year.
The money collected was recorded in a Rate Book and the disbursements were recorded in the account books of the Overseers of the Poor or, in smaller parishes, in those of the Churchwardens. The account books survive more frequently than the rate books. Incidental loose papers, such as the examinations and the resulting orders are more vulnerable, though in larger parishes these were also entered into books.
From 1601 to 1834 a person was only entitled to assistance in the parish where he or she had legal settlement. Place of settlement was originally place of births, children, both legitimate and illegitimate, taking their settlement from the place where they were born, and a married woman taking her settlement from that of her husband. Unmarried women who were pregnant were consequently encouraged to give birth in another parish, until in 1744 a change in the law gave future illegitimate children the place of settlement of their mothers.
After the 1662 Act settlement could be acquired in a different parish by hiring a tenement of the yearly value of £10 in that place. If the tenement were valued at under £10 the newcomer might be asked to find some security indemnifying the parish from possible costs, otherwise he could be sent back to the place where he had been legally settled ‘as a native, householder, sojourner, apprentice or servant, for the space of 40 days at least’.
From 1691 settlement could be acquired:
- By actual residence of 40 days, preceded by a written notice of the house to be lived in and the number of the family. This notice was to be read out in church ad recorded in a book. The need for a written notice was abolished in 1795. From 1834 the occupier of a tenement had henceforth to have paid the Poor Rate for a full year before acquiring settlement and that period was later increased to three years.
- By being lawfully hired and serving for more than a year in a place but only if an ‘unmarried person not having child or children’, no prior notice being needed. This possibility ceased in 1834.
- By having a share of public taxes or levies (usually the poor rate itself), no prior notice being needed. From 1795 the tax had to be on property worth at least £10 a year.
- By holding any public annual office during one whole year. This possibility ceased in 1834.
- By being ‘bound an apprentice by indenture’ to a parishioner, no prior notice being needed.
As a result a person’s place of settlement might, if he was relatively prosperous and mobile, change at different times in his life, the most recent qualifier always taking precedence. After 1834 residence for a fixed period together with the payment of rates became the usual way in which a new settlement was acquired. It was not until 1876 that it was gained simply by residence of three years.
The system that developed between 1601 and 1834 was bound to lead to dispute and the records of Quarter Sessions contain great numbers of orders about settlement and removal, appeals against the orders, against the actions of overseers and against poor rate assessments, as well as decisions on disputes between parishes over the place of settlement of particular individuals.
With the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 most of these matters were taken out of the hands of the individual parishes and given to Boards of Guardians which were set up to administer poor relief in groups or unions of parishes. These Poor Law Unions took no account of county boundaries, often being centred on the larger towns. However, each parish remained separately liable for the costs of its own poor until 1865 when individual parish rates were replaced by an overall Union rate. It is important to note that some large parishes administered the system outside any Union until 1876.
The examination of those who had fallen on hard time continued after 1834, their statements being entered in the Minute Books of the Boards of Guardians or in special books kept for that purpose, until the Boards were abolished in 1930. In some unions the rough notes taken down at the time of the examination may survive as well as the fair copies made afterwards.
A good example of a later Examination amongst those for St Pancras, London, relates to Sarah Hinwood and her three children William aged seven, Elizabeth aged five and Alfred aged one, taken on oath before two magistrates sitting in the Vestry Room in Saint Pancras on 6 September 1865. It states that the family ‘have come to inhabit in the said Parish of Saint Pancras, not having any legal settlement therein, and not having resided in the said Parish three years’. A warrant had been applied for to remove the family from St Pancras as it was now actually chargeable ‘by receiving relief therefrom not made necessary by sickness or accident’.
The said Sarah Hinwood for her self upon oath saith I am at present residing at No 13 Arlington Street in the said Parish of St Pancras. I am the widow of William Hinwood to whom I was lawfully married at the Parish Church of Saint Martins in the Fields in the County of Middlesex on the 11th day of July 1857 as Sarah Morrell spinster and the above named children are the lawful issue of my said marriage. I can give no information as to my said husband’s Settlement. I have become and I am now actually chargeable to the said Parish of Saint Pancras by being in receipt of weekly out door relief to the amount of three shillings and two loaves of bread weekly.
The Assistant Settlement Clerk to the Parish, William henry Messer, had meanwhile made some enquiries and his statement also forms part of the Examination:
I have made due and diligent enquiry into the place of the last legal settlement of the said Sarah Hinwood and her said three lawful children and from the information I have obtained believing the same to be true I find them to be last legally settled in the Parish of Warminster in the County of Wilts in manner following namely – That the said Sarah Hinwood is the widow of William Hinwood and whose marriage has been hereinbefore described. That the said William Hinwood who did not act to acquire a settlement in his own right was the lawful son of Robert Hinwood. That the said Robert Hinwood was born in the said Parish of Warminster in the year 1799. That the said William Hinwood was also born in the said parish of Warminster in the year 1830.
These examinations may include incidental information of almost any description and, after 1834, this may include particulars of the whereabouts and income of children who might be persuaded to give assistance. They invariably include some statement of age and place of birth or settlement, that place still being liable for maintenance costs through a system of cross-accounting, even when the physical removal of people had become much less frequent. After 1834 the examination records were indexed by name so that previous statements or claims to relief could easily be checked. A general search is, therefore, not normally a lengthy task and may well be worthwhile.
However, the records, which are usually closed for a hundred years, survive somewhat unevenly. Examinations found amongst parish chest documents are usually in the appropriate county record offices. In several counties consolidated indexes have been compiled and a few have been published. These indexes are mentioned in the Gibson Guide, Specialist Indexes for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies, 2nd ed. 2000) [not in FHL]. Groups of examinations may also survive in Quarter Sessions Records and these appear in the Gibson Guide, Quarter Session Records for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies, 4th ed. 1995) [FHL book 042 P23].
Records of the Unions after 1834 are listed in the Gibson Guide, Poor Law Union Records (4 parts, Federation of Family History Societies, 1997) [FHL book 942 P37], in which ‘Examinations’ appear as a separate category, though similar information in tabulated form may be found in books variously described as ‘Application Books’ and ‘Pauper Description Books’ and sometimes in the Minute Books. It should be noted that the records of those parishes, like St Pancras, which continued their own systems down to 1876 and were not part of a Union, are not included in this book.
This article has been adapted with permission from Anthony Camp’s article, ‘This Examinant saith … The Settlement Examination’ in Family Tree Magazine (U.K.; http://www.family-tree.co.uk), vol. 18, no. 5 (March 2002) pages 4-6.