Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Old Poor Law (Part I)

While studying for my Archives Administration degree in Wales, I had to complete four miniature papers on various record types, which I figured I'd share here in order that the files could see the light of day again.

Part II will include the documents produced because of the poor law. 

In Medieval times, the relief of the poor often rested on the Lord of the Manor or failing that, the monasteries. After the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, the responsibility of supporting the poor and infirm fell almost entirely to the parish community. The first Poor Law was passed in 1572, mandating that one or more Overseer of the Poor be appointed per parish.

It was the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 that formed the basis of England's poor law for over two centuries until it was reformed in 1834. One to four overseers were to be appointed each year, depending upon the size of the parish and were given the responsibility of collecting the poor rate, supporting the poor, and accounting for the money spent. Additionally, Overseers were required to ensure new arrivals would not be chargeable to the parish, and if it seemed likely that the person would need relief or did not have a certificate from another parish that promised support of the person in case of need, the Overseers were to remove the new arrival back to their former place of settlement.

From accounts to examinations, Overseers of the Poor has a great deal of work set out for them. If they were not vigilant of new arrivals to the parish who might seek relief, the parish could potentially have to deal with an increased burden of support that was not their responsibility, which would cost the parish money. Records indicate that the many Overseers were quite active in ensuring their parish did not have to support people who did not belong there. 

Overseers were required to feed, clothe, house, and find work for the needy of the parish as well as put pauper children into apprentices. Additionally, identifying the fathers of illegitimate children that were born or about to be born in their parish was seen as vital work since the support of the child would fall upon the parish if a father was not found and made to pay for their child's upkeep, creating a long-term drain on the money expended by the parish on poor relief.

Determining Settlements
An act of 1662 determined the guideline for legal settlement and removal of paupers from the parish that were not legally settled there. Determining settlement was not as straight forward as it seems since the place of settlement was not necessarily a person's place of birth or even the location of their baptism. 

The original act allowed removal from the parish if a person did not pay at least 10 Pounds in rent or provided indemnity against being on the mercy of the parish. In 1691, rules for gaining a new settlement were put in place and from 1697, any visitors were required to have a certificate from their legal place of settlement stating that they would be sent back to their parish of settlement if found to need the support of poor relief. The Overseer has the power to remove anyone in his parish that did not have a permanent settlement there and was therefore not under his responsibility should they need relief. 

The rules for settlement were as follows: 

  • Legitimate children took the parish settlement of their father whether he was born there or not.
    • If the father gained a new settlement, that settlement would also apply to his wife and children.
  • Illegitimate children gained settlement in the parish of their birth.
    • As this meant that the parish, in the absence of a father being named for the child, would be responsible for the support of the child, women were often transported to the parish of their legal settlement as soon as possible.
  • Children could gain their own legal settlement at the age of 7 by being apprenticed most commonly for learning the 'mysteries of husbandry' for males and 'housewifery' for females.
    • Settlement could be gained by living (or sleeping to be more specific) in a parish for 40 consecutive days.
  • Settlement could also be gained by being hired for work in the community.
    • Settlement could be gained by working for an entire year (to the day of hiring) for the employer in the parish where the service was rendered. 
    • Each time a new settlement was gained through employment, the new settlement would take precedence over the one gained before. 
  • A woman gained her husband's settlement upon marriage.
    • A widow would gain the new settlement of her new husband upon remarriage, but any children by previous marriages would retain the settlement of their natural father. 
  • A man gained settlement if he paid 10 Pounds or more annual rent, lived there over a year, and paid parish rates.
    • If he became a parish officer and served a year, the man could also gain a settlement in the parish.
  • Inheritance of land could also help a person gain a settlement, given that they lived on the land for over 40 days and did not live in another parish afterwards.

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