Past Talks

The Peripatetic Poor in the 18th Century

Date: 17th July 2017
Speaker: Deborah Hayter

17 July 2017             The Peripatetic Poor in the 18th Century – Deborah Hayter

Parish documents, including examinations of the poor before Justices of the Peace, reveal details of the lives of those from the bottom layer of society, often in their own words.  They show that the poor were more mobile in the past than is generally assumed. 

The provisions of the Poor Law Act 1601 (popularly known as the Old Poor Law or the Elizabethan Poor Law) replaced informal care of the poor with a compulsory system. This became more pressing with the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536, as these establishments had traditionally fulfilled this role.  The ecclesiastical parish was the unit of local administration and was staffed by voluntary officials.  They were responsible for law & order, highways and the poor.  An individual had a right to parish relief if they were sick, orphaned, elderly, ‘unable’ or ‘impotent’.  The poor rate was a compulsory tax levied on land.  

The responsibility of others in society to support the poor was accepted and regarded as a Christian virtue.

 The 1601 Act identified several classes of pauper:

Ø  Vagabonds/vagrants/sturdy beggars – to be punished and sent back to where they belonged.

Ø  Labouring poor – to be set to productive work.  Early workhouses were set up for accommodation and work, but were not generally financially viable.  Children could be apprenticed to local craftsmen and traders.

Ø  Impotent poor, those unable to work – to be maintained by the community.  Accounts from the Overseers of the Poor show ‘pensions’, particularly to widows, being paid over extended periods.  This could also include the provision of almhouses or poorhouses, rather than workhouses.

Parishes were obliged to provide for their own poor, but how could these people be identified?  Disputes over which parish was responsible for a pauper's poor relief led to the passing of the Settlement Act 1662, which allowed relief only to established residents of a parish – mainly through birth, marriage and apprenticeship.  This act allowed for the removal of people that local justices deemed to be likely to become chargeable to the parish. 

A further act of 1691 specified other ways in which settlement could be acquired.  These included those holding a parish office for a year; owning an estate worth £10 or renting a property for £10 per annum, and illegitimate children were granted settlement in the parish in which they were born. 

The 18th century saw growing unemployment and wages at levels which were too low to support families.  This led to many arguments over settlement as parishes sort to reduce the drain on their limited funds. 

Settlement law produced a range of documents which shed light on paupers’ situations:

Ø  Settlement Examinations – this was an account of a pauper’s life to establish which parish should support them.

Ø  Settlement Certificates – these proved which parish a family belonged to, even if they were working elsewhere, and therefore which parish had the legal responsibility to provide poor relief if needed.

Ø  Removal Orders – this allowed for a pauper to be returned to their home parish, following an unsuccessful examination.

Ø  Correspondence between parishes, paupers away from home and their home parishes.

The need for poor law relief escalated in the late 18th century due to riots, poor harvests, agricultural depression and the Napoleonic blockade.

In conclusion, we can say that the Old Poor Law didn’t tie workers to their own parish, but, rather, produced a highly mobile workforce secure in the knowledge that they would be supported in their own parish if they fell on hard times.  This mobility can be said to be instrumental in the development of the industrial revolution.