Poor Laws, Removals, Illegitimacy, & Parish Relief

Originally published by Julia Mosman, 22 January 2014.

A Short Overview of the Poor Laws, including Legal SettlementRemovalParish ApprenticesIllegitimacyParish Relief and After 1834 Written by J. Mosman, OPC – originally for a Cornish Interest publication)

 The unit of local government has always been the parish, usually reflecting ancient Manors or Chapelries. The concept of “parish” over the years separated into 2 categories – secular (civil government) and ecclesiastical (church). Within an ecclesiastical parish there could be more than one secular (poor law) parish. Laws were established and carried out on a parish by parish basis.

In 1572, Parliament passed a law regarding ‘The Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent’, which stated a vagabond over the age of 14 should have holes burned through the cartilage of their ears, and in 1589, it became illegal to shelter such persons. People were fined for allowing old couples to live in a barn, or a woman and her crippled child to live in their attic. (The parishes did not wish to become responsible for such people – so kept them moving on.) Therefore, it was not unusual to see people lying in streets, and dying there, without any civic concern.

Starting in 1597, everyone had a parish of Legal Settlement, and, if relief was required, it would be the responsibility of that parish to provide it. (This law established the manner in which the poor were treated for 237 years.)  The parish was required to elect each Easter two ” Overseers’ of the Poor ” who were responsible for setting the poor rate (tax), its collection, and the relief of those in need. These overseers should ideally be “substantial householders” but in small villages the only practical qualification was to be a rate payer.

In rural England , where 90% of the population lived, this was a fair and equitable system run by local people and administered by the local Justices of the Peace, who were likely to be the Rector and local landowners. Most relief given was “outdoors”; people were aided by being given small amounts to solve particular problems, such as supplies to deal with an injury or illness, payment for a burial, or money to cover the purchase of bread. Other more substantive relief could have been shelter in a workhouse, a workhouse farm, or even a tenement in which only poor elderly widows could live. (Workhouses did not have the same connotations in that period as did the Victorian ones; they were much better than the previous practice of evicting the homeless repeatedly until they were forced into felony, and probable hanging.)

Following 1834 all this changed as parliament denigrated the system bit by bit in response to the growth of the large industrial towns, with their very different problems  and societal pressures.

Legal Settlement

Legal settlement was the overlying principle of poor relief, the qualifications for which were as follows :-

  • To be born in a parish of legally settled parent(s)
  • Up to 1662, by living in a parish for 3 years.  After 1662 you could be thrown out within 40 days of arrival, and after 1691 you had to give 40 days notice before moving into a parish.
  • Renting property worth more than £10 per annum in the parish or paying taxes on such a property.
  • Holding a Parish Office. (which you could not do without owning or renting property worth more than £10 per annum.)
  • Being hired by a legally settled inhabitant for a continuous period of a year and one day. Most single labourers were hired from the end of Michaelmas week till the beginning of the next Michaelmas, thus avoiding the grant of legal settlement. By the time you were married, had proved your worth, and gained experience, then longer hirings were possible, therefore changing legal settlement status.
  • Having served a full apprenticeship to a legally settled man for the full 7 years.
  • Having previously been granted poor relief. This condition implied that you had previously been accepted as being legally settled and was usually only referred to in settlement examinations.
  • Females changed their legal settlement on marriage, adopting their husband’s legal place of settlement. If a girl married a certificate man in her own parish and he died, she would automatically be removed to his place of legal settlement along with any issue from the marriage.

If you could not satisfy these requirements you could move into a new parish using a settlement certificate, providing your home parish would issue oneThis was virtually a form of indemnity, issued by your home parish, stating that you and your family and future issue belonged to them, and they would take you all back at their expense if you became chargeable to the parish. Because of the expense of  removal, it would be unlikely your home parish would issue a certificate for a parish a large distance away. A settlement certificate was only valid if it bore the seals of the overseers of both parishes and that of the local Justices, and it was not transferable. As living conditions for the working poor did not enhance the chances of such a paper enduring, these are quite rare.


If you or your family became, or threatened to become, reliant on parish relief, and you could not satisfy the strict guidelines for legal settlement, then you were liable to be removed to the place of your last legal settlement. If you were a certificate man you would be carted back to your old parish at their expense, but if no settlement certificate was in force then a removal order was applied for from the local Justices of the Peace. This would usually involve an Examination as to Settlement carried out before the local justice, overseers, and another ratepayer, in order to ascertain your place of last legal settlement . In tenuous cases other members of the family may have had to be examined, including parents, grandparents and siblings. These examinations could run into many pages, virtually the life story of the individual’s family.

These examinations were often reported in newspapers, especially after 1830, as they were conducted during the quarterly Nisi Prius, which specify the people involved and decisions given.

Parish Apprentices

Children of poor families, orphans and widow’s children were often apprenticed  at the parishes’ expense to masters in other parishes. This was a way of disposing of possible future problems by altering their legal settlement status. If they served their full term of seven years, then their legal settlement would be at the place of their master’s settlement. Girls were usually apprenticed until they attained 21 or got married, and boys till they were 24, which gave an extra three years of their labour as an incentive for the masters. Although many of these apprenticeships were just an excuse for cheap labour, some were meaningful. Many a parish apprentice prospered at his new home and in fact took apprentices from his old parish later on. The Parish Indentures were important documents and sworn before the local Justice by the overseers and the churchwardens, Two copies were made – one for the master and one for the parish. The master had a legal obligation to feed, clothe, and impart the mysteries of his trade for the duration of the contract.


Illegitimacy during this period was accepted, and did not appear to be any bar to future marriage to the girl in question. It only became a problem for the poorer class of labourer, who lived on the brink of poverty.  When a girl from this class reached 13, or even earlier, she would be placed in service somewhere, so decreasing the financial burden on the household.

If she became pregnant, she would invariably lose her job and be thrown back on her family for support. The home parish would naturally become concerned that this would force the family into relief and if she died in childbirth, a real risk, there would be an orphan to support. If she was working away from her own parish, at the first sign of her pregnancy she would be removed, as if the child was born there (in the new parish), she could claim relief  whilst the child was “at nurse“, defined as up to the age of 3 years.

With this in mind there was a necessity to try to find out who the father was. The girl would be examined, and if the father could be identified then an order for both maintenance and the cost of delivering the child would  be obtained. Issued by the church wardens and overseers of the poor, this order would be implemented by the parish constable, and in default a warrant was frequently issued, and the father’s possessions could be sold towards the debt. These orders were commonly called filiation orders or bastardy bonds. The maintenance order could be a lump sum paid to the parish, a minimum of £40, usually out of the question for most fathers, or a fixed sum for the lying in and a weekly allowance until the child was 14 years. A labourer would have a smaller sum fixed, say 2s a week, and a master or farmer up to 3s 6d.

These orders and bonds are often found at the National Archives database, also called A2A, (Access to Archives).

Parish Relief

The forms parish relief would take are varied. Where they survive, the overseers account books give a remarkable insight into village life, listing not only the rate payers but the recipients and the reasons for their relief. Money was not the only form of out relief – most parishes had houses set aside for the old or destitute. These could be either owned by the village, given as a charitable donation, (alms houses), or rented specifically for the purpose. Most charity almshouses were administered by the church and would appear in the church wardens account books. Those specially purchased, built, or rented by the poor rate, were administered by the overseers. Orphans could be boarded out to local families, and clothes or material to make clothes were provided, as was the provision of medical care, either by the local nurse or, in some cases, doctor.

The money came from the poor rate, set annually by the overseers, and various and sundry charities. The Poor Rates were based on real property, not moveable – therefore, landholders primarily bore the expense, while merchants did not. As sources of wealth evolved, this became a point of contention, leading to the 1834 reforms.

Almshouses often were built by the largesse of individual, such as in Fowey, Cornwall, where Mr. Rashleigh built and funded just such a building for 20 deserving widows, who received a mite each Christmas in addition to the accommodations. Frequently large amounts of money were left by pious, prosperous congregants for the perpetual maintenance of Charities for the poor. The charities could be quite ancient, and were often held and administered by the Rector. These were frequently the source of litigation, and to that end many churches had charity boards administering them.

Other forms of charity might be land left by someone for the benefit of the poor; many villages had their poor’s piece, which was tendered for annually. Many other charities specified bread or ale on certain days, or bibles for the poor children. Sources of income would come from ratepayers who were pressured into accepting those on relief as temporary labourers, and the income from letting the lanes of the village for grazing and hay making. The poor would often be put to work by the parish surveyor repairing the roads and lanes. Details of these activities are usually found in the parish constable’s accounts book.

Rarely found but often intriguing are pauper’s inventories. These list the property and possessions of someone receiving parish relief with a view to ascertaining his wealth.

The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) have filmed many of the parish wardens’ account books; check their Library Resources for a list.

After 1834

The poor law was radically changed following the great reform act of 1834. Relief of the poor was changed from a local responsibility into a group one. Groups of parishes were consolidated into Poor Law Unions, so removing the local community responsibility. Out relief – giving aid to persons on an individual basis, according to need – was discouraged, and the workhouses became the primary source of relief.

While 1,912 parish and corporation workhouses existed in England and Wales by 1776, workhouses did not exist before 1836 in Cornwall . They were seen as an efficient, but fair way to deal with the increase in paupers which were encountered after the Napoleonic wars, and caused by the burgeoning population. For instance, in 1804 the population of St. Austell, Cornwall, was estimated by the Diocease of Exeter as being 1,400; by 1841, it was just over 11,000. Workhouses were clearly seen as a way in which expenses to ratepayers could be reduced. . ‘Deterrent workhouses’ were purposefully designed to discourage the ‘idle poor’, with conditions such that people would do almost anything to avoid going there – including, the reformers theorized, working. In many areas, their establishment was considered an effective method of encouraging rural populations to migrate to population centres, where jobs were available and there was a need for willing workers.

From articles in the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser newspaper, workhouses in Cornwall (1839) were proposed as a modern, efficient, humane way of caring for “those less fortunate”.

There were riots in Cornwall, and neighbouring Counties, protesting the establishment of the Union houses, and limited out-relief was continued for a time, but people were pressured to resort to the Union houses in the belief this would be a more efficient use of resources. Committees were established to provide an overview function, and reports were made at the Quarterly Sessions by the Boards of Guardians, who supervised management of the houses.

In comparison to the living conditions of the most abject poor, the workhouse was considered an improvement, but there were cases in the Quarter Sessions where defendants stated they’d committed the crime specifically to go to  gaol, where conditions were better. (Often, as winter set in, bricks were thrown through shop windows; the standard sentence was 3 months.) This immediately caused Magistrates to examine expenditures at the gaol, in an effort to curb extravagance. In the 1840’s, persons living in the workhouse could come and go almost at will, but by the 1850’s they were called “inmates”, wore “uniforms”, and were charged with escape.

One factor affecting the increase of paupers in Cornwall had to do with emigration policy. Persons between the ages of 15-35 were given free passage to Australia , and later New Zealand ; others took advantage of offers for ‘free land’. Healthy young adults departed the county, leaving babies and older adults behind. Passages to the United States and South Africa were relatively inexpensive, too; the cost was something a working man could meet, if he were careful with his money. Many took advantage of the opportunity. Then, as mines started closing [commencing 1846, culminating in 1866], more young adults migrated to other parts of the U.K. and the world in search of jobs. Many of those left behind were self-sufficient for a time, but as they aged they could not maintain their status, and reverted to parish charity. At the same time, businessmen and rate payers found their customer base shrinking; there weren’t as many people to rent their houses, buy their products, etc., and they sought relief in part by reducing the poor rates. It became a vicious cycle of fewer people to support an ever-expanding need.**

Some workhouse records still exist, but the value to genealogists may be negligible, as often they do not mention individual ‘inmates’, but detail such things as expenditures for soap. Records for inmates’ births and deaths were included in the regional Registrar’s records after July 1, 1837.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the laws were tightened, reformed, and modified until the administration was transferred to the Ministry of Health in 1918. From 1906-14, several provisions to provide social services without the stigma of the Poor Laws were instituted. However, it was not until 1930 that the poor laws were finally abolished.


(from the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 6 April, 1849)

“This very extensive parish represents within itself a portion of most, if not all, of our principal industrial county interests, mining and mineral, agricultural and commercial, maritime and manufacturing (principally foundries). The present population range is about twelve thousand, and its parish valuation rental about £ 23,000 per annum.”

“The aggregate of the different parish rates collected in the past years was between £ 5,000 and £6,000, being an increase of about fifty per cent since the introduction of the new poor law into this district. This enormous increase is now felt as an intolerable burden by many of the rate-payers, and a rapid and serious depreciation in the sale of all [field?] property has been the consequent result.”

“The new system has most signally failed in this locality in its paramount professed object – a reduction of parochial expenditure – and the system of “union and centralisation” works wretchedly, from the great expense of its complicated machinery in costly erections, staff of officials, system of contracts, etc. In addition to its other heavy burdens the parish of St. Austell has been saddled with a church-rate within the last two years. Attempts were made by some of the well-disposed parishioners to substitute a voluntary assessment, instead of a direct rate. This, however, was contemptuously rejected by the church party. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the parish are dissenters, and from twenty to thirty places of religious worship apart from the establishment are supported by the various Christian sects. The enforcement of the payment of church-rates leads, in this parish as in many other parts of the kingdom, to scenes alike disgraceful to our common Christianity and to the legislation of the nineteenth century.”


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