Tag Archives: Workhouses

The Poor Laws of England and Wales

Here is Julia Mosman’s handout for our meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday 27 February 2016 at Mounds View Library, posted here with Julia’s kind permission. Thank you, Julia!

Between 1601 and 1833, various sorts of poor relief existed. Some are more valuable to genealogists than others, but research into all may prove fruitful.

ABOUT BRITISH POOR LAWS

  • The primary unit of local government is the parish.
  • Before the Reformation, poor relief was handled by the Church and individuals.
  • After the establishment of the Church of England, local gentry often left endowed tenements & charities for the aged or indigent administered by local clergy.

Elizabethan Poor Laws (aka 43rd Elizabeth)

First set into law in 1601. These principles formed the basis of Poor Law for 200+ years.

  • Everyone had a parish of Legal Settlement.
  • Parents and children were responsible for each other.
  • There were 2 classes of people in need of assistance; the “deserving” poor, and the “idle” poor.
  • Parishes were responsible for locally funding their efforts.
  • Parishes were required to elect two “Overseers’ of the Poor” every Easter, who set poor rates, collected them, and authorized disbursements.
  • Poor rates were based on property, so landholders chiefly bore the expense.
  • There were 2 types of parish relief: “Outside” relief provided assistance in money, food, clothing, or goods, with recipient living on their own, and “indoor” relief, providing shelter and services.
  • As the population remained stable, and most people were known, the system worked well.  No major adjustments were made to the system until the early 1720’s.

Legal Settlement

  • Legal settlement was the overlying principle of poor relief; qualifications for which were:
    • To be born in a parish of legally settled parent(s).
    • Renting property worth more than £10 per annum or paying taxes on such a property
    • Holding a Parish office.
    • Being hired by a legally settled inhabitant for a continuous period at least of a year and one day.
    • Having served a full apprenticeship (7 years) to a legally settled man.
    • Having previously been granted poor relief.
    • Females changed their legal settlement on marriage, assuming their husband’s legal place of settlement.
  • If you could not satisfy these requirements, you could move into a new parish using a settlement certificate. It had to bear the seals of the overseers of both parishes and the local Justices, and it was not transferable. A very few rare copies of these survived the years.

Removal

  • If you or your family became or threatened to become reliant on parish relief, and could not satisfy the strict guidelines for legal settlement, you were liable to be removed to the place of your last legal settlement.
  • If no settlement certificate was in force, then a removal order was applied for from the local Justices.
    • An Examination as to Settlement was carried out before the local justice, overseers, and another ratepayer, (usually the church Vicar) to ascertain the last place of legal settlement.
    • Parishes often sued each other over assignments of legal settlement.
    • In 1795, a law was passed that no person could be removed unless or until they requested parish aid.

Parish Apprentices

  • Children of poor families, orphans, and widows’ children were often apprenticed at parish expense to masters, as much as possible in other parishes.
    • Masters were legally required to take apprentices.
    • Masters had a legal obligation to feed, clothe, house, and impart “the mysteries of their trade” to the apprentice.
    • Once the apprentice served their full term (7 years), they would assume their master’s place of legal settlement.
    • Girls apprenticed until they turned 21 or they married.
    • Boys often were apprenticed to age 24, giving the master 3 extra years of service.
  • Apprenticeships were recorded in Parish Indentures, sworn before the local Justice by the overseers and the churchwardens.

Illegitimacy

  • Illegitimacy was accepted in society.
  • Only became a problem for poorer classes of labourers without financial resources. Girls of this class would be placed at age 13 (or younger) in service. If she became pregnant, she would invariably lose her job and be removed to her parish of record immediately. If the child was born in the new parish, she could claim relief while the child was “at nurse”, defined as up to the age of 3 years.
  • The responsible parish would try to find the father to financially maintain the family.
  • Bastardy bonds and Filiation orders were applied for from local Justices.
  • A maintenance order could be for a lump sum of  £40 paid to the parish or a fixed sum for the lying in, and a weekly allowance until the child was 14 yrs. A labourer would have a smaller sum fixed, about 2s per week, and a master or farmer up to 3s.6d.

Workhouses

   Before 1834

  • First established in southern Midlands and Essex circa 1715.
  • By 1797, 1,927 workhouses existed throughout Britain and Wales, which were locally funded and controlled. They were neither punitive or harsh.
  • Workhouses evolved to combine the functions of day care, night shelter, geriatric ward and orphanage.
  • Hospitals for the ill and insane were established during this period as well.

    After 1834

  • The “Great Reforms” of 1834 moved parish relief from local control to regional districts, controlled by governmental groups.
  • Regional (Union) workhouses were established.
  • Combined 2 or more parishes into a “Union”.
  • They were intentionally designed to discourage people from resorting to them.
  • The principle of “less eligibility” was applied.
  • Segregation of ages, and of sexes, was rigid.
  • Relocation to manufacturing areas was “encouraged”
  • Outdoor relief was outlawed
  • Within 5 years, workhouses were proven to be much more expensive than promised, because of overhead.  Due to economic problems, outdoor relief was retained/reinstated in most places.
  • In the early 1900’s a series of laws were passed which eliminated much of the need for workhouses, in effect reinstating outdoor relief.
  • Workhouses existed in law until 1930.

Workhouse records

  • Some workhouse records still exist, and are valuable to researchers. However, just as many did not retain records of inmates.
  • Inmates were reported in the regular Census returns; births and deaths were recorded in local Church records, and after July 1, 1837, the local Registrar’s records.

Researching

What records exist:

  • Overseer’s Account and Parish Relief Books, found under various names/titles
  • Parish Chest – village constable, parish register, wardens (see above)
  • Filiation orders and/or Bastardy bonds
  • Apprenticeship bonds
  • Poor house (Workhouse) records
  • Court cases, in various Court levels; i.e., Quarter Sessions, Nisi Prius, Petty sessions, and Lawyers’ records
  • Newspaper accounts

Where records are maintained:

  • County record offices, regional museums, and libraries
  • Legal document repositories, such as National Archives
  • Newspaper archives
  • LDS films of county records

How a long-distance genealogist might find information:

  • Access www.genuki.com.
  • LDS film catalog at familysearch.org
  • visit the County website for local records
  • Check the National Archives for County and National records
  • Visit the 19th century (Gale) British Newspaper Digital Archive, & the Newspaper Archive (1607-2013), free through the LDS Family History Centers
  • Check Find My Past (paid service), limited free at Family History Centers
  • Check Ancestry.com (paid service), or limited free at County libraries, MNGS, and Family History Centers
  • Discover fellow researchers in particular areas (Facebook, message boards, mailing lists)

Further Information

English Poor Laws    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Poor_Laws

Victorian Web, a History website  =  http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/elizpl.html

Workhouses of Britain    http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, full text available at –  https://libcom.org/library/making-english-working-class-ep-thompson

National Archives Guide to the Poor & Poor Laws: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/poverty-poor-laws/

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