A Brief Explanation of the Poor Law in respect of Rural Communities 1601 - 1834

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If the family you are researching was part of the 90% of the rural population that survived as village labourers or descended into the day labourer class during the 18th century you will not have course to refer to the wills and probate records that flesh out the histories of more affluent families. The information may however be there just waiting to be discovered. The poor law records described below were some of the most important a parish would keep and in many cases have survived, especially in rural communities, when registers may have been lost. Many county archives have indexed these records and you may be lucky to find your family there, if however they are missing don't despair. Most indices refer only to the main party but often other people, friends and neighbors are mentioned, or you may find an ancestor with a parish office. Be sure to read the account books of the overseers and constables and even if you fail to find your family I feel sure that the exercise of reading all the documents will fascinate you as it has me and give you a valuable insight into the community your family served and lived in.


The tradition of the village supporting it's poor has been firmly established from Saxon times, in fact the term Lady is from the old english hlafdige, loaf maker and dole from the old english dal to distribute. This tradition was as much necessity as compassion, the open field system of farming was very much a communal way of life depending on mutual co-operation and the preservation of a labour force. This was a fact of life as much for the Lord of the Manor as for the ordinary village population as the villagers would work the manorial lands as part of their tenancy agreement.

Throughout the 14th to 16th centuries the wealth of Britain was underwritten by the wool trade and in the quest for this wealth large tracts of land were turned over to sheep farming. This eventually led to an underclass of dispossessed poor wandering the countryside seeking work, settlement and charity. Worse still, an Elizabethan population increase of 25%  and a series of disastrous famines in the 1590's led to an increase in poverty which could not be alleviated under the old system of individual philanthropy. This posed a threat to the stability of the realm and with this view a series Elizabethan poor law acts were passed in 1563, 1572, 1576, 1597 and 1601. 

In 1563 the poor were categorized for the first time into deserving, ( the elderly and the very young, the infirm, and families who occasionally found themselves in financial difficulties due to a change in circumstance), they were considered deserving of social support and the undeserving, (these were people who often turned to crime to make a living such as highwaymen or pickpockets, migrant workers who roamed the country looking for work, and individuals who begged for a living), who were to be treated harshly. The act of 1572 introduced the first compulsory poor local poor law tax, an important step acknowledging that alleviating poverty was the responsibility of local communities, in 1576 the concept of the workhouse was born and in 1597 the post of overseer of the poor was created. The great act of 1601 consolidated all the previous acts and set the benchmark for the next 200+ years.

The Poor Laws passed during the reign of Elizabeth I played a critical role in the country's welfare. They signaled an important progression from private charity to welfare state, where the care and supervision of the poor was embodied in law and integral to the management of each town, village and hamlet. Another sign of their success was that the disorder and disturbance which had been feared by Parliament failed to materialize. But problems remained. There is no doubt that the laws helped the destitute by guaranteeing a minimum level of subsistence, but those who were scraping a living did not qualify for help and continued to struggle. And, as the years wore on and the population continued to increase, the provisions made to care for the poor became stretched to the limit. It is, however, a tribute to their lasting success that two of the Acts, from 1597 and 1601, endured until well into the nineteenth Century.

Poor law 1601 - 1834

The unit of local government was an always had been the parish but within an ecclesiastical parish there could be more than one poor law parish usually reflecting ancient Manors or Chapelries. For example, in Leicestershire,  Sheepy Magna had been a parish from at least the 12th century but encompassed the Chapelry of Ratcliffe Culey and the Hamlet of Sheepy Parva, each operated it's own poor law system. Everyone would have a parish of legal settlement an if relief was required it would be the responsibility of that parish to provide it. The parish was required to elect each Easter two "Overseers of the Poor" who were responsible for setting the poor rate, it's 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. Following 1834 all this changed as parliament denigrated the system bit by bit in response to the growth of the large industrial towns and their very different problems.

Legal Settlement

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

  1. To be born in a parish of legally settled parent(s)

  2. Up to 1662 by living there for 3 years . After 1662 you could be thrown out within 40 days and after 1691 you had to give 40 days notice before moving in.

  3. Renting property worth more than 10 per annum in the parish or paying taxes on such a property.

  4. Holding a Parish Office.

  5. Being hired by a legally settled inhabitant for a continuous period of 365 days. (most single labourers were hired from the end of Michaelmas week till the beginning of the next Michaelmas so 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.

  6. Having served a full apprenticeship to a legally settled man for the full 7 years.

  7. 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.

  8. Females changed their legal settlement on marriage, adopting their husbands 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 one. This 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 was not transferable.


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 the 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 others may have to be examined also, parents, grandparents and siblings, these examinations could run into many pages virtually the life story of the individuals family.

Parish Apprentices

Children of poor families, orphans and widows 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 masters settlement. Girls were usually apprenticed until they attained 21 or got married, problem solved, and boys till they were 24. This extra three years gave the master a bit more cheap labour as an incentive. Although many of these apprenticeships were just an excuse for cheap labour some were meaningful, I have found many a parish apprentice prospering at his new home and in fact taking 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 cloth and impart the mysteries of his trade for the duration of the contract.


Illegitimacy during this period was no big deal, it was accepted it happened and did not appear to be any bar to future marriage to the girl in question. Where it was a problem was with 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 some ware, 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 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 issued. 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 his 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 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. 

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 charities. The charities could be quite ancient and often held and administered by the Rector or Patron, these were often the source of litigation and to this end many churches had charity boards in the vestry or tower listing them. Other forms or charity could 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.

Other 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 constables 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.

After 1834

The poor law was radically following the great reform act of 1834. The main difference was that the 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 was discouraged and the workhouses, which had been in existence for the previous two centuries, became the primary source of relief.  Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the laws were tightened and modified until the administration was transferred to the Ministry of Health in 1918. It was not until 1930 that the poor laws were finally abolished. If you haven't already done so visit this site