The Complicated Lives of the Poor


The Georgian Poor Laws in England

This article is another result of time spent – never wasted – sorting through neglected shelves and boxes in second-hand bookstores. In this case, what I turned up was a locally-published booklet of transcripts of the records left by magistrates taking depositions under the 18th-century Poor Law. All relate to the small market town of Holt in north Norfolk.[1]

A Brief Explanation of Poor Law Provision

The 18th-century English Poor Laws dated, in part, from Tudor and Stuart times, amended at various times from the 17th century onwards. Their approach to dealing with the poor was essentially paternalistic, as it remained until the mid–19th century. All those with a yearly income or owning property above a set sum in each parish[2] were required to pay a Rate to provide relief for the poor of that place. Not surprisingly, the better off did not much like paying such rates, especially in years when harvests were bad, work scarce and poverty escalated, lifting the amount needed to support those out of work or too old and infirm to fend for themselves.

The Overseers of the Poor (an onerous, unpaid job passed round between largely reluctant office-holders, often churchwardens or members of the parish vestry) allocated and administered payments under the supervision of a magistrate. They were expected to minimise the cost of poor relief wherever they could. Some were less generous than others, but it’s probably fair to say most tried to act fairly and with some degree of compassion.

However, what irritated those who paid the Poor Rate most was paying for another parish’s poor.

The rules for getting relief were complex, sometimes requiring expert legal advice to interpret. In a nutshell, however, the aim of Poor Law relief was threefold:

  1. To provide work for those who could work.
  2. To provide the means of living for those who could not, either by monetary payment (outdoor relief) or via entry to the House of Industry or Workhouse.
  3. To impose punishment on any who refused to work, despite being able to do so.

Each parish was treated as a separate entity, responsible only for its own poor. Those needing relief, now or in the future, had therefore either to establish ‘settlement’ in that parish (i.e. prove they belonged there in some way) or produce a ‘certificate’ from another parish to show that parish took responsibility for them and would refund any payments made elsewhere.

Examination under Oath

To establish settlement under the 1662 Settlement Act, the person seeking relief was examined under oath before two magistrates. There they recited their life history to show why they believed the parish should take responsibility for them. A few also underwent examination to establish settlement against future necessity. These are the documents transcribed in the booklet I found.

Before 1795, any person arriving to take up residence in a parish in accommodation costing less than £10.00 a year had to appear at the parish church and give notice to the churchwardens of their arrival. The parish would then consider whether each might, at some time, become a charge on the parish Poor Rate. If so, the in-comer could be removed within 40 days, forcibly if necessary. After 1795, the provision for removal remained, but could only be exercised after an actual claim for relief had been made.

If the person were judged to be a ‘common vagrant’, he or she could be pushed at once over the parish boundary to sink or swim somewhere else, sometimes being imprisoned and whipped first to impress upon them the need to stay away.

Only if the in-comer could show proof of belonging to the parish through birth or another accepted route, or produce the all-important certificate from another parish would he or she be allowed to stay – and potentially claim Parish Relief.

Establishing Settlement

Unless you could prove you had been born in the parish or moved there on legal marriage, settlement could only be achieved through one of the following means:

  1. By being bound apprentice in the parish by formal, written indenture and completing that apprenticeship.
  2. By being employed in service, if unmarried, and continuing in that employment for at least a year.
  3. By being hired as a labourer and working in that job for a year.
  4. By serving a reasonable period as a parish officer, usually for more than 40 days.
  5. By paying Poor Rates.
  6. By renting a tenement worth more than £10.00 a year.

The last two were not especially likely to be found amongst the long-term poor. For the rest, each person examined would try to show how he or she matched the criteria. Outcomes often depended on how long some occupation had been followed or whether an apprenticeship was genuine and legal – or completed fully.

Many apprenticeships at the time were neither drawn up legally nor for the specified period of 7 years, especially when family members were involved. Others increasingly involved ‘clubbing out’ – living at home or with relatives and working for the master during the day only. Properly speaking, none of these lesser apprenticeships conferred settlement. The Holt records also suggest many apprenticeships were terminated early, often by the apprentice running away. Even so, the men involved seem to have been able to find ‘journeyman’ (completed apprenticeship) employment, even if that too proved only temporary. The truth was that the old apprenticeship system was breaking down under the stresses of change and industrialisation.

What if you failed?

If you could not establish settlement in the parish, or your application was rejected, you would be removed to the last place where you did have settlement. If that were not practical, the alternative would be confinement in the House of Industry until other arrangements could be made – even if these were only to take you to the parish boundary and push you on your way somewhere else.

Pregnant women were especially at risk, since they represented two charges on the parish. If they could not be removed due to the nearness of their confinement, they might be allowed to give birth in the House of Industry. However, that would only be the start of their problems.

Fathers were expected to provide for their children, so any pregnant woman came under great pressure to name the father. He was then faced with a demand to marry the mother of his child, if necessary under duress[3], or pay up![4] If he could not be found or refused to pay – or if she refused or was unable to name him – the likelihood was that she would be sent on her way as quickly as possible after the birth, typically without the child, who would thereafter be treated as an orphan.

Some parishes went to quite extraordinary legal lengths to try to avoid taking responsibility for unexpected poor people, maybe even to incurring legal bills in excess of what it would have cost to accept the charge. The plain fact was that no one wanted the poor. They were deemed useless in economic terms, a drain on resources if they were incapacitated through age or sickness, or feckless, work-shy and probably criminal.

The Poor Law system was, at root, based firmly on the view that most poverty was voluntary, despite all the pressures of years of recession, war and escalating food prices. As the number of poor rose steadily throughout the century, the system became ever less effective at alleviating poverty and the ‘burden’ of the growing Poor Rate was bitterly resented by the better off.

As we will see in the next part, what the transcripts often show is people trying as best they could to cope with hopeless situations. Times in which there was little or no work to be found. Bad masters who maltreated or overworked their servants, underpaid or refused wages, and sacked them early to prevent them gaining settlement. Female servants turned out at once if they fell pregnant. Even when work was available, it was always insecure and often grimly uncongenial. People were set to work they had neither chosen nor liked and expected to stay with it. It was inevitable that some failed and had to turn to the parish for help.

  1. “‘On The Parish‘: Recorded lives of the poor of Holt and district, 1780–1835”, Jane Hales (ed. Susan Yaxley), Larks Press, Dereham, 1994.  ↩
  2. Here ‘parish’ means Civil Parish, the smallest unit of English local government. It did not necessarily coincide with any particular ecclesiastical parish.  ↩
  3. “Next at our altar stood a luckless pair,
    Brought by strong passions and a warrant there;
    By long rent cloak, hung loosely, strove the bride,
    From every eye, what all perceived, to hide.
    While the boy-bridegroom, shuffling in his pace,
    Now hid awhile and then exposed his face;
    As shame alternately with anger strove
    The brain, confused with muddy ale, to move;
    In haste and stammering he performed his part,
    And looked the rage that rankled in his heart …”

    George Crabbe,
    “The Village, The Parish Register, and Other Poems”  ↩

  4. Parson Woodforde conducted a number of these wretched ‘knobstick’ weddings and hated having to do it.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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4 Responses to The Complicated Lives of the Poor

  1. lizannelloyd says:

    Excellent research and a very clear explanation. I wonder how many unhappy marriages resulted.


    • Thank you, ma‘am. You are very kind. Like you, I suspect a good many of these ‘knobstick’ – we would say ‘shotgun’ – marriages produced little happiness, especially for the women involved. The trouble was the alternatives were usually the Workhouse or prostitution.


      • lizannelloyd says:

        I just found an Essex baptism from my family where the child was called illegitimate even though the parents married one month earlier but perhaps she was actually born before the wedding. They went on to have 9 more children so I think it worked out!


      • Nice to have found such a positive instance. I know both my maternal grandmother and her mother were 7 or 8 months pregnant when they reached the altar. Sadly, neither had especially happy marriages thereafter – in my grandmother’s case partly due to the after-effects of The Great War on her husband. I guess all successful marriages, then as now, were in part the luck of the draw.


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