What can be found in the English Poor Law records? English poor laws go back to 1348, but in the medieval times these were introduced to control the serfs after the Black Death. Here is a typical Law of that period.
The great change came about after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541). Generally speaking, before then, many of the sick and poor were looked after by the Monasteries. The fate of the Poor was unaddressed whilst the country was sorting out the political / religious problems. It was not until Elizabeth I that the Old Poor laws came about and these remained in force until the New Poor law in 1834. The major change the Old Poor law brought about was from a largely voluntary payment to charitable causes to a compulsory tax on the wealthier residents of a Parish. The Old Poor Laws These laws were administered locally at parish level and the records kept in the Parish Chest. The records were made by the Vergers, the two Overseers of the Poor, the Constables etc. Their work was overseen by the courts of the Quarter sessions. Most of these records will now be lodged in the County Archives. Here is a brief look at the kinds of documents that were created. We talk about them in much greater detail on our Family History courses. So what kinds of records did they keep?
Settlement Certificates or Pauper’s Passport The key to many of these records is the concept of Settlement. Everyone was deemed to have a home Parish and it was that Parish that was responsible for their people. If people encountered problems it was to their settled Parish that they should seek help. The Certificate proved in which Parish you were settled. Without proof of settlement you could have serious problems.
These were issued when a person or a family become a burden on the Parish and were not in their legal place of settlement. They might have lived there for years but had become old and frail. None the less they had to go.
Indemnity Bonds Financial sureties were given to the Parish, often by an employer or friend, to allow a non-settled person to stay.
Poor Relief A record of monies paid or goods provided by the parish to the settled poor of the Parish. The poor could be helped in their own homes (Outdoor relief) or in Poor Houses (Indoor relief).
Apprenticeships To keep the cost to the rate payers down the Parish would arrange for the children of the poor to undertake an apprenticeship. The records name the child, their parent and the employer.
Bastardy Bonds, Bastardy Examinations
All these kinds of records and some more surrounded illegitimacy. They can form a rich source of information.
New Poor Law The New Poor Law of 1834 took the responsibility of administering the poor law away from the Parishes and onto the Poor Law Unions. The Unions had to construct large Workhouses. The new workhouses were made deliberately unpleasant to discourage too many people using them and to make it preferable for the poorest people to work. Husbands were separated from wives, older children from parents. However, the residents were often better housed than before and quite well fed, so it seemed an improvement to many. Those workhouses made extensive records, some of which are now appearing online. Typical records kept were Guardianship Creed Registers Rate books Workhouse Lists of Inmates Register of Apprentices Register of Births Register of Deaths Vestry Rate Books It is well worth looking at Peter Higginbotham’s website. The history of the workhouse by Peter Higginbotham (workhouses.org.uk) Next time we will look Manorial Court Essoins