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  Care of the Poor from 1550s


This is a transcript of a talk given by Mrs Norma Neill to Tickhill & District Local History Society in May 2007.

Before the reformation the care of the poor had been the responsibility of the monasteries and the parish clergy. The monasteries gave out ‘doled’ bread every day at a fixed time. This was a common practice as ‘broken meats’ would be distributed by the rich after banquets & feasting to the poor at their gates. The word ‘dole’ actually means a charitable gift. After the Dissolution, the care of the poor devolved onto the clergy alone, who resented it very much, particularly as one third of the tithes they received had to support the poor, and they had to collect alms for them.

Alms from the populous were encouraged and people gave as it was thought such gifts added to your credit in the afterlife. The clergy protested that their function was to teach the word of God and not act as Poor Law officers. The situation became acute. England at this time was still experiencing times of famine. You must understand that the idea of the parish originated in Anglo-Saxon times and with the addition of the Norman feudal system the parish itself was the administration centre. As far as Scunthorpe was concerned, together with Crosby and Brumby it was a township of the Parish of Frodingham. Large parishes were often split into townships for easier administration. At this time of crisis as far as the Poor were concerned, two posts per parish were formed to try and bring some order and relief. There was an Alms Collector, and a Supervisor of the Labour of Rogues and Vagabonds. This was because the care of the poor also included the halt, the sick, the lame, and the unemployed.

These two posts were combined in 1597 into one. The Overseer to the Poor, and by the Act of 1601, The Great Poor Law, the whole care of the poor was passed into the hands of the parish. They now had to look after their own. The Overseer was himself supervised by a Churchwarden. Each parish had at least two Churchwardens, some had four. The Churchwardens were subordinate to the Vicar, and ran the parish under his supervision with the help of the Vestry. The Vestry was a collection of parishioners made up of solid citizens, well-regarded and often large landowners. They were really the governing body of the parish appointing the Parish Constable, the Overseer to the Poor and the Surveyor of the Highways subject to the approval of the Justices of the Peace.

To care for the poor the parish had to raise money and this it did by the Vicar, Churchwardens and the Vestry fixing a rate to be paid. This is the origin of the word ‘rates’. The rate would vary from year to year and the people who had to contribute to the Poor Rate would vary as well. As the main landowners, who would probably pay the most and who often were members of the Vestry, their aim was to keep the Poor Rate as low as possible and care only for their own people. This led to much hardship and misery when times were hard and the poor multiplied. Also as people fell into the trap of poverty there were less people to contribute to the Poor Rate. So what was the old system and how did it work, and how did it effect the poor.

Firstly as time went on, the Great Poor Law was altered and added to until the reform of 1834 when the New Poor Law came into power. In 1697 for example, the Badge-Man Act obliged the poor on parish relief, the paupers) to wear on their clothing a badge with a P, and they were forbidden to beg. They were allowed to beg at certain hours from their neighbours who could only give to badge holders. In 1698 in Huddersfield, one John Elam, tailor, is paid 5 shilling for making the red P’s. A House of Correction, a kind of County Jail was set up under the Act for Rogues, Vagabonds, unmarried mothers & those who had left there children to be brought up on the Parish. Also those paupers who refused to be badged could be sent there for a whipping and 3 weeks hard labour.

There were two forms of relief of the poor. ‘Out relief and ‘in relief, and after 1772 parishes were given permission to buy or rent premises for a workhouse and to employ a workhouse keeper. ‘Out’ relief supported people in their own homes and consisted of payments for rent, repairs, food, clothes, shoes, medicines etc. The Overseer of the Poor was obliged to keep a strict accounting to be checked by the Churchwarden. This is called the Overseer’s to the Poor Account Book, or the Poor Book, or as in Huddersfield, the Town Book. The account book for Haxey Parish 1718-1736 still exists and is in Lincoln Archives. Rents are paid, small sums distributed. Elizabeth Wyat is ‘infirm and almost blind’, Widow Smith has her cottage re-roofed at the Parish expense. Isaac Newton’s child ‘left by his parents’ has to be maintained. In Haxey 5 cottages had been built with money from a Charitable donation and the parish itself built a 6 These were used to house the poor and infirm at parish expense. Many other places had similar schemes.

‘In relief really meant admission to the parish workhouse, and we know that Haxey had its own workhouse. Inmates were not allowed to sit on their hands but would be put to work as much as they were able. Able bodied men had to work as if they were employed.

So if you fell on hard times how did you get help? Firstly, aid was not given just because you happened to be living in the parish at that particular time. You had to have a right of settlement in that parish. It was your insurance or social security of  the time. To gain a right of settlement you had to be born in that parish, live in the parish for over 40 days, be apprenticed for seven years then you would take your master’s place of settlement as your own, or to serve a master for one year. A woman on marriage took her husband’s settlement. Those paying parish rates or being an officer of the parish also granted you the right of settlement. In Haxey in 1727 William Thompson gains a settlement because he has purchased a house and land to the value of £30 and upwards. George Derwin in the same year rents a farm for upwards of £10 which also gains him a settlement.

After 1697 people moving to another parish to work would ask their Churchwardens for a Settlement Certificate to take with them in case they ran into trouble. This would be signed by their Churchwardens and directed to the Churchwardens of the parish they were moving into stating that is they ran into trouble their own parish would accept them back and support them. Thomas Thomas Richeson takes a settlement certificate with him from Frodingham in 1710. It says he & his family intend to live in Scuntrope but are settled in the Parish of Gunhouse. A more revealing Certificate is one for John Wells, Catrin his wife, John their son, Mary their daughter, & Sarah their daughter who are legally settled in the Parish of East Butterwick and their Settlement Certificate is addressed to the Churchwardens of Frodingham. All this was because no parish wished to pay money to anyone who they thought was not entitled to it and to keep their Poor Rate as low as possible. People sought ways to obtain certificates through various means. It took an Act of 1697 to stop paupers (the official name for the poor) from hiring themselves out for a year but leaving after a few weeks. After this date the Overseers to the Poor could grant a certificate to them so that they could move to another parish for temporary work such as helping with the harvest but they could then come back to their parish and be granted aid.

Illegitimate children originally had a settlement in the parish of their birth. Bastardy means being born out of wedlock. It originally referred to the baseborn child of a gentleman or noble but gradually became a term covering any illegitimate child. Common Law said the descent of land could only be passed to a legitimate child but an illegitimate child could inherit providing it was so stated in a last will and passed through Trustees. I have a will where one of my ancestors leaves property to his ‘natural’ son amongst bequests to legitimate sons. Many of the aristocracy raised such children in their homes. William the Conqueror was one such.

The Parish Registers usually state where bastardy has occurred under such headings as spurious child, child of God, Child of no certain man, and the very descriptive hedge begot! Mothers often gave clues to the man who had got them into trouble by giving their child one of his names. When registration came in 1837 in such cases the father’s name was omitted. Great pressure was put on unmarried pregnant women to name the father so maintenance and lying in costs could be recovered from him, by means of a Bastardy Bond, otherwise the child would have to be brought up ‘on the parish’. The mother would be sternly questioned by the Churchwardens, and in some cases at the time of birth, medical help was denied her until the father was named. If the father refused to pay or denied responsibility the Churchwardens could apply to the Justices of the Peace at the local Quarter Sessions for a Maintenance or Filiation Order against him, and if he did not appear at court he would be summoned and the case examined. This threat was often enough to make the reluctant father pay up, and often records of these cases can be found in Vestry or Overseer’s to the Poor accounts. In 1734 Bastardy Bond is granted to Crosby, in the case of Ann Westoby who had a child by James Snell of Roxby, labourer. Another Bond, 1787, is ordered at the Quarter Sessions to Winteringham for Eleanor Tomlinson who had a male child by Thomas Richmond of West Halton.

After 1575-6 The Justices could charge the mother or father with the upkeep of the child and this remained the basis of the Law until 1834. By 1609 the mother could be sent to the House of Correction if she defaulted on payments. ‘Hannah Pearey of Haxey now in The House of Correction at Gainsborough, was summoned for ‘not performing an Order of Filiation made on her towards the maintenance of a bastard child of her body, be discharged as she promised to contribute to the best of her ability towards maintenance’.

By 1662 if the parents absconded leaving the parish to keep their child any goods they owned could be seized. In Frodingham Parish Register, dated 1687 there is an entry concerning Jane Heslgrave. It says she is ‘left destitute of friends or any means to support life within the parish of Flixborough. She was made to appear before two Justices, (it means at the Quarter Sessions). The Justices made their order that the Parish of Flixborough ought to maintain the child as a member of the Parish’. 1723 brought legislation ordering the woman to declare herself if she was pregnant and to name the father, who 10 years later under the law, could be sent to jail if he defaulted on payment. After 1743 the child took the Settlement of his mother and not the place where he was born and the mother was ordered to be whipped. After 1750 illegitimacy increased not helped by the poverty caused by the enclosures which were taking place. Punishment of a mother is often found in the records of an Ecclesiastical court, which sentenced such mothers to a penance such as appearing in the church in her shift and publicly acknowledging her ‘sin’.

Strangely enough the men were not so punished. I wonder why?

If you needed aid and did not have a settlement in a parish the Churchwarden would order the Parish Constable to escort you to the parish in which you did have a settlement. In Doncaster within living memory removals were made in ‘the cripple cart’. People were moved over long distances in order to get them back to their settlement parish because otherwise they would become a charge on the rates. So it was important for the Churchwardens to know who had a settlement in a different parish and they kept lists of those bringing settlement certificates to the parish and those leaving and taking certificates with them.

Lincolnshire Family History Society has published books indexing settlement certificates from all over the county. Haxey has a long list of people bringing settlement certificates with them from 1699 to 1762. Mainly they are from neighbouring villages but some are further afield. Jonathan Frogget comes from Wosper in Yorkshire in 1709, Nearer here, in as late as 1823, Robert Thurrill , his wife Elizabeth, and daughter Eliza, aged 9, are removed from Keadby to Flixborough. People would be sent back to their place of settlement by means of a removal order, which the Churchwardens of the parish would have to accept. One such order reads, ‘Alice alias Rachel, the wife of Thomas Jaques, and Elizabeth her daughter aged thirteen years and 2 months, Harriot her daughter, aged ten years, William her son, aged eight years, Benjamin her son, aged five years, and Hannah her daughter aged five weeks, have come to inhabit the said parish of Aithorpe not having gained a legal settlement there or produced any certificate owning them to be settled elsewhere We the said Justices upon due proof made thereof well upon Examination... do adjudge the same to be true and do likewise adjudge that the lawful settlement of them is the said Parish of Haxey. We do therefore require you, the said Churchwardens of Althorpe and the Overseer of the Poor, to convey the said Alice alias Rachel etc. from and out of the said parish of Althorpe to the said parish of Haxey and deliver them to the Churchwardens and the Overseer of the Poor there.

If there were a dispute over a settlement the Churchwardens of both parishes would attempt to sort it out. If they could not agree the matter would be referred to the Justices at the Quarter Sessions. An Examination would take place, witnesses would be called and a decision made binding on all parties, though an appeal could be made. One such case is

A settlement examination of Maria Jackson of Haxey in 1816.

The EXAIVIINATION of Sarah Wells before Gervais Tottenham Wolde Sibsthorpe Esq. & Charles McQuarie, George Jervis, Clark.

I am 74 years of age. About 17 years ago I entered into an agreement with the Overseer of the Poor of the Parish of Haxey aforesaid to keep the Workhouse of the said Haxey and to maintain the paupers there at a certain price per head. The pauper Maria Jackson now present and her twin brother Robert Jackson were inmates of the Workhouse at the time I made the agreement. I always understood and believed they were born there and were the illegitimate children of Maria Jackson. I have been told this by paupers now dead who resided in the Workhouse at the time the pauper Maria Jackson, now present, and her brother Robert Jackson were born there. The overseers of the Poor of the said Parish of Haxey paid me for the maintenance of Maria Jackson and her brother for several years while they were resident in the said Workhouse.

The EXAMINATION of Maria Jackson.

I am 25 years of age. My first place of residence that I have any recollection of was the Workhouse at Haxey. I have always understood that I was a bastard and my mother whose name was Maria Jackson never married. My mother is now dead. I have never been able to gain a settlement in my own right. I am now residing in the Union Workhouse chargeable to the Parish of Saxilby, residing there since the beginning of January last. At the time I went to the Workhouse I was an inhabitant of the Parish of Saxilby.

The EXAMINATION of Richard Haywood.

I was Uncle to Maria Jackson who was the mother of Maria Jackson. I remember Maria Jackson the mother, being a pauper in the Workhouse at Haxey. I know Maria Jackson and Robert Jackson were born in Haxey but whether at the Workhouse or not I cannot say. Maria Jackson and Robert Jackson were brought up in the Parish of Haxey. Maria Jackson the mother of Maria Jackson never married and has been dead some years.

The EXAMINATION of Hannah wife of Robert Jackson of Westwoodside.

I am 25 years of age, the wife of Robert Jackson of Westwoodside who was the brother of the pauper Maria Jackson. I remember Maria Jackson and the mother being paupers in the Workhouse in the Parish of Haxey. Their mother who never married has been dead for some years.

While at Lincoln Archives on Friday looking for examples of Poor Law legislation for you I came by chance on a removal order that interested me personally. I belong to a Society where the members specialise in a particular surname and I specialise in my maiden name Elam. I found a removal order for Ruth Elam from Hornchurch to Crowland. I know of her as Ruth Cave who had married a Peter Elam in Crowland. Here she was being removed as a Rogue and Vagabond from Hornchurch in the Parish of Havering, Essex to Crowland in Lincolnshire. The original Settlement Examination and Removal Order showed which way she had travelled and I would like to read it to you. The strange thing is that my younger daughter Judith married a man from the Parish of Havering and they live with their children in Hornchurch, Essex. She moved from Lincolnshire to Hornchurch and poor Ruth moved from Homchurch to Lincolnshire.

Orphaned or abandoned children left in the care of the parish had to be supported by it. An entry in the Quarter Sessions in 1742 is about Richard Pashley of East Lound, who refused to maintain and provide for his son Moses Pashley, aged 6 years. He was ordered to pay 2 shillings to the Overseer of the Poor at Haxey for his maintenance. The law allowed the Churchwardens and the Overseer to the Poor with the consent of two J.P’s. to apprentice any child under 16 and maintain them, the boys until the age of 21 and the girls until the age of 21 or their marriage. Because of early abuses of the system indentures were introduced and remained until 1757. After that stamped papers became standard. Many apprenticeships were merely written in a parish document. In 1824 in Frodingham, William Jarman aged 14 of Crosby is apprenticed to Thomas Bainton of Luddington, brick maker. A Haxey entry says that in August 1729, John Raymond of Newbigg entered into an agreement with the Churchwardens and the Overseer to the Poor to maintain John Curtis an orphan. John had been left ‘a small estate by his father, and the parishioners not wanting him to be bound a Poor Apprentice’, it appears that John was taken on by John Raymond in exchange for ‘the estate.’ Haxey Charity distribution also provided him with ‘linnens ,(sic) and woollens’ and the Overseer to the Poor was to give him ‘what he is in need of with a tree place at the school ‘til (sic) he can read and write to the approbation of the Minister, and cared for till he is 14 years of age’.

This system of social relief with adjustments bumbled on until the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, but great changes were upon the land. Enclosures and industrialisation had changed the face of England forever. Labourers who had been just above the poverty line as long as they could graze animals on the village commons fell below it when the commons disappeared through enclosures. Some rich farmers and landowners grew richer by buying up allotments. There was a great influx of those who had lost or sold their lands into the towns where worse conditions often awaited them. An opponent of Enclosure wrote. ‘The law is harsh on those poor villeins, who steal the goose from off the Commons, but turns the

greater villain loose, who steals the Commons off the goose’. The war with America had had an effect with returning unemployed soldiers, many who roamed the country in search of work, and there was always the threat to those in authority that a similar revolution to the French Revolution might take place here. This frightened those in power and they attempted several remedies,

In an effort to control prices the Speenhamland system was introduced called after the parish of Speenhamland where it had been tried successfully. In Parliament a bill to set a minimum wage for labourers had been defeated. Instead the farmers had to increase pay in proportion to the price of provisions. Under Speenhamland it was estimated that a labourer could exist on three gallon loaves a week and his wife and children one and a half-gallon loaves a week. The amount set was that when a gallon loaf, which weighed 8 lbs., cost 1 shilling, the labourer would receive 3 shillings weekly for his labour, or from the Poor Rate, with one shilling and six pence for his wife and family. Fit, out of work men had always been sent out to work by the Overseer to the Poor. Initially the number of poor rose as many suddenly became ‘unable to work’ relying on the Parish to support them. ‘Nothing changes! There are always some who will try to beat the system. As the high prices which had been occasioned by the war disappeared, the economic state of the country worsened. In 1816 there was a cold summer and a meagre harvest, and the price of corn rose above the price of meat. In 1817 the set wage for a labourer could only buy a one and three-eighth loaf and a woman a one and a tenth loaf per week. The Speenhamland sytem which had been set up with the laudable intent to help the poor had become its enemy. From every side appeals went out to ‘repeal the Corn Law’.

Riots broke out throughout the country, rioters demanding reductions on the price of bread. More and more people became paupers, leaving less and less people to pay the Poor Rate, and those that were paying it complained about the steep rise they had to pay. The new paid Overseers judged the Poor very harshly in an attempted to keep the Poor Rate down. There was a great increase in crime and draconian punishments were introduced, for stealing, ‘may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’ smuggling, poaching, and other crimes caused by poverty.

It was obvious that reform was needed. The whole edifice of the poor law care which had grownup in the proceeding centuries was in a state of collapse. The Reform Act: of 1834 removed the care of the poor from the parish and other measures such as the Union Workhouses were brought in on a national scale. Gradually the Parish, the Vestry, The Churchwardens and the Vicar lost all their administrative powers and local government replaced them. Things did not improve in England until the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had kept the price of wheat artificially high. Until the 1840’s the times were still grim for the poor people of Haxey, Frodingham and everywhere.



















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