Welcome, fellow genealogists! My blog will teach you about U.S. land records and United Kingdom research. My family has roots in Niagara County, New York; Norfolk, England; and northeast Germany.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wisdom Wednesday: Poor Relief in England

Like people around the world, genealogists have learned about the poor in England by reading Charles Dickens or seeing the movies and musicals featuring his great characters.  The orphans, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, and the Cratchit family from A Christmas Carol introduced us to the lives of England’s poor in the 19th century.

Much earlier, in the time of Henry VIII, the parish was made the center of poor relief. This system with variations continued until 1834.  Records of the parish were kept in a chest for safekeeping. (See one of my October posts for details about the parish chests’ designs and history.) A group of documents kept there recorded the handling of poor relief in a parish – rate/account books, bastardy bonds and apprenticeships. Poor relief was a complicated affair as philosophies, attitudes, and laws changed over time. Dickens’ era was not a good time to be poor in England, if there ever was one.

Before 1834, each English parish was responsible for the welfare of its citizens. People were poor for much the same reasons that they are now – old age; sickness; widowhood, desertion and orphaned children; and unemployment. Some people became destitute wanderers or temporary residents.  The last group ‘temporary residents’ suggests that each person had a ‘parish of legal settlement’, where they were entitled to benefits. This is true, but it is a hard concept for a modern day North American to grasp because we can move wherever we want.
A parish usually selected two churchwardens each year. They were in charge of the religious and moral welfare of the parish, the upkeep of the church itself, the church yard, cottages and charities. Two overseers looked out for the secular aspects of the parish including poor people, but also the roads, bridges and waterways. These officials worked together with the Parish Council or Vestry to assist the poor.

Before 1834, the English called their system ‘out-relief,’ meaning outside of an institution. The poor were given help, while staying in their own houses. Their rent or medical care might be paid for them. They might have been given food or clothing. Young men might be given apprenticeships so they would not be dependent on relief in the future. Men who fathered children out of wedlock were strongly encouraged to marry the mother, if they were single, or provide money for the child’s upbringing, if they were already married. (More on apprenticeships and bastardy bonds in later posts.)
After 1834, the Poor Laws changed radically. Parishes were joined together in poor law unions, and a workhouse was built. In order to receive any kind of assistance, poor people had to live in the workhouse. This system, referred to as ‘in-relief’, was administered by a Board of Guardians with members from the various parishes. In a workhouse, men and women were separated and given jobs to do. Details about the 'new poor laws' can be found at workhouses.org.uk, a very informative web site by author, Peter Higginbotham.

If an ancestor emigrated in the twenty-five years following 1834, you would be well advised to look into the records of the poor.

©2012 Susan Lewis Well

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