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Poor Law Records pre 1834

The records of the provision of poor relief in Bedfordshire pre 1834

The provision of poor relief in Bedfordshire is documented in various records and the majority of these are to be found in the parish catalogues (black binders on the searchroom shelves), with some others in the Quarter Sessions archives. I have selected examples from two or three well documented parishes to illustrate the diversity of information they contain, although survival rates of material for each parish vary. (Apart from the catalogues of parish archives we also have a conspectus indicating the survival rate and date of the various types of records).

Until the 15th century the poor were categorised as the old, sick, mentally infirm 'deserving' poor, or 'sturdy beggars', as the idle were known. However, a new group of people known as the 'labouring poor' who wanted to work, or were even in work, but could not afford the necessities of life due to inflation and low wages, began to emerge during the sixteenth century. The poor harvests at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I finally prompted the legislation which was to form the basis of poor relief in England for the next 200 years.

There was of course localised charitable provision for the poor long before 1600, much of which continued to be administered in parallel with the state legislation. For example, the poor were often bequeathed land by wealthy landowners, or provided for out of church funds. In 1557 John Maynard of Southill charged the churchwardens of the parish to maintain his land and tenements "...and the remainder of ye whole yearly rents of those houses, lands, meadows and pastures to be dealt and distributed to ye poor people of ye Parish of Southill..." (Ref: P69/25/1).

Until the Acts of 1598 and 1601 the poor rate was to be imposed at the discretion of local officers, but the economic downturn and fear of unrest in the face of widespread starvation prompted the act of 1601. Every parish had to appoint two local people as overseers and keep an account book. At county level the Justices of the Peace were to make sure the parishes complied. The Acts also noted that the deserving poor were to be helped, the 'labouring poor' apprenticed or provided with work, and 'sturdy beggars' were either to be 'whipped back to their parish of origin' or forced to work.

An early example of overseers' account book exists for Eaton Socon (Ref: P5/12/11), and records in detail the collection and distribution of the 'poor rate' (introduced by a Poor Law Act in 1572) from 1589. In April 1592 22 people, mostly widows, received money from the poor rate, and by 1598 the number had risen to 35. There is also a note about compulsory work for the poor: "...those that are ydell, and will not labour are to be punyshed...". These records reflect the attitudes of officials to the poor, clearly distinguishing between the deserving and idle, and they also reflect an increasing burden because of the sheer numbers of poor in the parish.

The churchwardens also often distributed money to the poor, as noted in the Northill accounts such as 'Item payd to William Bell...for the kepinge of a poor childe' and 'Item layd out to a poore man'. The account books record the ratepayers contributions calculated on acreage of preperty owned, and disbursements to the poor. For example in 1722 Mr Trott of Eaton Socon paid 4½ 'for his nursery & orchard' and Mr. Ashley 1½d for his little close' (Ref: P5/12/5).

The overseers disbursements to the poor offer a wealth of information, sometimes charting the fortunes of entire families. In April 1722 the outlay for Eaton Socon included several payments for families 'in sickness', 11 payments to 'widows' and a payment of 2s. 6d. to William Joyce for having Thomas Seabrook as an apprentice. There are also notes on bulk buying of food and clothes for distribution, with a note of 'Three score eight pound and a half of cheese' for 12s 1d and a whole list of clothing purchased three or four at a time (Ref: P5/12/5). With careful study it would be possible to see the effects of poor harvests or an epidemic in a parish by using these records.

Some correspondence to and from the overseers also survives. The attitudes of the ratepayers, often reluctant to pay a compulsory rate are apparent. Some saw it as their duty to help the poor, others resented it. In 1722 the principal inhabitants (ratepayers) of Southill wrote to the overseer "...finding the poor rate rises to an Extraordinary some of Monie, and through the idleness of Manie of our Parish....have thought it proper to provide for our poor in a just and legall way. In order to it do agree to set up a work house in our towne" (Ref: P69/18/1).

Providing work for the poor was one of the least successful aspects of the Poor Law because it was not possible to artificially generate work, especially during depressions when it was most needed. In 1723 a Workhouse Act was passed with the aim that those unwilling to work could be refused help unless they went into the workhouse but very few parishes implemented this. The Eaton Socon overseers' accounts include 'Proposals for the management of a workhouse' and a few inventories for the years 1733 - 1736 (Ref: P5/12/6) but few other details, and there are no surviving records of inmates.

The 1662 Law of Settlement and Removal meant that overseers were able to remove anyone from the parish if they had resided there less than 40 days. Getting married conferred settlement (although a widow could be sent back to her original parish). Completion of one year's indenture or service also conferred settlement, so it was common for a servant to be dismissed after 51 weeks. In 1697 the law was liberalised. People were only removed if they actually became a burden on the parish. In 1736 Francis Carter, innkeeper of the Royal Oak at Southill signed an indemnity bond, taking responsibility for any of his 'alehouse inmates' should they become chargeable to the parish (P69/13/1).

Settlement examinations were held in order to ascertain to which parish a person belonged, and the records which survive often give a detailed description of family circumstances. When settlement was established, a certificate was issued. Some settlement certificates stated that the originating parish would pay the new parish for any disbursement needed. This meant the labour market was more flexible - people could move to where the work was. A certificate had to be produced when a new parish was entered. If a person could not prove settlement and needed assistance, then they were removed.

Thirty removal orders from the parish of Southill survive, dated from 1723 to 1833. Unmarried pregnant women were particularly unwelcome, as it was likely that the parish would have to pay for the upkeep of both the mother and child. In 1723 a removal order was issued regarding Mary Page who became pregnant whilst in service in Northill and returned to Southill to be with her mother. It was addressed to the constable of Southill, charging him to deliver her back to the churchwardens and overseers of the parish of Northill (Ref:P 69/13/2). During the same period 38 people were sent back to Southill from other parishes, and other counties.

The men responsible for 'bastard' children were also pursued and ordered to pay the parish for their upkeep, even to the extent of their parents being included; 'Hannah Holding...delivered of a female bastard...which is likely to become chargeable to the parish of Eaton Socon....and of which John Chaplin, son of the above bound John said to be the father' (1755) (Ref: P5/15/8). The Quarter Sessions Registers [QSR catalogues] also record many such instances, with a note of sums due to the parish for the upkeep of the child. These are listed by surname in the Settlement card index.

Records of the parish constables note their expenses in conducting poor people out of the parish. The Southill parish constable's bill for removing Anne Wells (Ref: P69/12/13) included money for a horse and cart and a gift of 1s 6d to Ann herself. The constables were also involved in summoning non-ratepayers to appear before magistrates. James Harridine of Southill was called to appear at the White Swan in Biggleswade in 1828 to answer for not paying rates to the Churchwardens and Overseers (Ref: P69/10/1).

One way of ensuring that people did not become a burden on the parish but an asset to the economy was to make them an apprentice. The aims were to pass on the knowledge of a trade, and, because the apprenticeships lasted between 7-14 years, they prevented untimely marriages. The Eaton Socon parish records include an indenture of agreement with the Manesty Green, who in 1710 agreed to take on Ann Cotton, an orphan child, in return for exemption from paying the poor rate (Ref: P5/14/9). Apprenticeship indentures and agreements give a useful idea of the trades and professions of the area, as well as details of families. As both Southill and Eaton Socon are rural areas it is unsurprising that most are apprenticed in 'husbandry' or 'housewifery', although there are also references to trades such as brickmaking and tailoring. If a poor child could be apprenticed to an employer in a neighbouring parish this was particularly welcomed because they would would eventually become the responsibility of the new parish. In such an instance on 29 September 1707 Elizabeth Crawley, a poor orphan from Eaton Socon, was apprenticed to Thomas Joyce of Chawston, Roxton, a yeoman, for seven years (Ref: P5/14/14).

By the end of the 18th century the system was becoming increasingly expensive, especially following the Napoleonic Wards and harvest failures of the 1790s. With low wages and inflation of prices, parishes began supplementing the wages of the poorly paid labourer with an allowance related to the prevailing price of bread. This system, named 'Speenhamland' after a Berkshire village, in turn encouraged employers to continue paying low wages, thus making the depression worse. In the Southill Overseers account book (Ref: P69/12/1) there are disbursements marked 'pay made up' alongside those to the old and sick. The cost of poor relief continued to increase. In June 1808 in Southill the Account Book notes £31. 16s. 11d spent maintaining the workhouse and £15. 5s.8d distributed to the poor. By the same month in 1814 the workhouse cost £52. 5s. 4d and other relief, including funeral expenses, clothing, upkeep of families of men in the militia, the old and sick, as well as administrative costs £37.8s. 7d. Various reforms and experiments in new forms of relief and provision eventually culminated the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and the introduction of Poor Law Unions where parishes were required to work together rather than against each other.