Poor Law History


Introduction and History

The Celtic tradition was that each village chief was responsible for their own poor and indigent. The "tribe" took care of their own. They would find work for every able-bodied man and a handful of poor and disabled would be cared for by various means, sometimes given free shelter in an old hovel set aside for such purposes. There were no "poor" people, because the concept didn't exist. The system worked well-enough in times of plenty, but a poor harvest, war or other economic crisis sometimes meant that a parish had a burden of poor people far beyond its means to provide for them.

When Christianity came to England, the principle of giving to help the poor was introduced. Please review this site if you want to know more about English Christian History.

When the Normans conquered England, they brought with them similar concepts of the Lord of the Manor tending to his own poor. Much of this was codified into the Poor Law Act of 1597, which defined an ecclesiastical parish as the base unit for administration and care of the poor.

In the late 1700s, ideas of Liberty and Equality from the French Revolution invaded England and a number of other countries. The American Revolution was another "nudge" to the minds of many Englishmen. You will find that many parishes and towns set up either a "Friendly Society" or an organization like Oddfellows to provide assistance to working people when they were laid low by illness or injury. These organizations catered to the working middle class because they had entry fees and periodic dues that had to be paid. They were a forerunner of the Trade Unions, and the House of Lords tried to have them outlawed as they believed it would encourage workers to be absent from work when they were ill.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, you could not move from one parish to another without a guarantee of work. If you lost your job, you were still the responsibility of your "home" parish. To move, you were required to have a Settlement Certificate. This certificate stated that you were legally settled in the parish that issued the certificate.

In the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the previous system of parish poor relief was changed to one where several parishes were grouped together (for economy of scale) to form what was called a union. As a result, one had Union Workhouses to accommodate poor homeless people and Union Infirmaries to cater for sick people who could not afford to pay. The workhouses and infirmaries were generally in the same building or on the same site. The workhouses were run by locally elected Boards of Guardians, who raised money through a poor-rate tax.

The act created 600 unions of parishes, managed by boards of guardians elected by ratepayers. Outdoor relief ceased, all paupers being forced into the workhouse, but conditions in the workhouse, often with families separated by sex and age, were to be so severe as to discourage all but the most needy from its care. The system proved inadequate in the growing cities, where the Guardians sometimes resorted to relief without the guarantee of accommodation. The Poor Law was gradually dismantled by social legislation of the 20th century (see Time Line).

The Boards of Guardians were also in charge of immunisation and public health within their area. They often investigated the cause of epidemics or might inspect a water supply in a parish.

Some paupers were still supported by grants and bequests made by individuals in their wills, outside of the Poor Law system. Normally individual parishes administered these and you may find individuals on the census listed as "receiving parish relief", but not in the workhouse. Some Poor Law Unions also had paupers on "out relief".

The number of poor in a district varied with economic fluxuations. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there were hard times for many agricultural workers as blockades ended and goods began to flow into the kingdom which had been in short supply. Often times the new Workhouse overflowed and an older parish workhouse might be brought back into use, but the "Union" Workhouse kept the records for both.

Some Poor Law Unions saw fit to finance the transportation of some poor families overseas by providing what was called "assistance" money to help pay for the trip. There were other organizations and associations which did the same, including some churches.

The Lincolnshire Archives has a publication: "Poor Law Union Records", from which we quote:

"By the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration act of 1836 (6&7 Will 4 c86) the Guardians were directed to provide a register office and to appoint Registrars of Births and Deaths. The Clerk to the Guardians was given a right of appointment to the office of Superintendent Registrar, and the power of appointment of Registrars of Marriages. Arrangements for carrying out periodic censuses devolved upon the Superintendent Registrar and the Registrars.

The functions of Boards of Guardians under this Act were transferred to County and County Borough Councils under the Local Government Act of 1929 (19 & 20 Geo. 5, c. 17)".

Regarding marriages, we also quote:

"17 August 1836 (6 & 7 Wm IV). Civil Registration: the guardians are to create registrars' districts, appoint a Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths for each district, and provide a Register Office. The Clerk to the guardians, if qualified, may be appointed Superintendent Registrar for that Registration District. The Clerk to the guardians is to read notices of marriage that are not taking place by Licence, Special Licence or Banns, at three consecutive meetings of the Board of Guardians, and to keep Marriage Notice Books. If no objection is made to the marriage he may then issue a certificate so that the marriage can take place."


  • For a good text on the history of the times covered by the early poorlaw period, see "The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain," John MORRILL, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-289327-0.
  • The brief book, "The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832," by J. L. and Barbara HAMMOND, pub. 1911, deals with land enclosure and poorlaws. Copies of this can sometimes be found online via search engines (they are large files).

Time Line

Some important dates in Poor Law history:

  • An Act of 1536 provided relief for the 'impotent poor' but compelled "sturdy beggars" to work. Relief was funded by voluntary subscription and administered by the parish.
  • 1552 - Parish registers were introduced.
  • 1563 and 1597 - Justices of the Peace were given power to raise compulsory funds.
  • 1601 - Administration was regularised by the Poor Law Act which introduced a poor relief rate on property owners. It specified that each parish should take responsibility for the old and the sick, including idiots and lunatics, and provide work for the poor.
  • 1662 - The Act of Settlement permitted parish overseers to send vagrants back to their native parishes.
  • 1697 - Parish overseers could issue certificates to those leaving the parish, certifying they would be accepted back if in need of relief.
  • 1710 - A stamp duty is imposed on apprenticeships. Because of this, the Inland Revenue kept registers from 1710 to 1811 for the whole country. The originals are at the PRO office at Kew.
  • 1714 - An Act is passed that authorised two or more Justices of the Peace to secure the arrest of any person "furiously mad and dangerous", and "to be safely locked up in some secure place" i.e.. workhouse, lock-up, private madhouse, gaol, Bridewell (house of correction) for as long as the "lunacy or madness shall continue".
  • 1723 - the Workhouse Test Act obliged the poor to enter workhouses to obtain relief.
  • 1730 - Sometime prior to this year, Paupers are required to wear a "P" as a poor badge on their right shoulder. They are called "badgers" henceforth.
  • 1732/3 - An act prohibited removal from a parish of pregnant women and women within one month of giving birth.
  • 1743/4 - Instituted that an illegitimate child's parish was the mother's parish, not that of its birth.
  • 1782 - Gilbert's Act excluded the able-bodied from the workhouse and forced parishes to provide work or outdoor relief for them. By the late 18th century the Elizabethan Poor Law system, administered through parish overseers, was increasingly inadequate when people began travelling many miles in search of employment.
  • 1794/5 - Overseers were prohibited from removal unless relief was actually required.
  • 1795 - In some rural areas, in addition to direct relief to those without work, there developed the so-called Speenhamland system (named after the district in Berkshire where the system originated), where the wages of low-paid workers were supplemented by a parish allowance. Such a system was clearly unsatisfactory, since it tended both to depress wages and to subsidise landlords and employers.
  • 1803 - Napoleonic Wars begin. Blockades slow the flow of goods to and from England.
  • 1805 - Nelson is victorious at Trafalgar.
  • 1810 - Paupers no longer had to wear a letter "P" on the right shoulder.
  • 1815 - Napoleonic Wars end, blockades lifted.
  • 1834 - Poor Law Amendment Act which tried to end the giving of assistance outside the workhouse; it established the principle that all citizens should have the right to relief from destitution through accommodation.
  • 1834 - Poor Law Amendment Act also provided that a member of the Board of Guardians could initiate a bastardy hearing at Petty Session courts. These hearings were to determine the rightful father and to impose a weekly charge on him for the infant's support until the infant was employable.
  • 1840 - Irish Potato Famine, which affected parts of England and Scotland as well.
  • 1840 - Emigration surges over the next 60 years. Many emigrants receive "assisted passage".
  • 1844 - Bastardy provisions are altered so that the mother of a bastard child could initiate a bastardy hearing at Petty Session courts.
  • 1846 - Instead of the parish of settlement paying for "out relief", the length of residence in a particular parish was the new criteria. [Anne Cole - 26 Mar 2004]
  • 1866 - Anyone dying in the workhouse would be buried in the parish from which he was removed to the Union.
  • 1911 - National Insurance Act passed to provide limited assistance. See our text file National Insurance Act description.
  • 1913 - Poorhouses now called "Poor Law Institutions".
  • 1929 - Boards of Guardians were abolished.
  • 1934 - Unemployment Assistance Boards created.
  • 1942 - The Beveridge Report on social welfare published.
  • 1946 - National Insurance Acts introduced the benefit system.
  • 1947 - Board of Guardians and Workhouses ceased to operate. Many of the workhouses became hospitals or mental institutions.

To expand upon the 1844 changes (the "Other Bastardy Act"), here is an explanation from Anne Cole:

"9 August 1844 (7 & 8 Vic). Bastardy: the mother of a bastard child may make application to a Justice of the Peace at the Petty Sessions Court acting for the place where she resides for a summons to be served on the putative father. The evidence of the mother has to be corroborated. If an order is granted on the father he is to pay a sum not exceeding 2s 6d per week until the child is 13 years of age. An annual return of orders and summonses is to be sent to the Clerk of the Peace who should send copies to the Home Secretary.

"This last para regarding the lists to be sent to the Home Secretary do not appear to have survived (see My Ancestor was a Bastard by Ruth Paley, pub. by SOG). I have found one such list in the Quarter Sessions for Holland, and only found it because it had been filed in the wrong year (dated 1860s found in 1840s)."


Just as the "definition" or who was poor changed over time, so did some other terms. The Unions' Board of Guardians also managed and cared for anyone who was a:"

  • Lunatic - a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity.
  • Imbecile - person who had fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia.
  • Idiot - person who suffers from congenital mental deficiency.

Today we might be shocked by the use of those terms, but it was a way for the country to deal with certain individuals. If they could not be cared for in the Union Workhouse, their 'lodging" might be arranged at a nearby asylum.