You are in [Themes] [Caring for the Poor]
How were the poor cared for in Medieval times?
In Medieval times, caring for the poor was the moral duty of the Church (and Monasteries).
The Elizabethan Poor Law Act:
By 1601, during the reign of Elizabeth I, it was realised that the government could no longer rely solely on charitable provision for the poor, and a form of compulsory taxation was enacted in the Poor Law Act of 1601.
Under this "Old" Poor Law, each parish became responsible for the care of its poor (including the old, the sick, disabled or orphaned), and rates were levied on property to raise enough funds to cover these 'deserving' poor.
The burden of administration of this scheme fell on the churchwardens and the overseers of the poor.
The administration of the poor law forms a very significant part of parish records. The churchwardens and overseers were elected by the vestry each year. It was sometimes a thankless task, for which they were not paid. It was their responsibility to raise the money to pay the poor. To do this they set the rate for each year depending on the particular needs of that time, and they then had to collect the money. In keeping with the rest of the country, there would have been two churchwardens, and two overseers.
- The War Memorial in Bridge Street, 1921 showing the island on which the Priory of St John stood
Who were "The Poor"?
There was a large emotional element in the way that contemporaries viewed and categorised their poor.
First there were the impotent or God's poor who were unable to provide for themselves, such as the disabled, ill, elderly and widows. These people could not work and were therefore deserving of poor relief. The most common form was the cash "dole" which was paid to people in their homes at regular intervals. The amount paid was calculated on the perceived needs of the individual.
The second category were known as the able-bodied, idle or devil's poor. They included those with no means of employment who were to be set to work so that they did not become a charge on the parish.
The problem of vagrancy was another highly charged one for the governments of the Tudors and later monarchs. Those landless men and women who wandered from village to village in search of employment and who potentially might settle and become a financial burden on the parish. Attitudes towards these 'idle' or 'undeserving' poor were harsher.
As regards unmarried mothers, the authorities took a fairly practical attitude - they pursued the father for money towards the child's upkeep, while also trying to ensure that no unmarried mothers settled in Hungerford, who were not legally entitled to do so.
At the same time, the lack of local industry (being a rural farming community), the rise of population and at later times the growth of enclosure, created serious problems with regard to the local poor and unemployed. It was the worst of both worlds - a bureaucratic nightmare for the local parish, and an extremely heavy burden for property owners.
The Churchwardens' Accounts give an interesting insight into the care of the poor as well as the upkeep of the Church. For Hungerford they available (at the Berkshire Record Office) from 1659. The following transcriptions give a flavour of the information they contain:
There are also Overseers' Accounts and Apprenticeship Records, which provide insight into the local arrangements for the "deserving" and "settled" poor. The itinerant poor were an added burden for towns along the Bath Road.
The Settlement Acts:
In the 1660s-1690s a number of "Settlement Acts" were passed. The Settlement Acts of 1662 and 1697 stipulated that a stranger could be removed from the parish if he or she had not found work within forty days, and were to be returned to the parish where they had last resided.
Vagrants could move on to another parish to stay provided they brought a "certificate". Lists of those people having "settlement certificates " allowing them to reside in Kintbury exist for 1699-1713. The settlement certificate from their home parish guaranteed to take them back if they became in need of poor relief.
A Settlement Certificate from Kintbury, 1699:
"We the Churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish of Kintbury in the County of Berks whose hands and seals are thereto sett do hereby owne and acknowledge that the bearer hereof John Bennett labourer (with Sarah his now wife) is an inhabitant and parishioner legally settled in our said parish Kintbury. As he was a servant hired to and did continue and abode in the same parish of Kintbury with John Hobbs of Denford within our said parish of Kintbury for one whole year's space ending at Michaelmas now last past. And that the said John Bennet shall at any time hereafter be owned and received as such legall inhabitant and parishioner of our said parish of Kintbury according to ye lawes and statutes in such case made (if not otherwayes hereafter legally settled). Witness our hands and scales, dated the fifteenth day of March 1699/1700. (signed John Henry, Churchwarden)
Signed and sealed by the said churchwardens and oveseers in the presence of us Geo Colly, John Belcher
Allowed by us J Hippisley, Tho Garrard (these are the JPs).
If there was any doubt about legal settlement, the person had to be 'examined' in the presence of J.Ps:
The Examination of Robert Lye Taylor taken October 30th 1765 touching his last legal settlement before us two of his Majesties Justices of the Peace for the said county of Berks.
On his oath saith that he was borne at Manningford Bruce in Wiltshire where he was bred up by his parents who were parishioners there till he was about eleven years of age - and then he was put out as an apprentice to one Benjamin Hill of Charleton, taylor, he believes the agreement was for nine years (saith he doth remember an agreement being signed but what became of them afterwards he doth not know for he never saw them) and that he served there about three years and then his master run away - and then he came to Hungerford in Berks and put himself as an apprentice to one John Phillipson a taylor there for six years and was bound by Indentures accordingly and served the full time of six years there - and further saith that he hath heard his Master Philipson was a Certificate Man at Hungerford - and that he also heard that his master Phillipson had rented ten pounds there, and that he had been assessed for poors Tax - and that he hath done nothing since to gain a settlement.
Sworne the day and year first above written before me
In the 1690s, the Constables accounts refer to vagrants being whipped, but there is no reference to this practice in the 1700-1736 series of accounts. By 1727 (?) there was a workhouse where the idle poor were set to work, but it would not have been a large institution.
In 1694 "Badging" was brought in, whereby a pauper could get weekly relief if he or she was wearing a cloth or brass "P" for "pauper". No begging was allowed. An order for "badging" the poor in Kintbury exists for 1694. No similar order is yet known for Hungerford.
Overseers of the poor were appointed at the annual Vestry Meeting (held after Easter, probably around Hocktide), at which the poor rate was also agreed. From this, sums were regularly paid out to the deserving poor and 'extraordinary' payments were also made.
Follow this link to see the transcription of the Hungerford Poor Rate 1704 (covering Hungerford and Sanden Fee). Hidden and Eddington had their own overseer of the poor and maintained separate accounts: Charnham Street may also have had separate records.
The additional problem of vagrants:
It is certainly possible that Hungerford had worse problems with vagrants than many other places, due to its location on the London to Bath and Bristol main route, as well as the north/south route from Oxford to Salisbury.
As this was essentially a problem of law and order, it was the Constable's job to get rid of vagrants: normally, they would have been given no money. However, the most destitute people, and those that had a 'pass' stating that they were legitimately travelling from A to B, were often given money. About 8s a year was spent in this way.
Some extracts from 1729 are as follows:
- gave 2 disbonded souldars and being sick with a pass of admettans - 8d
- gave a poor man in gratt want - 3d
- gave 4 disbonded soulder with 3 children with a pass of admettans - 1s 0d
- gave 4 disbonded soulrs with a pass - 6d
- gave 2 poor souoldars with 5 children - 3d
- geave a disbonded souldar with a wife and 2 children with a pass - 6d
- gave a poor woman with a setifiket & bige with Child like to become Charubl - 8d
- gave 4 poor samen with A sotifket - 6d
- gave a souldar with 2 wimmen with a pass of admettans - 6d
- gave a poor man by sotifiket - 3d
- gave 2 soulrs one woman & 2 Children with a pass of admittans - 3d
- gave 5 disbonded soulrs & one woman & 2 children & somme of them sick with a pass of
The Overseers of the Poor Accounts:
Follow this link to see a transcription of the 1725-26 Overseers of the Poor accounts.
Further sources available here on-line are the Overseers of the Poor Accounts 1725-26 - which show who received payments, how much, and often what for. These are available on-line as the copies of the original documents, and as a printed transcription.
The Constables' Accounts:
There are also references in the Constables accounts to payments made to poor widows, clothes for the poor, etc (eg gave the poor in lininn ckloth, £1 2s 9d, and gave the poor in monye £3 17s 3d).
The duties of the Churchwardens:
As a small aside it is worth noting that the statutory duties of the churchwardens also included looking after the moral welfare of the parish. They had to report to the Archdeacons and name "those guilty of schism, adultery, whoredom, incest, drunkenness, swearing, ribaldry, usury and other wickedness".
There are many other types of records which broadly relate to the care of the poor in Hungerford in the eighteenth century:
- Settlement certificates, acknowledging the 'home' parish which would be responsible for a person, or family, if they became a charge on the poor rates through unemployment or illness (eg John Painter of Letcomb Regis, Stephen Cannon of Great Bedwin),
- Removal orders: (eg the one requiring Elizabeth Bird to be removed from Hungerford to Thatcham, as this is her lawful parish of settlement),
- apprenticeship indentures: poor children were very often apprenticed, although they weren't necessarily poor (eg William Tuttle, who was apprenticed to William Cooper, a Taylor of Newbury).
- Bastardy documents: eg examinations to establish paternity, warrants for arrest of fathers, bonds to enforce maintenance payments, orders for maintenance of illegitimate children, (eg a document relating to Mary Williams is warrant for the arrest of the father of her child),
- records relating to the workhouse : these appear within the overseers accounts and refer to items bought for the maintenance of paupers, such as food and clothing.
The Speenhamland System, 1795:
As the Poor Rate ever rose higher and higher, at least in part because of Britain's involvement in the French Wars (1793-1815), farmers became less able to afford to hire workers. A number of local farmers and magistrates gathered together at The Pelican in Speenhamland, Newbury and developed what became known as the Speenhamland System of 1795, as a means to alleviate the distress caused to poor people by the high grain prices. The increase in the price of grain largely occurred as a result of a poor harvest in the years 1795–96, though at the time this was subject to great debate, many blaming middlemen and hoarders as the ultimate architects of the shortage.
In essence the authorities in Speenhamland approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. The poor rate became linked to the cost of bread - essentially, families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread. For example, if bread was 1s 2d a loaf the wages of a family with two children was topped up to 8s 6d. If bread rose to 1s 8d the wages were topped up to 11s 0d.
Unfortunately, it tended to aggravate the underlying causes of poverty in any particular parish. The immediate impact of paying this higher poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse funded through parish unions.
The Swing Riots, 1830:
The Speenhamland System appears to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars, and in most parishes it died out in the post-war period. The system was popular in the south of England, especially in the counties (such as Berkshire) which experienced the Swing Riots during the 1830s. William Pitt the Younger attempted to get the idea passed into legislation but failed.
The Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 called the Speenhamland System a "universal system of pauperism". It was accused of allowing employers (often farmers) to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers' low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidised the farmers. The Speenhamland System of poor relief, and others like it, lasted until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.
The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834:
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act swept away the "Old Poor Law" - and introduced a new system of poor relied just when poor relief was at its height. It brought together groups of parishes into "unions", and a more formal basis of support for the poor in large workhouses.
It minimised the provision of outdoor relief in people's homes and made confinement in a workhouse the central element of the new system. In essence life in the workhouse was to be made as unpleasant as possible in an effort to deter people from seeking relief. So successful was this policy that the dread of the workhouse continued well into the 20th century. The Hungerford and Ramsbury Union was formed on 1 May 1835.
The coming of the Workhouses:
The later period of "Caring for the Poor" is to be found under "Workhouses in Hungerford".
- "Something about Vagrants in Berkshire", Parish Magazine Nov 1879
- "A Gilbert Act Parish: the relief and treatment of the poor in the town and parish of Hungerford, 1783-1834" by D.S. Stafford, University of Reading 1983
In the HHA Archives:
Guide to the Records of the New Poor Law and its Successors in Berkshire.
1835-1948. - Berkshire Record Office. [S5]
New Poor Law and its Successors - Berkshire - B.R.O. [S7]
Poor Rate, Hungerford 1704 [B17]
Overseers of the Poor Accounts, 1725 [B17]