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Those who had the misfortune, and there were all too many, of falling into the grip of poverty, homelessness or unemployment during the middle ages faced a bleak future. The 1388 Statute of Cambridge:

  • restricted the movements of all labourers and beggars
  • and furthermore each county "Hundred" became responsible for the "impotent poor" and those who, "because of age or infirmity," were incapable of work.

Those vagrants whom the parish was unable to maintain would be sent back to the parish of their birth, whilst vagrants found to be capable of working could expect severe punishment. This was followed in 1391 by The Statute of Mortmain which decreed that in parishes where an ecclesiastical institution such as a monastery held the tithes, a proportion of that parish's tithe income had to be used for the relief of the poor in times of poverty and hardship. The Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494, determined that:

"Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid."

In every parish, the overseer of the poor had a duty to care for the poor. There was no help from outside, and Parishes had to raise their own rate and look after their own. Private Alms giving became an offence, although each church could appeal for charitable donations during Sunday services. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536 and 1540, was the formal process by which King Henry VIII confiscated the property of the Roman Catholic institutions in England for himself as the new head of the Church of England. One result of this was that parishes became solely responsible for providing care of those unable to work. In 1547, The Statute of Legal Settlement Act provided for:

  • the 'branding' or 'enslavement' of sturdy beggars.
  • The impotent poor were to receive relief and have cottages erected for their use:

This was further improved in 1576 by "An Act for Setting of the Poor on Work, and for the Avoiding of Idleness," which stipulated that:

  • Every town to set up stocks of materials for the poor to work on
  • Every county to set up a House of Correction for anyone refusing to work

In 1597-8, An "Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore" required Churchwardens and four overseers in each parish to:

  • Set children and poor to work
  • Relieve the impotent (elderly and infirm)
  • Bind out pauper children as apprentices from the age of seven
  • Tax 'every inhabitant and occupier of lands' in the parish for above purposes

From this, some poorhouses were built where paupers could be set to work with materials purchased for this purpose, whilst poor children were to be apprenticed from the age of seven. In 1601:-An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore consolidated and replaced a variety of previous legislation and aimed at the:

  • Establishment of parochial responsibility, with churchwardens or overseers (from two to four in number, depending on the size of the parish) allocating relief.
  • Suppression of begging
  • Provision of work for the able bodied
  • Use of County Houses of Correction for vagrants

The Poor Law Act of 1601, which was to be the basis of Poor Law administration for the next two centuries, divided the poor receiving relief into three categories: The able bodied who were to have work provided for them, The rogues, vagabonds, and beggars, who were to be whipped or otherwise punished for their unwillingness to work, The 'impotent' poor (the old, the sick and the handicapped), who were to be relieved in almshouse. It also determined that in each parish the churchwardens and two or more substantial landholders should act as Overseers of the Poor and collect the poor rate. Further provisions of the Act made each parish responsible for its own poor. It would appoint its own Overseers of the Poor (usually the churchwardens and a couple of large landowners) who would collect the poor rate. which was to be spent in four main ways:

(1) 'For setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to maintain them.'
(2) 'For setting to work all such persons married or unmarried, having no means to maintain them, and who use no ordinary or daily trade of life to get their living by' (that is, the able-bodied pauper).
(3) 'for providing a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wood, thread, iron, and other ware, and stuff to set the poor on work'.
(4) 'For the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other among them being poor and not able to work'.

The Act also made it legal 'to erect, build and set up convenient houses or dwellings for the said impotent poor and also place inmates or more families
than one in one cottage or house', which appears to be the initial authority for the erection of buildings later to become known as workhouses. A number of parishes took up this option realising there was a considerable saving to be made compared with supporting paupers within their own homes or as vagrants.

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In the Settlement Act of 1662, (An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom) it was stipulated that any newcomers to a parish "like to be chargeable" could be removed upon the orders of two justices of the peace if a complaint was made against them within 40 days of arrival, provided they had not rented a house worth at least £10 a year. If he found work, and was employed for a year, then he could claim settlement there, and thus receive poor relief. Under the 1697 Settlement Act, strangers could settle in a new parish only if they held a settlement certificate from their home parish guaranteeing to take them back if they became liable for parish relief. The Law of Settlement had the effect of prohibiting the poorest labourers from moving outside their own parish. Knatchbull's Act (The Workhouse Test Act) Enabled workhouses to be set up by parishes either singly, or in combination with neighbouring parishes. In addition, relief was to be offered only to those willing to enter the workhouse. This was further enhanced by Knatchbull's General Workhouse Act of 1723, which gave parishes the powers to erect workhouses, in which the poor were set to work and to which they were restricted except for Sundays.

This was followed in 1782 by Gilbert's Act, which encouraged a few parishes to combine to form Poor Law Unions. This act reversed some stringencies of Knatchbull's Act, providing employment for able-bodied persons outside the workhouse, not separating children under the age of seven from their parents, and boarding out orphaned children.

The Poor Law Act also made it compulsory for all able-bodied men to work, and making it impossible to move freely from place to place. They were practically serfs again, except that they had no rights in the land. The Poor Laws remained on the books, although with amendments, until after World War II.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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