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The Poor Law Act of 1601 and How It Applies to British Family Research

As the manorial system declined in Britain, the parish became the primary unit of the administration of justice and other local affairs. The Poor Law Act of 1601 devised a system of relief for the poor based in the parish.


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As the manorial system declined in Britain, the parish became the primary unit of the administration of justice and other local affairs. The Poor Law Act of 1601 devised a system of relief for the poor based in the parish, which was intact until 1834 when paupers were required to enter workhouses. Parishioners were levied a poor rate to cover the cost of caring for the elderly, sick and unemployed, as well as orphans and single mothers. Several records were produced as a result of the Poor Law and were kept with other records in a parish chest for safekeeping Therefore, Poor Law records are referred to at "parish chest materials." Several Poor Law documents are useful to the family historian.

Poor rate books are among the most useful records. They include an account of income received from parishioners. Every householder who was not a pauper was supposedly listed along with the amount of money they paid, which was based on their property value. With this in mind, poor rate books are a great source for discovering the wealth of an ancestor. Knowing the wealth and class of an ancestor greatly determines the course of research and the specific records that might be of use. Also, the poor rates are useful in determining how long an ancestor lived in a particular parish. If his name drops off the list, that's a good clue that he may have moved (or died) in that year.

Poor relief came in the form of clothing, food, and money. An overseer distributed the collected money amongst the poor according to need. An overseer's accounts book recorded the name of pauper, amount of money or goods given and for what use they were given. The accounts were varied and quite interesting, providing a good idea of what life must have been like for these people.

According to the law, relief would be granted only to paupers in their parish of legal settlement. This policy was intended to keep various parishes from becoming overburdened with poor laborers • laborers who may otherwise come into the parish for a menial job while still requiring assistance, therefore putting the burden of relief on the new parish. Later acts designated certain conditions for obtaining settlement in a parish. Moving to a new parish became a difficult task for many paupers because the new parish would not accept responsibility of any necessary relief.

Settlement and examination papers were created as a result of this policy, and are wonderful sources of family history information. Settlement papers were issued by the home parish stating the capability of the resident as well as claiming the financial responsibility of that home parish if the resident fell on hard times. Hopeful settlers were examined by officials to determine whether or not they could reside in the parish. Examination papers often included information such as the names and ages of all family members' former residence. Previous employment and apprenticeship was recorded as well, which could tell of their ability to work and provide for themselves. If the officials believed that an individual or family would need assistance, they would issue a removal order that would remove them back to their parish of settlement. All of these records are extremely useful if an ancestor was poor or migrated a great deal.

Parish officials avoided the responsibility of illegitimate children. If the baby was born in the parish, they would attempt to determine who the father was, so as to put the financial burden on him. Therefore, bastardy papers are very important for the research of illegitimate parentage. Those children who were left in the care of the parish were usually apprenticed at the age of seven. Therefore, they would learn a trade and cease to be a burden by adulthood. Several records were created as a result of these dependent children and apprentices and are quite useful to the family historian.

Although they are not considered a major record source for British family research, Poor Law records are very useful for poor and migrating ancestors. Poor rate books, overseers accounts, settlement and examination papers, removal orders, and bastardy papers are only some of the records created in connection with the Poor Law. The setback to this record source is the availability. The records were not well-preserved in many parishes. For those that have survived they may be microfilmed and available at various libraries, or they may be at the county record office in England or they may still be lurking somewhere in the parish church. Records created under the Poor Law are definitely worth seeking out as a supplement to parish registers, census, and other major record sources.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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