Poor Law (Old) - England

The Poor Laws were established after the abolition of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.  They became necessary because the charity which was previously given out by the monks was no longer available, so the poor started to become a drain on parish resources. The Poor Laws enacted by Parliament required that everyone have a parish of settlement. That parish was responsible for them if they fell on hard times. These laws underwent many changes in 1834 when the New Poor Law Acts were passed.

The parish of settlement was usually the parish where one was born, but there were other means of deciding a parish of settlement. A settlement to live in a parish could be gained by:

  • Renting property worth more than 10 pounds per year
  • Paying the poor rates
  • Serving as a parish officer
  • Being bound as an apprentice in the parish by indenture
  • Completing a year in service, if unmarried
  • Being hired to work for one year
  • Marrying a man from another parish

Marrying a man from another parish was the cause of untold misery for women. If a woman married a man from a different parish, and he died, she and their children could be removed from the parish they had lived in all of their lives. They were taken to the parish of settlement of the deceased husband and father, a parish they may never have even visited.

The father did not even have to die. He could simply be unable to work or earn enough to support the family. If the parish decided that he was a "drain on the resources," then the entire family was removed to the father's parish of settlement.

This procedure was not quick. Men and women were called before parish authorities and asked for an account of their lives (recorded as the settlement examination). This was their last chance to state why their family should not be removed, but the parish made the the final decision.

If it was decided that the family was to be removed, then a removal order was taken to the parish of settlement and given to the authorities there.

At the time of creation, copies of settlement papers were held in parish chests and by the individuals involved. Today, most settlement papers have been deposited in county record offices, where genealogists can consult them. Many have also been microfilmed and are available at the [History Library] and [History Centers]. Unfortunately most settlement records have not survived;  historians estimate that today we only have about 1% of the Poor Law paperwork that existed in the past.

Many record offices have created countywide indexes to these records (see Jeremy Gibson and Elizabeth Hampson, Specialist Indexes for Family Historians. Federation of Family History Societies, 1988). These are a valuable source of genealogical information and can be used to track migrations.