The threat of ‘the workhouse’ loomed large over our nineteenth century ancestors. Even if they worked hard and were able to provide well for their families, there was always the possibility of accidents (even fatal ones), disability, sickness, failure of harvests… and therefore no longer being able to work. The workhouse regime began with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and was formally abolished only in 1930, yet it wasn’t the first legislative arrangement for dealing with ‘paupers’ and ‘vagrants’. Prior to 1834, relief of the poor was based on the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the Act of Settlement of 1662.
There are two important issues at the heart of all this. The first is that relief of the poor was a parish matter. This had less to do with any sense of ‘Christian duty towards those less fortunate’ than with the fact that alongside the spiritual role we associate today with the local church, the parish was also the local administrative unit, responsible for collecting monies and ensuring the smooth-running of the local area.
The next important issue follows on from this. Since local people had to cough up the money to provide for the poor, the parish was at pains to ensure that only genuinely local poor people were eligible. This led to the concept of ‘settlement’.
Even if we say that essentially, a person had the right of settlement in the parish in which he or she was born, there still had to be some acknowledgement of migration, and a system for allowing the acquisition of settlement for those genuinely moving into a new parish for sound reasons. It was the 1662 Act (and later amending Acts) that introduced the rules under which a newcomer acquired such legal rights. These were:
- holding parish office
- paying the parish rate
- renting property worth more than £10 p.a. or paying taxes on a property worth more than £10 p.a.
- being resident in the parish for 40 days, after having given the authorities 40 days’ notice before moving into the parish
- being currently apprenticed to a master in the parish
- having served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident
- being hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day
- having previously received poor relief in that parish
However, the above rules applied only to men and unmarried women, and there were different rules for children born within wedlock and those born illegitimately:
- A married woman automatically took the settlement of her husband, regardless of her own history
- A legitimate child aged under seven took the settlement of his/her father
- An illegitimate child had settlement in the parish in which he/she was born
- A pauper child aged seven-plus was considered old enough to be removed from his/her parents, and to be put to work as a ‘parish apprentice’. I previously wrote about parish apprentices when I reviewed John Waller’s excellent book, The Real Oliver Twist.
Much as the need to restrict relief of the poor to genuinely local people was real, suffice to say there was plenty of scope in all of the above for trickery, twisting the rules, cruel, draconian decisions and absurd outcomes. It became common practice, for example, to look for masters outside the parish when placing a child as a parish apprentice… so that in case of problems the child would have ceased to be a burden on the home parish. Over time, this extended to sending children as young as seven years old to growing industrial towns in the north, often many miles from home. Robert Blincoe, for example, believed to have been the real-life inspiration for Dickens’s Olver Twist (see above link), was sent from London to Nottingham. Later, he was transferred to a parish in Derbyshire, where the unscrupulous mill owner built the apprentice living quarters just across a stream in the adjacent parish. In other words, the profits and benefits of the mill and the children’s labour went to the owner in one parish, while the burden of providing for their burials and other disablement expenses fell to another. Another ploy was the avoidance of settlement rights after employment for a year and a day by employing migrant workers only on short term contracts. And the different arrangements for men, women, and legitimate / illegitimate children could mean that in times of genuine hardship the man’s settlement was deemed to be where he had worked; his cohabiting but unmarried ‘wife’s’ settlement was where she had been born – or even in the parish of another, estranged, husband; while their illegitimate children would have settlement in their own place of birth and those aged over seven then apprenticed to masters throughout the country.
The means by which such decisions were made was the Settlement Examination, a legal document drawn up pursuant to those rules outlined above. Generally, the trigger for a Settlement Examination was the application for poor relief by the person who had fallen on hard times. The examination focused on the personal, employment and ownership histories of the individual, or if a married woman, of her husband, late husband or absconded husband. You can read more about Settlement on the London Lives website – a general overview; it doesn’t matter if you don’t have London roots – and there is also a separate page about Settlement Examinations. On both pages there are links to examples of Settlement Examination documents, or you might like to follow the case of one person’s experience:
If you come across Settlement Examination documentation in your own ancestry it will give you valuable information about family members and any migration history. In the pre-census era this can help you add detail to your ancestors’ lives.