Poor Laws Old and New

Speaker: Mick Rawle

22 September 2021

How should society support those of its members who are unable to support themselves?  With the news full of controversies around Universal Credit and issues of food and fuel poverty, the question is relevant today but it has a long history and was the subject of our September meeting.  Our experienced speaker was Mick Rawle, President of the Leicestershire & Rutland Family History Society, and he illustrated his talk with many original documents, including some drawn from the history of his own family.

Mick explained how the “Old” Poor Law was enacted in 1597 and continued in force with little amendment for nearly 250 years.  It required each parish to take responsibility for its own poor, to prevent the infirm from starving and to provide employment for those who were able to work.  Each parish appointed Overseers of the Poor, whose expenses were funded by a rate levied on the wealthier members of the community.  When someone fell into poverty, it became very important to establish which parish must take responsibility for them and there are many records of “settlement examinations” to answer that question.  Usually, a person was deemed to be settled in the last place where they had lived or worked for more than a year and they could be sent back there (with their family) to claim poor relief.  Considerable efforts were also made to obtain payments from the fathers of illegitimate children to avoid the children becoming a burden on the parish.  When the parish did have to care for children, they were often placed into long apprenticeships instead, for example from the age of 8 until 21.

Surviving Overseers’ account books show that at certain periods caring for the poor became a great expense for the community.  One such period was just after the Napoleonic Wars, when soldiers returned home looking for work at the same time as industry and agriculture were depressed because of the ending of the war effort.  An increasing share of the poor rate was being paid to lawyers to argue settlement cases and it became clear that the law needed to change.

In 1834 the “New” Poor Law established a different system, in which groups of parishes were joined into Poor Law Unions with a shared workhouse.  Thurcaston and Cropston were part of the Barrow Union and the workhouse was in Mount­sorrel.  While each parish still paid for its own poor, the larger workhouses were more efficient and better regulated.  Mick’s opinion was that, although designed to be places where citizens would want to avoid ending up, the workhouses did a lot of good in keeping people going until they could resume gainful employment.

It was good to be back together in the Memorial Hall – suitably distanced – after such a long break.