Early 19th century poor laws

Understanding ancestors from the first half of the 19th century.
iStock 1277227299

Before 1572 the Poor were looked after by the Parishes, the monasteries (before abolition) and the rich. A law in that year produced a system of Overseers of the Poor in the Parishes, usually churchwardens, but not changing the basic responsibility of the Church for the poor. Justices of the Peace were appointed in 1597/8 to oversee their work.

In 1601 the Poor Law Act made the poor the responsibility of the Parish, an Act renewed in 1640 which lasted until 1834. The Poor Law Act of 1722/3 ordered the building or renting of Parish Workhouses, though the poor could be billeted with parishioners. Provision for the poor could still differ from parish to parish and some parishes were generous in providing rent, food allowances, a doctor if necessary and even funeral expenses.

Pauper children were sometimes allowed into the workhouse but could end up nursed out for a few pence a week. By 1715 it was realised that some children were being deliberately killed in this care. Surviving children could be apprenticed on the Parish at the age of seven.

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 attempted to improve some of the conditions in the workhouse by appointing inspectors. Children could be kept with their parents until the age of seven and attempts were made to keep the able bodied poor out of the workhouses. Badges for the paupers were abolished.

The Speenhamland system (1795) of Parish outdoor relief aimed to keep people working and made up low wages to the cost of subsistence. This lasted until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 ended the system of subsidising the poor in the parishes.


Overseers of the poor could remove vagrants to the border of the Parish and onwards to other parishes. In effect they could be removed from one House of Correction to another and this was aimed at saving the original parish the cost of removal to the home parish. This was especially true in the case of women who were single or of child bearing age who were got out of the parish as quickly as possible in case they bore bastard children who would be a burden on the Parish.

This situation was slightly ameliorated in 1743 when the illegitimate child became automatically a charge on their mothers Parish unless she had subsequently married the father and thus obtained settlement in the parish of the father. Persistent vagrants could be sentenced by magistrates to whipping, branding, hard-labour or even transportation.


The 1575/6 ACT punished the mothers and fathers of illegitimate children even to the point of sending them to prison. After 1609 the mother could be sent to the House of Correction unless she gave security of her good behaviour. After 1844the mother of the illegitimate child could apply to the JP’s for maintenance from the father. Fathers did end up marrying the mothers sometimes rather than face prison. Look for bastardy cases and bastardy bonds in the County Record Offices or in record offices where the estate records are deposited.


The 1662 Act of Settlement stated that strangers in the Parish had forty days before they could be removed if they had no work or property worth £10 per year. After 40 days they could claim permanent settlement and become a charge on the poor rate. From 1697 Settlement Certificates allowed the settlement of strangers into a parish on the condition that they retained a claim on their old parish. The parish would only help its own poor. People could gain settlement if they were; born there illegitimately, worked their for one year and were unmarried, were apprenticed into the Parish, if under 7yrs and legitimate child of Parish father, held public office, paid rates or had 40 days in residence with notice in writing. Settlement laws were abolished in 1875.

By Tim Owston

Last modified: December 31, 2020

Written by 11:00 am History & Genealogy