Settlement law: a trial for parishes and paupers but a gift for historians.
The Old Poor Law of 1598-1601 charged parishes with relieving their ‘own’ poor, but how was belonging to be defined? By birth, length of residence, or the parish a person called home when they became impoverished? Acts of 1662, 1692 and 1697 were designed to help parishes determine belonging. Wives and legitimate children took their husband or father’s place of settlement, while illegitimate children were settled in their parish of birth. Adolescents and adults had the ability to earn a settlement by paying parish rates, renting property to the value of over £10 per year, by serving the full term of an apprenticeship, or by securing a full year’s hiring (usually in agricultural employment).
The law of settlement looked simple, but became very complicated to enforce. Parishes spent large sums to settle legal disputes wherever a poor person’s settlement was in doubt. Poor people might be uprooted from places they had lived for decades at the moment they became most vulnerable, when they first needed parish assistance. Grown men and women might be forcibly removed to parishes they had never visited, because that happened to be where their father was settled.
Historians, though, have good reason to be grateful to the laws of settlement, because they generated all sorts of information about ordinary people that would otherwise not have been recorded. Settlement certificates were issued by parishes to confirm that poor people definitely ‘belonged’ to them, allowing people to migrate in search of work. Settlement examinations were taken to determine which parish might be responsible for a migrating person without a certificate, and these can read like potted biographies of the poor. Pauper letters were written by or on behalf of men and women living in one parish but settled in another, to negotiate the terms of non-resident relief (where the parish of settlement sent money to the parish of residence).
The settlement laws impinge on overseers’ vouchers whenever lawyers, constables or others submitted lengthy bills for their services. The non-resident poor crop up in the vouchers too wherever another parish sent in a bill. They demonstrate that people living outside of a parish could still be very important to that parish, especially if they were responsible for helping poor people find work in a place where they didn’t legally belong.