Penalties for profiteering overseers

An Act of 1815 made it illegal for churchwardens or overseers to profit by supplying goods to their parish in the same year that they held office.  The penalty for infringement was high at £100.  This law was probably more honoured in the breech, but some keen-eyed contemporaries tried to make sure that it didn’t fall entirely out of view.  Samuel Cook, a radical citizen of Dudley, was one man who tried to make sure parish officers were held to account on this score.  He went to the trouble in 1823 of printing a small poster with the heading ‘Overseers liable to One Hundred Pounds Penalty!’ where he copied out some portions of the Act to publicise the (otherwise neglected) legislation.

This poster came to my attention when visiting the archives at Dudley.  I was searching the catalogues for parish records pertaining to locations in the ancient county of Staffordshire, and particularly for overseers’ vouchers that might survive for Sedgley, Brierley Hill, Kingswinford, and Lower Gornal.  None of these parishes have surviving vouchers relevant to our project, but finding the poster was a bonus.

Samuel Cook used the same small poster, no more than six inches square, to ask some pertinent questions about the workings of the Old Poor Law in Dudley.  He suffixed the main content of the poster with questions, asking about malt bags found at the workhouse, and the pay rise of £20 per year recently awarded to Mr Shorthouse (presumably a parish official).  It is a shame there weren’t more acute observers of parish relief to ask these sorts of questions!

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John Beard 1766-1839

John Beard was one of at least six children born in Wichnor parish to Thomas Beard and Mary (nee Smith).

John was a tailor who also, at the age of 60, took on the task of salaried or ‘assistant’ overseer in Whittington for twelve guineas a year.  As a result he is a signatory to many of the receipts paid for relief to the poor, and to numerous other parish documents such as apprenticeship indentures.  He also took apprentices himself into the tailoring business, including towards the end of his life twelve-year-old William Birch.  He did not receive an apprenticeship ‘premium’ or payment with this child, suggesting that he took the lad on willingly without financial inducement as mutually beneficial: Birch obtained training, while Beard continued in work into old age.  It may have been significant for Beard’s personal finances that the role of assistant overseer came to an end in the mid 1830s with the implementation of the reformed poor law.

Beard died from ‘schirrus of the stomach’, a form of stomach cancer, in early December 1839.  His will left everything to his niece Elizabeth Elson, daughter of John Beard’s younger brother Thomas Beard and the wife of Joseph Elson.  William Birch’s apprenticeship had years left to run, so he was transferred to Joseph Ellson for the completion of his term.

Sources: Tatenhill marriage of 27 June 1756; Wichnor baptism of 26 January 1766; Staffordshire Record Office D 4838/9/1/1-3 appointment of assistant overseer 1826-34; D4384/9/7/51 apprenticeship papers 1839-40; death certificate of 14 December 1839; PC 11 (1840) will of John Beard.

House Row System

The Whittington Overseers of the Poor Law make seveal references to House row system or men.

An Internet search brought up the following on Google Books. There were various statements which appeared to be from parishes in the Staffordshire Moorlands but I expect it would be the same in Whittington

The House-row system.

Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Volume 45

Mr. Heald Salt, Guardian of the township of Wootton, states, that—

“If they (able-bodied labourers) apply in consequence of being out of work, I call a
meeting, and allot them to the rate-payers in proportion to their rate, and they are paid by the persons who employ them; this I call the house-row system.
The same plan has been pursued in our township ever since I can remember, and I was born in the township, and am now above 60 years of age. The non-resident able-bodied poor I relieve, if any of the family come over, giving as little as I can, and tell them they had better go back again. I never have sent any of the non-resident paupers to the workhouse.

The resident able-bodied have been sent to the workhouse, but not for the last five years. There have been cases where the paupers have not been satisfied with the wages paid by the house-row system.
The wages paid for the house-row system are not quite so good as those paid to independent labourers, and they have always reference to the families of the paupers. There are now two cases of persons going by house-row, the one a married man with seven children, none of whom have yet worked, and the other a married man with one child; they are tidy sort of working men, and about average labourer, one not being superior to the other. The man with seven children is paid by house-row 1s. a day and his victuals, and the other 7d, a day and his victuals, and the overseer has undertaken to pay 1s. a week for the lodgings of the latter, as his family are residing 13 miles from the parish.