Everything we don’t know about parish tradesmen

Poor-law historian Dorothy Marshall launched an early and excoriating attack on parish officers and tradesmen.  In her eyes they were guilty of ‘jobbery’, in other words colluding to ensure that lucrative poor-law supply contracts were distributed to a small group of acquaintances, so garnering reliable income for friends.  In this way parish administrators and leading rate-payers were guilty of acting on self-interest rather than primarily for the benefits of paupers or for rate-payers generally.  The problem is that few subsequent historians of the Old Poor Law have made any attempt to refine this picture.  Geoffrey Oxley argued that the overseers had an onerous and tedious role, for which they were largely untrained.  This meant they sometimes cut corners to make their lives easier rather than being guilty of outright corruption.  But here the debate has largely stopped, at least for the law before 1834.

A thorough unpacking of overseers’ vouchers offers a fresh opportunity to refine our view of parish officers and tradesmen very substantially.  We can use vouchers to ask questions about the value of goods supplied to the parish: were overseers paying over the odds to line the pockets of their friends?  Can we devise localised price series’ for some commodities?  Is it possible to identify networks among those working for the poor law, such that some overseers gave preference to certain groups of suppliers (who then went in and out of favour, with the annual changes in overseers roles)?  How much money were some suppliers making from their relationship with parishes, and what was the ratio between their income from the poor law and their wealth at death?

Admittedly there are some aspects of the supply-side of the poor law which are likely to remain opaque.  It is not probable that the vouchers will speak to the quality of materials channeled towards workhouses and paupers, particularly in ‘normal’ weeks and months when no evidence of any complaints survive.  Similarly it would be desirable to learn more about the educational and occupational backgrounds of overseers and tradesmen alike, but it will need some energetic genealogical research plus a good dose of luck to learn such details for more than a handful of men.

With all their limitations, however, vouchers may enable us to move beyond the stark division of ‘jobbery’ from overwork, to comment in a more sensitive way on the ebb and flow of parish work and parish resources.  Even a partial picture of business success and failure in relation to poor-law work will be a substantial advance on the present state of our knowledge, and there is every hope that, in the process, we will uncover some startling and intriguing life stories.

Before Oliver! The Parish Workhouse

Parish workhouses had their origins in the poor laws of 1598-1601, which charged parishes with setting their able-bodied poor to work.  The law was entirely unspecific about how parishes should establish make-work schemes, but the idea that the poor might be set to work at a profit proved beguiling to seventeenth-century thinkers.  The 1690s witnessed the founding of Corporations of the Poor, collections of parishes (often in towns) that wanted to collaborate on both the provision of poor relief and the creation of workhouses.  These institutions were designed to accommodate the poor as well as set them to work.  Bristol led the way in 1696 and was soon followed by other towns determined to try a work experiment.

The prospect of setting the poor to work at a profit quickly evaporated when in became clear that workhouse populations were not ideally suited to economic productivity, and that workhouse accommodation was much more expensive than allowing people to receive welfare in their own homes.  Nonetheless, other parishes outside formal Corporations wanted to set up their own workhouses.  An Act of 1723 allowed individual parish vestries to build, rent, or buy a parish house that could either be run directly by parish officers or where the management of the house could be contracted out.  Importantly any parish using such a house could use it to ‘test’ the validity of relief claims, by insisting that any poor requiring relief must enter the house.

The decade 1723-33 saw many parish workhouses open, but they were not all places where the poor were set to work.  Some parishes tried to compel the resident poor to work, but many did not.  Similarly parishes were not consistent in requiring the poor to enter the workhouse, and most places operated a two-fold system, whereby some people were taken into the house and others were given cash or material benefits in their homes.  Workhouses in many places evolved into the sites of residential care for the very young or the elderly.

These parish workhouses were quite unlike the Union workhouses founded under the 1834 ‘New’ poor law and satirised by Dickens.  They were typically small in scale, accommodating perhaps 25 people in unsegregated spaces: men and women were not necessarily separated, and children were rarely parted from their mothers.  These workhouses were not prisons but were open institutions, and while some places could be punitive they could also offer elements of unequivocal care (such as specialised foods for the dying).  On the rare occasions when pre-1834 workhouses are mentioned in working-class autobiographies, they are just as likely to be given a positive review as a negative one.





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.