Saturday, March 25, 2006

English Poor Law

A Short Explanation of the English Poor Law:
"If the family you are researching was part of the 90% of the rural population that survived as village labourers or descended into the day labourer class during the 18th century you will not have course to refer to the wills and probate records that flesh out the histories of more affluent families.

The information may however be there just waiting to be discovered. The poor law records described below were some of the most important a parish would keep and in many cases have survived, especially in rural communities, when registers may have been lost.

Many county archives have indexed these records and you may be lucky to find your family there, if however they are missing don't despair. Most indices refer only to the main party but often other people, friends and neighbors are mentioned, or you may find an ancestor with a parish office. Be sure to read the account books of the overseers and constables and even if you fail to find your family I feel sure that the exercise of reading all the documents will fascinate you as it has me and give you a valuable insight into the community your family served and lived in."

The tradition of the village supporting it's poor has been firmly established from Saxon times, in fact the term Lady is from the old english hlafdige, loaf maker and dole from the old english dal to distribute.

This tradition was as much necessity as compassion, the open field system of farming was very much a communal way of life depending on mutual co-operation and the preservation of a labour force. This was a fact of life as much for the Lord of the Manor as for the ordinary village population as the villagers would work the manorial lands as part of their tenancy agreement.
Throughout the 14th to 16th centuries the wealth of Britain was underwritten by the wool trade and in the quest for this wealth large tracts of land were turned over to sheep farming. This eventually led to an underclass of dispossessed poor wandering the countryside seeking work, settlement and charity. Worse still, an Elizabethan population increase of 25% and a series of disastrous famines in the 1590's led to an increase in poverty which could not be alleviated under the old system of individual philanthropy.

This posed a threat to the stability of the realm and with this view a series Elizabethan poor law acts were passed in 1563, 1572, 1576, 1597 and 1601.

In 1563 the poor were categorized for the first time . . .


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