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The Laws of Settlement

When the parish became a prison it was the poor-law settlement system which made it so; when the parish became a vast almshouse it was an ill-advised relaxation of the poor-law principles which pauperised the labourer and bankrupted the small farmer.”[1]

Contents

In the 1640’s John Lilburne , a member of that group of radicals known as the Levellers, coined a phrase – “the free born Englishman”. A snappy phrase which has been used widely since but in 1662 the poor found that one of the essential elements of any definition of the term ‘free’, the ability to move around the country was seriously curtailed by a series of acts which, although not named as such, have become known as the settlement acts. Their iniquity speaks for themselves.

Poor Relief Act 1662

Legal Settlement

Certificates

Tweaking the Acts

The Examination

Removal

Poor Relief Act 1662

In 1662 “An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom” allowed the Overseers of the poor to forcibly remove people to other parishes, solely in order to avoid the risk of having to pay them poor relief at som future date. It is difficult, with the benefit of hindsight and influenced by modern cultural views, not to view these ancient acts with some cynicism but we must take at least some part of the reasons given for it’s introduction to be true.

The act starts, with the failure of earlier acts which had led to the “continual increase of the Poor” which had become “exceeding burthensome” i.e. costing too much. The result had been a rise in “incorrigible rogues” who, by claiming relief to which they weren’t entitled, deprived the deserving poor causing them “to perish for Want.” To correct these abuses, “For Remedy whereof, and for the preventing of the perishing of any of the Poor whether young or old”, King Charles II was urged to pass the act.

The particular abuse they were concerned with was the freedom of movement which the poor, like every one else, had enjoyed. The poor it seems had been abusing this freedom as the preamble to the Act explained,

People are not restrained from going from one Parish to another, and therefore do endeavour to settle themselves in those Parishes where there is the best Stock, the largest Commons or Wastes to build Cottages, and the most Woods for them to burn and destroy; and when they have consumed it, then to another Parish, and at last become Rogues and Vagabonds, to the great Discouragement of Parishes to provide Stocks, where it is liable to be devoured by Strangers”.

It is easy to dismiss such concerns but as James Madison [2] once said, “If men were Angels government would not be necessary”. The poor, no more than any other men, were not angels. Many were, no doubt, uneducated but they were not stupid and we can readily believe that they moved around the country in a form of what we call today, ‘benefit tourism’. Prior to the 1662 act they were free to do so; after the act they were confined to the parish. As Tate said it was to become their prison.

The Act allowed Churchwardens or Overseers to remove a poor person to the parish of their legal settlement [see below]. The Overseers had forty days, from the arrival of the newcomer in the parish, to make a ‘Complaint’ to the local Justices of the Peace that the poor person might become ‘chargeable’. This meant that at some future date the parish might have to pay them poor relief out of the parish rates. Note that at the time the complaint was made the poor person did not have to be in actual receipt of parish relief ; that did not matter, it was sufficient that they might become so. It is true that an appeal could be made to the Justices by the poor person but without the gift of prophecy, or more importantly money to make the appeal, how could any defence be mounted against the possibility of some future event occurring? Almost without exception the Justices would issue a removal order allowing the person concerned to be returned, forcibly if needs be, to their parish of legal settlement.

If the Overseers did not lodge a complaint , or signifcantly , if the poor managed to remain hidden for forty days, then the person concerned gained what was known as a legal settlement in the new parish. For the parish this meant that they assumed the responsibility for the future care and relief of that person. This was a serious matter. It was the members of the parish who had to pay for the care and in small parishes the last thing they could afford was an influx of those seeking poor relief. The act allowed parishes a way to protect themselves but it was not the last of it’s kind ; ironically amendments to the act came about, not because of abuses of the system by the poor, but by the parishes using it to evade their responsibilities.

Legal Settlement

Theoretically every person had one parish and one only in which he or she had settlement and a right to parish relief. In practice it was often difficult to decide which parish had the duty of relief, and disputes gave rise to endless litigation. From this point of view eighteenth-century England was like a chessboard of parishes, on which the poor were moved about like pawns.”[ 3]

After 1662 whoever you were, or whatever your circumstance, if you were unlucky enough to need poor relief you could only receive it in the parish where you were legally settled. But what did this term mean? The 1662 act was vague defining it as the “Parish where he or they were last legally settled, either as a Native, Householder, Sojourner, Apprentice or Servant”. [4]

In time and as a result of the endless litigation, these criteria became codified and a system became established similar to that used in cases of bastardy.

For men establishing a settlement was relatively simple, it was the parish in which they had been born. If during the course of their life they had secured a contract of work for a year they automatically gained settlement in the new parish. This rule was circumvented simply enough by the Overseers enjoining employers to give contracts for 51 weeks only. Men taking on a tenancy of £10 a year or more [increased in 1722 to £30] in their new parish would also gain settlement thereby and the same applied if they took on a parish office such as Overseer, Hayward, Constable or Churchwarden. These exemptions were not of course aimed at the poor for they could not have afforded a tenancy of this magnitude and nor were they likely to be appointed to a parish office. It was intended instead to ensure that only the middling classes could move around the country without fear of removal.

For women settlement was based on the place of their birth or, if they married, the place of their husbands legal settlement. Women appear to have been at a particular disadvantage. They were often removed after the death of their husband and may not have been aware of his legal settlement or any variation that might have occurred through his employment prior to marriage. Many women had also been in service [servants] prior to marriage and tended to move around and it was not always clear whether their presence in the parish had been declared.

Children also had particular problems. If a woman gave birth to an illegitimate child within a parish, even if it was not the mothers own parish and the father was known, it gained settlement not in either of the parent’s parishes but in the parish of it’s birth. On the other hand, if the child was born within marriage, then it gained settlement within the father’s parish or, if the father did not know his place of settlement, the parish in which the child was born. In the event of one or other of the parents dying this could have created great confusion although thankfully there is no evidence of families being split up as a result of it.

If and when children were apprenticed they acquired settlement in their master’s parish but even then their ‘home’ parish might have to pay. Thus when Richard Bagg of Evershot was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Abbotsbury the Overseers paid a part of the bill when he fell ill

6 July 1822

Pd 9/6d towards a Doctors bill of 19s for Late Baggs son Abbotsbury 9/6d

Certificates.

The 1662 act put the overseers in a difficult position. Even in rural communities which were, by and large, self sufficient it was necessary to allow some movement of men [it was usually men] between parishes. In earlier centuries the problem for the manorial lords had been to prevent people leaving the manor; now it was to prevent them coming in. The overseer’s dilemma was that If they made a complaint to the justices the individual [and his family we should not forget] would be removed, but if they did not, they risked gaining another individual [and his family] who might be come a burden to the rate payers.

The 1662 act had an answer to this problem and it came in the form of a certificate, issued by the parish where he or they [as the act refers to them] had legal settlement, which promised to take them, back if they became chargeable. The certificates though were not quite what they seemed. The wording of the act makes it clear that without such a certificate any movement of the poor – even into a neighbouring parish – was illegal.

it shall and may be lawful for any Person or Persons, to go into any County, Parish or Place, to work in Time of Harvest, or at any Time to work at any other Work, so that he or they carry with him or them a Certificate from the Minister of the Parish and one of the Churchwardens and one of the Overseers for the Poor for the said Year”

These early certificates seem to be of a different type to the later ones. They seem to have been designed to cover short term or temporary situations as

if the Person or Persons shall not return to the Place aforesaid, when his or their Work is finished, or shall fall Sick or Impotent whilst he or they are in the said Work, it shall not be accounted a Settlement in the Cases above said, but that it shall and may be lawful for two Justices of the Peace to convey the said Person or Persons to the Place of his or their Habitation”

I have found no certificates from Evershot in the records and most of those that survive from other parishes date from the 18th century when further acts had been implemented. For the most part they are simple hand written documents. Typical is this one from 1780,

We the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Parish of Winterbourne Whitechurch in the County of Dorset Hereby Certify that we own and acknowledge #### Rogers and Rachel his Wife to be legally settled in our said Parish of Winterbourne Whitechurch and we do hereby Promise for ourselves and successors to receive them into our said Parish When they shall become Chargeable In Witness whereof we the said Churchwardens and overseers have herein respectively sett [sic] our hands and seal this tenth day of May in the year of our Lord 1780 Witness John Drew Churchwarden Ann Smith William Meecham Overseers”

Of interest here is that one of the Overseers is a woman – Ann Smith, a rare event. In this case the certificate had a specific addressee – to the Overseers at Blandford. On the 9th February 1767 John Moores of Broadwindsor gained a certificate with no less than nine signatures and four seals attached to it. There is no reason given for the ornateness of the certificate and there are no addressees on the certificate. As a sail cloth weaver he may have moved around several parishes. This certificate also had two signatures belonging to the Justices of the Peace and this together with a plethora of seals may have been designed to reassure the Overseers.

Tweaking the Acts

The 1662 act was found in practice to be deficient. Not in it’s underlying principle it must be said but in it’s implementation. The result of the 1662 act, according to the Hammonds, [5] was that

it was an inevitable temptation to Parish A to smuggle it’s poor into Parish B where forty days residence without the knowledge of parish officers gained them settlement. Fierce quarrels broke out between parishes in consequence.”

In order to prevent such abuses it was made compulsory in a further act of 1685 for new arrivals to have to register with the Overseers, the forty days only beginning after such registration. Now it did not matter how long they were hidden. Even this act did not prevent further abuses and a further act of 1691 made still further changes. It now required, that the arrival of a newcomer be announced from the pulpit after divine service after which registration took place and the forty days began. It was this act which codified the definition of legal settlement given above and yet another act of 1697 made permanent the system of certification and introduced the practice of badging the poor.

Every pauper and his wife and children

shall wear upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of the uppermost garment …. a large Roman P together with the first letter of the name of the parish … in red or blue cloth.”

If they refused to wear the badge the pauper was to lose his parish relief and or be sent to the house of correction where they were to be whipped and set to three weeks hard labour.

There were a number of other acts throughout the 18th century which tweaked the system but the most important one came in 1795 with what is sometimes called The Pitt Act [after William Pitt the Younger]. This effectively overturned the 1662 act by rendering it legal, once again, for a poor person to reside in any parish of his or her choice. No certificate was needed and they could not be removed simply because they might become chargeable; in future they would removed, but only after they had become chargeable.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did not make much difference to the situation. It was only in 1876 with the Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act [39 & 40 Vic] that the settlement laws were finally abolished.

The Examination

If the 1795 act restored the ability of the poor to move legally it did not alter the fact that once they became chargeable they were to be returned to their parish of legal settlement. The process began with an examination in front of the Justices of the Peace at Dorchester. There are no records of these for Evershot in the Dorset records although there are frequent references to them in the Overseers records as in this example from 1819,

8th May 1819

Hannah White’s conveyance to & expenses at Dorchester to be examined as to her settlement

It is unfortunate that the examinations of people at Evershot have not survived because they afford considerable interest and add more to the history of the people than simple baptism, marriage and death certification can do. Take for example the experience of Thomas Cooling who was examined ‘touching the place of his last legal Settlement’ at Dorchester on 12th April 1797.

Thomas was “about the age of twenty two years” and he “on his oath says that he was born at Blandford in the Sd county as he hath heard and believes”. This particular examination was hand written but later examinations, were made on a printed proforma, and bear the same wording. It must be presumed that it’s regular inclusion in examinations, whilst it might have had some legal purpose, simply reflects the fact that many, if not most, people did not know their year or place of birth.

Thomas would appear to have fallen on his feet he told the Justices that “the first place of Service he ever lived in was with Thomas Meld Esq of East Lulworth in the County aforesaid to whom he hired himself as a yearly servant in the capacity of under Butler for the wages of ten Guineas a year about the beginning of May 1794 but he this informant further says that he was discharged from his Sd service seven weeks before the expiration of such years service…”

The early discharge from service was a common ploy amongst employers, who, according to the Hammonds at least, were encouraged to do so to avoid their servants gaining settlement.

In 1808 John Farr was examined as to his place of legal settlement. At the time he was residing in Blandford but he came originally from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. He was about 24 years of age. At the age of 12 years he had been apprenticed to John Bulford of Mansfield for 7 years as a Hose [stocking] Knitter and had served 6 ¾ years in this role when his master died. He found himself out on the street and became a Journeyman hiring himself to other people working on a piece by piece basis. After two years at this he joined the 69th Regiment of Foot where he stayed for three years before transferring to the 97th Regiment of Foot. He rose to the rank of Corporal and in 1807 married “Elizabeth his present wife”.

It is not clear why the examination took place in his case although being newly married his wife’s place of settlement would presumably have transferred to Mansfield if he fell ill and required poor relief. It may therefore have been an attempt to establish a legal settlement in Dorset where her family was.

The third example of a settlement examination concerns Mary Sutton who was living in Blandford in 1810. She “saith that she is about 21 years of age and was born a Bastard in the Parish of Langton Long Blandford in the said County as she has heard and believes.” Mary had never lived outside the parish and earned her living as a button maker; she was also pregnant, unmarried and had “done no act whereby to gain settlement”.

In all three cases the examination sought firstly to determine the birth place – the default place for a legal settlement in most cases. Next they inquired about a history of employment which might have given settlement and then, finally, they sought confirmation that there had been no other attempts to gain settlement.

Although there are no records of examination from Evershot there are numerous references in the Overseers accounts about them and it is evident that their relatively simple output was often the consequence of much more intensive investigation. For example in this sequence of events,

25th October 1820

Jas Barret Jnr. To Dorchester for expenses of examinations in Broomfields case 1s

30th November 1820

Mr Coombes copies 5 examinations in Broomfields Removal 10s

15th January 1821

Mrs Gilbert Journey to Yeovil to give evidence as to Broomfields settlement 5s expenses on her previous journey to Dorchester 1s 3d

Charlotte Dibben her journey to Yeovil for similar purposes

Who Broomfield was is not known but James Barrett was shortly to reappear when he deserted his family in January 1821 [see here]. What it shows however is the considerable to’ ing and fro’ing involved and the employment of witnesses who might give evidence bearing on the case. The process was not always straightforward and even when it was could be very protracted and expensive as in the case of the Nobbs family,

8th July 1820

Mr Jennings a years rent of cottage occupied by John Marry and family to Candlemas 1820 Also his law bill in the removal of Charlotte Nobbs from Cattistock which removal has been since quashed & attending at Dorchester as to Hannah Whites settlement. £8 16s 6d

22nd March 1822

Mr Jn Jennings for Mr Wiltshire of Cerne Clerk to the Magistrate of that Division for a copy of the Examinations of Susannah Nobbs who was some time ago removed to Evershot from Cattistock on account of her having lived a year with Mr Peach at Burl Farm to which order an appeal was entered by Evershot but neither Cattistock or Frome would defend 2/6d

Settlement created huge amounts of litigation but sometimes it could be nipped in the bud. Note that the parish receiving the letter had to pay for the postage; it was 9d well spent for nothing more is heard of the case.

19th August 1824

Postage of letter from Donhead St Mary respecting a widow pauper & 2 children removed by an order from Yeovil to that Parish. They wish to fix the settlement of the sd Pauper on this Parish by reason of her late husband [many years since] being employed by Mr Petty in the trade he being only a weekly servant could gain no settlement in this parish. 9d

Removal

If, after examination, the poor person was found not to have gained settlement then the justices would order his removal. This was a cumbersome and we may assume an expensive business. There is only one example at Evershot of such a removal

4th December 1823

David Childs wife and 2 children intruded themselves onto the parish of Corscombe were brought home by an order nights lodging at the Acorn 13a 11d

In this case the removal was very local as Corscombe was a neighbouring parish but there are a number of removal orders in the Dorset records which indicate that despite the difficulties of travel the poor managed to get around quite a bit. Beaminster seems to have ‘suffered’ quite a bit from this. In 1843 they had to arrange for the removal of Catherine Mills from Winchester, in the following year John Peach, his wife and three children were brought back from Millbrook ‘in the County of Southampton’ and in 1845 Martha Sims was brought back from St Martin’s in the Field London when her husband died.

The effects on the poor of these removals is not known and no consideration was given to the feelings, emotional upset or hardship that that it must have caused. The law was the law and both the Overseers and the Poor were bound by it. [6]


1 Tate W E The Parish Chest 3rd  1969

2 Fourth president of the USA

3 Ibid.

4 It was also inconsistent since a sojourner is, by definition, merely a visitor to a place.

5 Hammond J L & Barbara The Village Labourer 1911

6 Remember the Overseers were themselves overseen by the Justices of the Peace and could be prosecuted for dereliction of their duty.

Categories: In Depth

Ned Elliott