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The Overseer of the Poor

The select vestry was usually found in larger towns where the numbers of people eligible to take part in the vestry was too big to manage. A select few thus ruled the lives of others.The Overseer of the Poor was appointed from amongst the members of the Vestry and had to serve alongside the Churchwardens. Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Be it enacted by the authority of this present Parliament That the Churchwardens of every parish, and four substantial householders there. . .who shall be nominated yearly in Easter week, under the hand and seal of two or more Justices of the Peace in the same county, whereof one to be of the Quorum,dwelling in or near the same parish, shall be called Overseers of the Poor of the same parish.” Poor Relief Act 1598 39 Eliz. c. 3. [Hereafter referred to as the Old Poor Law].

For over two hundred and thirty years the care and maintenance of the poor within a parish was vested in villagers living in [or near] the parish. By methods that have been lost to time, the overseers were appointed annually by that rather vague entity, ‘the vestry’. In the 18th century it was common for just one overseer to be appointed but by the 19th century it was more usual to appoint two. They were appointed from amongst what we might call the middling sort – the local farmers, tradespeople,minor gentry, solicitors, land surveyors and the like- and it was a post that few would feel able to refuse. The post was unpaid and this is an important point. When we think of the Overseers we should not think of Dickens’s Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. He was a beadle, an official paid for by the ‘Union’, that group of parishes which came together after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment act for the purposes of providing poor relief. The Union removed the provision of poor relief from it’s essentially local nature, within the parish, to more distant relief in the workhouse.

Apart from the example set by their immediate predecessors there was no formal training for the Overseer’s,, most of whom served for just one year. There were exceptions to this however and in John Martin’s time there were a number of people who served for longer than this, albeit with different partners each year. Thus John Chubb served in 1819,1820 and 1821 whilst Richard Corpe served in 1822, 1823 and 1824.  On one occasion, in 1765 a woman, Susanna Pitman was appointed as sole overseer ; it does not seem to be an experiment that was repeated.

The system had obvious risks attached. Poor relief being provided by the parish, the poor themselves were at the hands of their neighbours and although the duties were shared with the Churchwardens, which might have mitigated the worst excesses of an overzealous Overseer, there was always the risk that old scores could be settled. On the other hand it did perhaps introduce a sense of realism in the provision of poor relief that has been lost. In a small parish, where everyone knew everyone else, there was little chance of an individual defrauding or abusing the system , but equally there was little opportunity for those in power to ignore the plight of individuals. The opprobrium that would fall upon the Overseers had they tried to do so would have been considerable. At the end of the day the Overseers in their turn were overseen by the Justices of the Peace. How effective their oversight was is not known.

Each year the Overseers of the Poor had to present the previous years accounts to the local Justices of the Peace. In 1820 the Overseers in Evershot invested in a new account book published by ‘G Clark Printer’ at Dorchester. Doubtless to justify the expense of such a bespoke book ,Extracts from various acts of parliament, shewing the Duty of the Overseers of the Poor’ were printed on the opening page the duties of the Overseer were published at the front of the book.


Stat 43 Eliz c 2 s[ection] 1 Churchwardens and Overseers shall take order from time to time for SETTING TO WORK the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought to be able to keep and maintain their children: Also for SETTING TO WORK all persons having no means to maintain themselves: And also to raise a Stock to SET THE POOR TO WORK and also towards the necessary relief of the LAME, IMPOTENT, OLD, BLIND, and such others being poor, and NOT ABLE TO WORK.

Taken from the original act of 1601 this section was almost, albeit not quite, redundant by the 19th century ; killed by both social change and the widespread introduction of local variations of the Speenhamland system. As we will see most poor relief at Evershot was given in the form of monetary payments without the demand for any work to be done. The practical difficulties of finding work for the poor in a rural community must have been considerable. Without a range of large chimneys, deep mines or industrial weaving looms very young children could not be sent up, down or under them and their role in farming must have been limited. Older children were often apprenticed but this cost money for the parish and unfortunately we do not have the apprenticeship records from Evershot.

Although the Overseers had to ‘raise a STOCK’ which the poor would use in their work few parishes would have had anywhere to store such supplies as the stones that had to be broken, the oakum that had to be picked or the cloth that had to be woven. Work was ordered as a punishment but appears to have been confined to the gaol at Dorchester or the House of Correction at Bridewell in Sherborne. Moreover many of the Dorset industries such as lace, glove or button making that had provided ‘outwork’ and which had sustained many families in their homes, had by and large, declined over the period. Even had they been put to work there was nobody to buy their wares.

Probably the most important aspect of the Overseers job was the estabishment of a rate to be paid for the upkeep of the poor and in the next section we will see how this was done in Evershot.

S2. The Churchwardens and Overseers are directed to meet together, AT LEAST ONCE EVERY MONTH, in the church, upon Sunday in the afternoon after Divine Service; there to consider some good course to be taken, and to lay down rules for their proceeding in administering relief.

The choice of Sunday to dispense poor relief was a clever one. It avoided breaking into the Overseers own working week and ensured that the poor turned up at church which they may not have been inclined to do otherwise. It is not entirely clear that this rule was followed at Evershot as there is an entry from April 1822

23rd April 1822

Erasmus Cox’s wife extra provision for 5 days in future to be paid on Saturdays instead of Tewsdays [sic]    2s


Stat 43 Elis c2 s4 The Justices may send to the House of Correction or Common Gaol, such as shall not employ themselves TO WORK, being appointed thereunto.

Stat 17 Geo II c 9 s 1 All persons who not having wherewith to maintain themselves, live idle without employment, AND REFUSE TO WORK FOR THE USUAL AND COMMON WAGES GIVEN TO OTHER LABOURERS IN THE LIKE WORK in the parishes and places where they are may be committed to the House of Correction to hard labour for any term not exceeding one month.

This clause, which was not in the original Poor Law act, effectively prevented any form of industrial action by workers on an individual farm. There is no evidence it was ever used at Evershot ; but then it did not have to be. The threat of imprisionment alone would have been sufficient deterrent. On the other hand the next clause was used on occassions;

Stat 32 Geo III c 45 s 8. Any person who shall not use proper means to employment, or IF HE IS ABLE TO WORK, BY NEGLECT OF WORK or spending his money idly shall not apply a proper proportion of the money earned by him to the maintenance of his wife and family by which they may become chargeable to the parish shall be committed to the House of Correction to hard labour for any time not exceeding one month.

Thus in 1801, Joseph Sartin was sentenced to a months imprisonment for “Leaving his wife and family chargeable to the Parish of Evershot,” whilst almost sixty years later in 1859 his [presumed] relative Robert Sartin was committed for the same offence. Dorchester gaol’s register shows prisoners committed for numerous such offences but thankfully it appears to have been rare at Evershot. Likewise I could find no evidence of any one committed under the next clause.

Stat 55 Geo III c 137 s 5 If any person maintained in any workhouse established for the relief of the poor shall REFUSE TO WORK AT ANY WORK, EMPLOYMENT OR OCCUPATION suited to his age, strength, and capacity ; or shall be guilty of drunkenness, or other misbehaviour, every such person being convicted thereof shall be committed to the Common Gaol or House of Correction to hard labour, for any time not exceeding twenty one days.

For an unpaid job the penalties exacted on the Overseers if they got things wrong were potentially severe;


Penalty on Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor for ABSENTING THEMSELVES FROM THE MONTHLY MEETING or being negligent in their office, &c. for every such default, absence, or negligence, twenty shillings.

Stat 17 Geo II c 38 s 2. Churchwardens and Overseers refusing or neglecting to make and yield up their account, or to deliver over any money or goods in their hands, may be committed to Gaol till they shall have given an account, and have paid the money, and delivered up the goods.

Sec 4. Any person objecting to the account, or thinking themselves aggrieved by any neglect &c. of Overseers may appeal to the next General Quarter Sessions.

Appeals against setting an unfair rate ocassionally landed the Overseers in court, and examples may be found in the quarter session records for Dorset although again, I have not found any cases from Evershot.

Sec 14. Churchwardens and Overseers neglecting or refusing to obey and perform the several orders and directions of this Act, in all cases where no other penalty is provided are subject to a penalty not exceeding £5. nor less than 40s.

Stat. 33 Geo III c 55 s 1 Penalty of forty shillings to be levied by distress on Overseers of the Poor for any neglect of duty or disobedience of any order.

Stat. 50 Geo III c 49 s 1 Accounts of Overseers are to be submitted to two Justices at a special Sessions to be appointed for that purpose within fourteen days after the 25th of March in each year; and the Justices are empowered, if they think fit, to examine into the accounts on oath, and to disallow or strike out all such charges and payments as they shall deem unfounded and to reduce such as they shall think exorbitant ; and in case the Churchwardens and Overseers shall refuse or neglect to give up or submit such account, or to deliver over to their successors any goods, or to pay over any sums of money, the amount may be levied by distress ;and in default of distress, the offender may be committed to Gaol till payment is made.

Two areas that are not covered in the brief guide concern the bastardy laws and the laws of settlement. Both of these are dealt with here bastardy and here settlement [under development].

Next  John Martin and the Evershot Poor Records

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