Introduction To Overseers Of The Poor


A brief outline of the Acts of Parliament with regards to provision for the poor from the Reformation to the formation of the Poor Law Unions in 1834.

Before 1536 and the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII the
responsibility for the relief of the poor rested upon the Church through the parish
clergy and the monastic and other religious houses.

After 1536 Henry broke up and sold off the Churches buildings and land ,as a consequence the system of relief broke down. Poverty and starvation became acute in the land. The Clergy (now C. of E.) were ordered to collect alms and distribute them to the poor. This system remained in place until:

1572 ( Eliz 1 ) An Act created and formalised two posts, that of a Collector of Alms and a Supervisor of the Labour of Rogues and Vagabonds in each parish. One of the reasons for this was the gangs of poor and destitute people roving the country.
Anyone refusing to give alms voluntarily were to be compulsory assessed.

1597 ( Eliz 1 ) The two offices Collectors and Supervisors were combined with the title of ‘Overseers of the Poor’. Those appointed had to be approved by the Justices of the Peace as having standing in the parish, being honest and with integrity etc.

1601 ( Eliz 1 ) The great Poor Law was enacted. One statute required that the Parish Church Wardens were to be appointed as ex – officio Overseers of the Poor along with those members of the parish approved by the Justices of the Peace.

1658 ( Closing days of the Commonwealth ) Two years before the Restoration the two open fields and the Common field of Great Ayton were enclosed. Prior to this villagers would have had access to strips in the fields and rights on the common to graze and collect wood etc. which enabled them and their families to be partly self supporting. Enclosure did away with this! The villagers were now totally dependant on selling their labour to support their families. Poverty would have increased with more and more being reliant on parish relief to keep starvation from the door. One villager of a parish in the Midlands resisting threatening enclosure said “ We know the way we live is not perfect, but it is what we are used to; and with all its plagues it is better than being on the parish or having to go to the farmers backdoor begging for a days work and being turned away. No it ain’t all beer and skittles, but with the Common he is at least half his own man, and without the Common he’s the Farmers Dog!’

1691 ( Wm III ) Overseers of the Poor were required to keep a record of the monies that they disbursed in cash , clothing etc. Their Rate Books listed those in the parish who were ratepayers, along with the amount they each paid on houses and land.

1697 ( Wm III ) This Act required all the poor on Parish Relief to wear a badge bearing the letter ‘P’ to be sewn on their clothes and were banned from begging. Those paupers who refused to be badged ( called Badgemen ) were sent to the House of Correction for whipping and three weeks hard labour.

1772 ( Geo III ) An Act was passed allowing parishes to buy or rent a building for use as a Poor House along with a Keeper.

1790 ( Geo III ) Justices were required to carry out inspections of parish Poor Houses

1834 ( Vict ) A New Poor Law combined parishes into Poor Law Unions with one Workhouse per Union. These were governed by the Poor Law Guardians which themselves were overseen at nation level by Poor Law Commissioners.. Great Ayton became part of the local Union with its Workhouse at Springfield Road in Stokesley. ( As of the end of 2008 it was converted into apartments). Poor Law Unions remained until their dissolution in the 1920’s

The CHURCHWARDENS ACCOUNTS for Great Ayton are held at the North Yorks Count Record Office in Northallerton .NYCRO PR/AYG (Mf 1202 0

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