How the English Poor Law Can Affect YOUR Family History.

Diving down into family history “rabbit holes” is a daily temptation, and one which many professional genealogists tell us to avoid. My recently posted family search strategy was designed to keep me out of rabbit holes …… but the flesh is weak! I came across one such hole a couple of days back and burrowed into it like a ferret after Bugs Bunny!

Family Background

September 1787, John Hart and Mary Hicks were married in Gwennap, Cornwall, a village at the heart of Cornwall’s copper and tin mining economy. Across their lives they had 7 children, a below average number for the times. The first of these was Margery born in 1788, followed by Mary, Sarah Elizabeth, John, Hannah, Sarah, and finally Loveday who was born in 1808. Three of these sisters, Sarah Elizabeth, Hannah, and Loveday, were close and played a significant part in each other’s lives, but first a little about the social environment of the times in which they lived which will give you a clue as to where this is going!

The Poor Law

Anyone researching their family history across the 17th to 19th Centuries needs some understanding of The Poor Law with its various amendments and associated acts such as The Settlement Act because you either contributed in tax to the implementation of the Poor Law or you were a “beneficiary” from it; sometimes you experienced BOTH at different times of your life and I will return to the three sisters within this context shortly.

The Poor Law in England was basically a means of providing food and shelter for the destitute, a sort of a precursor to the current welfare system. There was no single national system for hundreds of years other than a law which was to be implemented by local parishes with taxes levied to fund the system, overseers or unions to manage the implementation and eventually buildings to provide accommodation.

“From its beginnings in the fourteenth century, up to the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948, the evolution of England’s poor laws is the story of one of the most significant and far-reaching strands of the nation’s social policy and administration.” (Peter Higginbotham; Workhouses).

The Poor Law is generally divided into The Old (1631 Act) and The New (1834 Act) with little differing between the two other than administration of the system, one involving local parish funding and management, the latter being a more rigorous national standard system. However there was a deeper change underlying the two acts. Up to 1834 the common attitude had been one of poverty being inevitable with the poor essentially victims of their situation. Relief was therefore a Christian duty. The principles underlying the1834 Act changed in tone, with a growing view that the poor were largely responsible for their own situation and which they could change if they chose.

In general there is a view that the early Poor Law was a good thing, it attempted to provide for the deprived members of a community because of the loss of a job, illness, infirmity or the death of a spouse. But in some areas it was an inhuman part of English society, an opinion I state fully aware that we should never judge the actions of our ancestors in years gone by on the basis of our ethics and morals today. My opinion is based on an associated law, the Settlement Act of 1662 which enabled a Parish to forcibly “cast out” a person returning them to their original place of “settlement”. The problem however, was that there was no unifying guideline specifying original settlement. Generally, for a man it was wherever he was born; for a woman it was the settlement place of her husband once she married; for apprentices it was the place of the apprenticeship; for labourers it was the place of work if they had been employed there for more than 364 days. In many cases these rules were punitive. So let’s take an example of a woman who get married in Truro to a man from Bristol. The man dies and she is left destitute in Truro, so she is bundled off to Bristol (a place maybe never even visited before) for that city to care for her! How welcoming will the city of Bristol be to this poor woman who has fallen on hard times?

The Workhouse

It was the Poor Law and Settlement Act therefore that underpinned the creation of The Workhouse, the establishment so typified in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

“Life inside the workhouse was was intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories. Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children — perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday afternoon.”

“By the 1850s, the majority of those forced into the workhouse were not the work-shy, but the old, the infirm, the orphaned, unmarried mothers, and the physically or mentally ill. For the next century, the Union Workhouse was in many localities one of the largest and most significant buildings in the area, the largest ones accommodating more than a thousand inmates. Entering its harsh regime and spartan conditions was considered the ultimate degradation.”

The Three Sisters

You can see from the extended family tree that John and Mary were my 4 times great grand parents and therefore their daughters were my 3 times great aunts ….. I think! John died in 1839 by which time Hannah and Loveday were each married to a farmer and a miner respectively. Sarah Elizabeth, now 47, was unmarried.

Times were hard, this was the middle of the first great depression in Cornwall with a fall in the value of tin compared with the cost of mining and extracting it. Wages fell, people lost jobs. Sarah Elizabeth moved in to live with her youngest sister and family, Loveday, and they are shown together in both the 1841 and 1851 Census records with Sarah Elizabeth noted as a “Domestic Servant”. In the next census of 1861 she is living with Hannah and her family, but I cannot tell when or why this move occurred. But it didn’t last long, because in 1867 Hannah dies leaving her sister either unwelcome or incapable of remaining as a servant in that household. Sarah Elizabeth is now classed as destitute with nowhere to live and no means of support; except via the Poor Law! She is entered into the local St Illogan Workhouse, named after an obscure Cornish saint. At 75 years of age she is destined to live and labour here for the rest of her days, and I will describe this and her recorded death in my follow up post.







Categories: 1600s, 1800s, Ancestry, Cornwall, English History

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9 replies

  1. There was a poor laws edition of In Our Time on radio 4 in December. Very interesting, like this was.

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  2. My heart is sad when I read about people in such circumstances – especially elderly people who have no one to care for them! Looking forward to your future posts.

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  3. Excellent research Brian. How little things change when you consider the impact of the Tories ‘Universal Credit’ system. The ‘settlement’ issue also remains current when local authorities consider cases of homelessness!

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    • Thank you. I’ve said when I began this that researching, reading about, and understanding the contexts was more important for me than the growing tree. The iron and steel stuff I wrote was easy, I surprised myself how much was already inside my head. The next post will end Sarah Elizabeth’s tale, then hopefully I can crack a big migration jumble I’ve got with Cornish miners spreading across USA from lead, to silver, to gold!


  4. Sounds perfectly dreadful. The 1834 Act seems so uncompassionate. It’s sad when any society drops to that level. But you’re correct that we can’t really be judgmental about the past to that extent.


    • We have to understand things like this within the context of those times and NOT side by side against today’s welfare systems. Disgracefully though it’s what many left wing academics do who are now indoctrinating our young in universities.

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