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Introduction to English Poor Law and Parish Chest Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Introduction[edit | edit source]

From the early 16th century every parish in England was required to have a locked parish chest to contain the parish registers and all other documents pertaining to the parish. The English Poor Law of 1552 directed every parish to provide a strong chest, with three keys, to holds the alms for the poor. Often one chest fulfilled both requirements and it was kept in the church.

A few pre-13th century original chests made of hollowed out logs survive, and later ones were made of wood or metal, the construction parallelling the development of the joiner’s craft. A photograph of a splendid chest adorns the dust jacket of W. E. Tate’s classic volume on the subject (The Parish Chest. A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England), with drawings of others inside; drawings of chests and poor boxes (and everything else you might find in a church) can be found in A. Needham’s How to Study an Old Church.

This chest has been subject to all of the vagaries of weather, neglect, vermin attack, and pilfering over the course of time. Much of the contained material has made its way into diocesan and county archives over time, but it is only in the last 15 years that a concerted attempt has been made to ensure proper storage and conservation for all church records, mainly through Lord Teviot’s efforts in the House of Lords.

The Poor Law[edit | edit source]

The study of the Poor Law is one of losers and winners. Those ancestors who featured in the documents, other than the administrators of course, were the losers, but since the documentation was so extensive we, their descendants, are the winners for we can gain much information not available for ordinary, self-supporting and law-abiding middle class ancestors.

History of the Care of the Poor[edit | edit source]

The term poor is taken here in relevance to the Poor Law and parish chest, as meaning all those who were thrown on the charitable resources for support. Peter Clark in Poverty and Social Policy 1750-1850 (Burchall) has categorized them as follows:

  • Impotent poor—meaning the physically and mentally sick, the old, and the infirm.
  • Helpless poor—single-parent families, usually widows left with a large family, and young children, especially orphans, foundlings and bastards.
  • Out of work—able-bodied men (and their families) who could work if work was available—this group included the idle malingerers, too!
  • Marginal poor—those on the poverty line and susceptible to any slight change in circumstances such as a bad harvest, higher rent, another child, accidents, illness or a death to pay for.
  • Mobile poor—vagrants and beggars.
  • Soldiers and militiamen whose family could not manage without a breadwinner at home.

The poor who were assisted by their parish were called paupers, bairmen/bearmen or collectioners, and poor people not in receipt of parish relief were called second poor. At times up to 20% of the population of some places were on poor relief. Thornton Hunt wrote an essay on the English Pauper that is evocative of the conditions they had to withstand.

The classic works concerning the poor of London are by Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1851 (which has no names); John Hollingshead, Ragged London in 1861, which has been name-indexed by Hall; Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago (see Ferdinando); and Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903 (see the Charles Booth Online Archive website with actual maps and digitized notebooks).

From early times a few resources were available throughout the land to care for those incapable of caring for themselves. These were all local charities of several types such as almshouses, spitals (forerunner of hospitals), and monasteries, as well as provision of food, clothing, fuel and money from private persons or groups.

Monasteries[edit | edit source]

There had been about 650 monasteries and convents in England and Wales prior to the Reformation (1534). They had founded, and ran, most of the hospitals of the time and were well known for their care of the sick and infirm, as well as generosity towards travellers and the poor.

The numbers of monks and nuns had dwindled appreciably by the early 16th century, and when Henry VIII began to dissolve them in 1536 he initially only intended to take over those with fewer than a dozen monks or nuns and an endowment of less than £200 per year (Hey). 374 fell into this category and the monks and nuns were pensioned off fairly during the first year. Henry’s wars were expensive to conduct and his appetite for the riches of the larger monasteries had been whetted, so it took only until March 1540 to dissolve all of the rest, the spoils going to the crown through auctioning off the land and possessions. This benefitted the aristocracy, and particularly the local gentry, as they were able to acquire land at bargain prices as there was a glut of properties on the market.

The social consequences did not seem to have been addressed, for although the monks and nuns were given fair pensions, most of the mediaeval hospitals were concomitantly dissolved, and all of the charitable functions removed. The less fortunate poor and sick that they assisted were now without a ‘welfare net’ to catch them.

The government of the Tudors gave responsibility for the poor, highways and for petty law and order to the civil parishes, which were often coterminous with the ecclesiastical ones. From this stems the large amount of civil records in the parish chest, even though it is overwhelmingly concerned with the poor.

Large ecclesiastical parishes, especially in the counties of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, were subdivided into townships and these, or groups of them, became the civil parishes.

The county system was supervised by Justices of the Peace (magistrates) who met four times a year at the Quarter Sessions, hence the frequent reference to these terms in the following documents. In turn the Justices received their direction either directly from the Privy Council, or at their usually twice annual Assizes for their area.

Early History of the Poor Law[edit | edit source]

Control of vagrancy was maintained by requiring that able beggars be severely punished, and that if a parish could not afford to care for an impotent beggar they had to send him back to his parish of birth.

The Statute of Mortmain required that when a church benefice was appropriated (typically by a monastery) some of its revenues had to be used for the parish poor.

Any vagrant able to work was whipped, or in severe cases had his ears sliced off or was hanged.

Impotent vagrants has to obtain a licence to beg from a magistrate.

Dissolution of the monasteries, followed by a succession of cruel and ineffectual laws.

Now that the monasteries were no longer operating the parish was made responsible for its poor, financing this by asking for charitable donations on Sundays. Private alms to beggars were forbidden.

A sure coffer made of sturdy oak required in each parish church in which to store all parish records as well as the silver and communion plate. This was known as the parish chest, and may have served double duty as the receptacle for alms as well.

1547 Poor Law
Allowed branding and slavery as punishment for persistent vagrancy.

Requirement for the parish to have a strong chest with three keys for receipts of alms for the poor.

1555 Highway Act
Transference of responsibility for highway maintenance from adjoining land owners to the parish using statute labour.

A Poor Law was enacted that required two or more collectors for each parish, often the churchwardens, to solicit and even compel alms from parishioners (also known as parochyns).

Licences for begging were discontinued, and beggars were to be branded on the right shoulder. Private almsgiving was fined £1 but those reluctant to contribute alms to the common fund were dealt with by the magistrates. Alms collectors and Supervisors of the Labour of Rogues and Vagabonds were appointed. The office of Overseer of the Poor was created, being appointed by the parish vestry and approved by the county Justices of the Peace. The overseers collected and supervised all charitable donations and fines, and later could assess a poor rate from the inhabitants.

An act allowed imprisonment of the parents of an illegitimate child.

The poor rate was made compulsory and the division made between those capable of living in their own homes with some outdoor reliefmoney or supplies, and indoor relieffor those ‘lame, impotent, old and blind’ taken in to the parish abiding houseor poorhouse. The latter was first authorized now to be built at ratepayers’ expense ‘on the waste or common of the village’. The overseers were instructed to apprentice pauper children, and had to ensure that paupers were provided with stock on which to work. Women would spin, weave and make sacks with flax, hemp, wool and thread, whilst men and boys would be set to work with iron, break rocks, and mend the roads. This was the first Act for the Relief of the Poor, and it was modified in 1601 by which date it is usually known (Williams).

Later Laws
[edit | edit source]

For information about later poor laws, see:


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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