Parish Chest Records in England:
Poor Laws and their Administration

Under poor laws enacted in the late 1500s and later revisions in England, parishes were responsible for the care of the poor among them. From the late 1500s until 1834, Overseers of the Poor were appointed by Justices of the Peace.

These Overseers were responsible for all aspects of the poor law. They looked after sick relief, took care of the aged, provided children of the poor with apprenticeships, found work for the able-bodied among the poor, and assisted the local constable in his duties. They also maintained a “house of correction” for vagrants, as well as the poor house.

Included in this category are records relating to overseer’s accounts, settlement and removal orders, the care of illegitimate children, poorhouses, vagrants, apprenticeships (some of which were voluntary, and some of which were not), and any other matters relating to the poor.

Taxes for the Welfare of the Poor and other Public Services

Taxes were imposed to assist the poor, including poorhouses and vagrant "correctional houses", as well as for providing public services. In a similar manner to today, taxes, or “rates”, were charged for public services like watchmen, sewers, lighting, pest control, and so on. Accounting records were kept of amounts assessed, received, and disbursed. These records generally are very extensive, where they survived.

"The Vagrants". Public Domain
Painting - The Vagrants

Bonds of Indemnification / "Bastardy Bonds"

Children born out of wedlock were the responsibility of the parish, unless the officials could find out who the father was. If the father was discovered, he would have to sign a “bond of indemnification” (commonly known as a “bastardy bond”) stating that he would take financial responsibility for the child.

Parish councils therefore took this situation very seriously. The woman would be examined before a magistrate (think of the term “cross-examination” in the legal world today!) to try to determine who the father was. Alternatively, the midwife would examine her while she was in labour.

One set of records which had been transcribed and which I viewed online showed that this method was very effective in producing a name for the child’s father, at least in that parish; there was a list of some 40 women over a specified time period, all of whom named someone as the father of their child, and in most cases, gave an address, or a description of where the man lived or worked. Whether or not those men actually were the fathers, of course, is another matter.

Bastardy bonds and/or records of a woman’s examination are among the records that would be found in the parish chest records.

After 1834, with the changes to the laws and the introduction of Poor Law Unions, these bonds would be found in the Quarter Session records, if the illegitimate child's mother made application for such a bond.

The parish or the father would be responsible for the child's welfare at the longest to age 14, at which time the child would be able to work and support himself or herself.

"The Outcast" by Richard Redgrave, 1851.
Daughter and Illegitimate Child
no longer Welcome at home.
Public domain.

Other records in this category include:

  • a Notice of Application for Bastardy Order, which the pregnant woman would send to the father, advising him of the application, which would occur at the next Quarter Session. These applied after the 1834 changes to the Poor Laws;
  • a Bastardy Warrant, in which the parish constable was required to find the named father and bring him before the magistrate, or to find a father who has not met his obligations under the bond he signed;
  • a Bastardy Recognizance, which carried the case over to the next Quarter Sessions, and ordered the father to appear then, by which time the child presumably would have been born;
  • a Bastardy Summons, by which a constable was obliged to bring the alleged father to court;
  • a Bastardy Order, which detailed who was to pay what; and
  • a Bastardy Certificate, in which the father was released from the recognizance, usually because he had paid all that was required.

Apprenticeship Records

While in the normal course of events, it was the child’s father who placed him or her in an apprenticeship, the Parish Council or the Overseers of the Poor also were known to handle this for pauper children. It was a matter of finances: it was less expensive to place a child in an apprenticeship than to bring him up.

There may be a reference to the child in the minutes to a vestry meeting, when the child was discussed and it was decided to place him in an apprenticeship. There may also be an apprenticeship agreement, or record, among the parish chest documents.

Mark Schechtman via Wikimedia Commons.

Settlement and Removal Orders

As noted above, parishes were responsible for taking care of the poor and the aged within their boundaries. They also assessed rates, or taxes, to take care of many other public functions.

This meant that, when a new family arrived in the parish and shortly afterwards asked for assistance under the Poor Laws, parish officials often sought to have the individuals removed to the parish they had come from, on grounds that the new parish was not responsible for them.

It also meant that individuals who had been living within a particular parish for many years, who suddenly fell upon hard times, could be subject to questioning by the local officials as to how long they had lived there, and what sort of ties they had that could prove that, when they moved there, their intention was to take up permanent residence there.

Former Poorhouse, now living accommodations.
Avoncliff, Wiltshire, England.
Betty Longbottom via Wikimedia Commons
Former Poorhouse, Avoncliffe, Wiltshire; now living accommodations

A set of rules was developed to determine the issue of settlement and where a person legally had a right to reside in these circumstances.

Individuals were known to use apprenticeship records from a number of years before, or other documents showing intention to reside in a location and be a contributing member of that society, in an attempt to prove that they belonged in that parish.

Removal orders meant that the local constable was issued an order to escort the family being sent away from the parish to what had been determined to be their legal place of settlement under the Poor Laws.

Settlement orders, of course, allowed the person to stay in the parish.

This way of proceeding, naturally, discouraged those who were poor from moving to another parish in search of work, as if they had reason to call upon the local parish for assistance at any time after moving there, they would either have to prove that they were entitled to settle there, or be removed back to their home parish.

Go from "Poor Laws: Parish Chest Records " to "Parish Chest Records: England, Ireland, and Wales"

Go from "Poor Laws: Parish Chest Records " to "Tithe and Glebe Terrier Accounts"

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