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The Poor Are Always With Us


Poverty is obviously a relative concept.  For the purposes of this exhibition, the Poor can be defined as those in want of the basic means of subsistence - food, shelter, fuel and clothing - and who were compelled to seek assistance.  This does not mean that many of those falling outside this definition, such as labourers and their families surviving on minimal wages, were not desperately poor even by the standards of the day.  The mechanism of parish relief was however attuned to a basic level of coming between the poor, and starvation or hypothermia.  Therefore the main focus of these images and the accompanying text is with the public obligation to relieve the poor, to get them into work and/or to get them to a place where they were entitled to receive aid.  Although parish relief was effective, as time passed it began to prove increasingly costly and so the Victorian Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 sought to reduce costs by creating the Poor Law Unions, whereby several parishes were grouped together to provide aid.  This act also introduced the workhouse which has been immortalised in our national psyche as a place of fear and dread. 

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Relief in kind

Before 1834 poor relief was the responsibility of individual parishes and they had to look after any resident unable to support themselves.  The earliest official legislation was the Poor Law Act of 1597/8, which required parishes to appoint ‘overseers of the poor’ (chosen from local householders) to manage the poor of their parish.  These ‘overseers’ were to look after the poor for the next 250 years and their responsibilities included: providing “outdoor relief” (help for individuals at home), “indoor relief” (help in an almshouse or workhouse), providing suitable help and finding work.  Providing relief in kind (clothing, food, and fuel) was preferred to giving money for outdoor relief, as it couldn’t be drunk or gambled away.  However, money to purchase tools or equipment required to allow a person to work was also given, especially if this might prevent a person from losing a job and therefore becoming dependant on the parish.  This example from the Vestry minutes from Painswick in 1784 records that the parish lent John Bailey 3 shillings to buy a new scythe, presumably to replace one that had been broken or stolen.  It would have been repaid in small weekly amounts.  It is about £13 in today’s money (FYI a scythe today costs around £120).

Reference: P244/VE/2/7

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Slimbridge Vestry minutes 5 December 1759

This page from the Slimbridge Vestry minutes for 1759 lists various items given to parish poor as ‘outdoor relief’.  Clothing features heavily (not a surprise as it is winter) and items include coats, shirts, stockings, breeches and shoes.  Food was also given – Thomas Halbrow’s family received ‘three pecks of wheat and a peck of bran’ (a ‘peck’ is equivalent to 9 litres).  Some of the poor also received equipment to help them work; Ann Bondall and May Long both received a spinning wheel.

Reference: P298a/VE/2/1

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Almshouses, London Road, Gloucester c.1901

Poor relief undertaken by charities was often directed towards providing housing for the poor.  This image is the courtyard of the old almshouses in London Road, circa 1901, which were run by the Gloucester municipal charity trustees and funded by medieval endowments.  It is thought that about at least five families lived in the buildings shown in this image.  Sadly we do not have any images of the conditions that prevailed inside.

Reference: SR44-36297-129

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Thornbury parish Poor Rate 1657

Funding for providing for the poor came from a ‘poor rate’ levied on parishioners.  This is a page from the Thornbury overseers accounts for 1657 and shows part of the poor rate that was collected in the parish.  The overseers had to first estimate how much poor relief money was needed in the parish and then they set the poor rate accordingly, as a ‘pence in the pound’ figure.  The amount individual parishioners paid was based on the value of the land and buildings they owned or rented but not on personal or movable wealth.  The rates were collected monthly and in this instance, the amounts range from 1d a month to 5s6d a month (roughly 44p to £29).

Reference: D688/1

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Bisley parish - Calendar of Passports

A Kalender of the Pasports

Certificats, Testimonialls, or Licences

made by the Parish of Bisley in the

Countie of Gloucester, according to the

Statute of Parliament made Anno

domini 1597 & Regni Reginae Elizabeth

Tricesimo Nono

This image from the parish register of Bisley for 1597 shows the new poor law of 1597/8 in operation.  This page shows removal orders that record the parish sending those it believed to belong elsewhere – either to their place of birth (if known) or the last place of residence.  The paupers received a passport that allowed them to claim relief enroute to their destination and gave them protection from being whipped as vagrants.

Reference: P47/IN/1/1

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Cirencester Beadle of Beggars, 1619

Beadles were minor parish officials – the one that most of us will be familiar with is Charles Dickens’ Mr. Bumble, the cruel and self-important character in Oliver Twist who oversees the parish workhouse and orphanage where the orphaned Oliver is brought up.  Cirencester and Tewkesbury appointed a Beadle of Beggars to help control begging, collect the poor rate and enforce town poor law rules in general.  This example from the Cirencester Vestry minutes ordered that the beadle would: not permit ‘strange’ beggars in the town, would stop town poor or their children from begging if they exhibited bad or noisy behaviour, would report any poor who ‘offended in idleness drunkenness or theft’, would stop the poor bringing noisy children to church and give ‘correction’ if necessary, would report alehouse keepers who let the poor drink in their premises to the justices and set idle poor children over 7 years old to work.  They were also permitted to punish in a ‘rude & brutish manner’ those poor who caused annoyance to townsfolk.

Reference: P86/1/VE2/1

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List of poor in Newent

This book lists some of the poor of the town of Newent and district who were receiving relief during the hard frost of 1789.  It was presumably written by the incumbent of the parish and demonstrates the prevailing idea of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.  Some of the comments are quite forthright in nature.  This page has two notable ‘undeserving poor’.  At the top of the page there is an entry where the name cannot be made out, but the comment reads ‘Husband transported – a lazy boy at home that ought to be out – poor woman very wicked at Tewkesbury’.  At the bottom is an entry for a boy called Bragget junior, ‘If not sent to sea soon will undoubtedly make his exit at the Gallows.  Though scarcely 17, he is a notorious thief & has been once whipped at the Castle, Gloucester.’ 

Reference: D1791/6

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Medical bills

Those who received poor relief were also cared for medically if they fell ill.  This usually involved providing medicines but sometimes went much farther.  This is Dr William Fry's bill to Cam overseers for treating Henry Sanigar of Cam in 1794.  As well as travel expenses, this page lists several medicines and two procedures performed on the patient including dressing his wounds, providing purging draughts and strengthening powders.  However, Henry had obviously suffered a major head trauma for among these expenses is a fee for performing a trepanning operation. The bill of £8 15s 3d is around £680 today.

Reference: P69/OV/2/5

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Settlement Examination of Mary & Maria Stevens, 1831

Parishes were entitled to undertake settlement examinations of their poor to determine whether the person was entitled to help.  These took place before a Justice of the Peace and would determine the person’s place of ‘legal settlement’ (originally the place of birth).  If it was decided that this was elsewhere and not in the parish, then the person would be removed to the new place of legal settlement.  The place of ‘legal settlement’ could change during an individual’s lifetime depending on whether they completed an apprenticeship, worked for more than a year (later 5 years), held a public office or (for a woman) married.  This is the settlement examination of Maria Stevens, ’aged about thirteen, a female bastard child’ who had been sent to Cam by Wotton-Under-Edge overseers.  The examining justice heard evidence from Maria’s mother stating that although she had given birth to her child in Cam, Maria now lived with her mother in Wotton-Under-Edge.  The justice therefore decided that Maria was chargeable not to the parish of Cam but to Wotton-Under-Edge so she was able to legally remain with her mother in Wotton.

Reference: P69/OV/3/3/1/1

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Removal Order of Elizabeth Boucher and son from Kings Stanley to Cam, 1848

This is the removal order of Elizabeth Boucher and her son (Charles, aged 1) which ordered the removal of the pair from the parish of Kings Stanley to the parish of Cam in 1848.  The family had moved to Kings Stanley a few years earlier, but Elizabeth’s husband had then deserted her and without any means of support she had been forced to turn to the parish overseers for help.  The Kings Stanley parish overseers had her examined and it was determined that her place of legal settlement was Cam, so the Kings Stanley overseers obtained this order to remove her from Kings Stanley to Cam, which by this date, meant she and her son went into Dursley Workhouse.

Reference: P69/OV/3/3/1/20

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Letter to the Governor of Cam Workhouse from G Robinson, January 1826

In January 1826, Elizabeth Hayward was removed from the South Hamlet in Gloucester to the parish of Cam.  This letter accompanied the removal order and was written by G Robertson of the Spa Hotel, Gloucester, to the governor of Cam Workhouse, concerning the woman, explaining her situation, and requesting payment for expenses incurred in her care.    

Spa Hotel, Gloucester


            As I think it necessary to acquaint you

        that I have got suspended orders for the Removal

        of Elizabeth Hayward as soon as the Dr pronounces her

        able to be removed – she was found in a wood about 10 days

        and not being able to walk, she was brought to me

        in a cart and I had her examined by a magistrate

       and the Doctors she was born in Cam workhouse and I

       have had her taken care of ever since she has been under

         my care – if you have any influence to get her in the

       infirmary or any others in doing so you will oblige.

                        Yours etc G Robertson

     Jan 23 1826

                        P.S. if not sent for I must as soon as she

                        can be removed – with the order and you

                        must pay all expenses

Reference: P69/OV/3/3/1/35

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Ground plan of Stow Union Workhouse

By the early 1830s it was becoming clear that the old parish system of poor relief was outdated, expensive and inefficient.  In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment was passed and created the Poor Law Unions (about 650 in all), each of which was administered by an elected Board of Guardians, who were charged with care of the poor in their area.  The changes that the commission recommended included no out-relief (henceforth poor relief would only be given in workhouses and inmates had to work in order to receive food and assistance), segregation (workhouses would be segregated by sex and age to ensure proper regulation, so families and married couples were split up), less support for mothers of illegitimate children and standard treatment of paupers across the country.  Under the new Poor Laws, each union had to build a workhouse if they did not already have one and as most of the existing parish workhouses were unfit for purpose, a mini-construction boom began as new union workhouses were built.

Reference: G/STO/32

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Rules of Wotton-Under-Edge Workhouse

The Poor Law Union workhouses were subject to numerous rules & regulations.  These rules are from the Wotton-Under-Edge workhouse and were published both for the inmates and for the general population, to show that the inmates were well governed by the Workhouse Master and the Poor Law Board of Guardians.   Working days typically ran from 6am to 6pm in Summer and 8am to 4pm in winter.  Inmates who refused to do work, disobeyed instructions or misbehaved automatically received 24hrs solitary confinement with bread & water for a first offence.  For a second offence they would receive 21 days hard labour in prison.  If they absconded from the workhouse this was an offence punishable by 3 months imprisonment.

Reference: RZ354.2GS

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Tewkesbury Board of Guardians Minutes 1837

Much of what we know about Poor Law Unions come from the minutes of the meetings of the Boards of Guardians.  Minute books, generally in complete runs, have survived for each Union in the county from 1835 until the late 1920s.  The Boards often discussed items in detail – from whether to take in families, dietaries of inmates, pursuit of absent fathers, apprenticing, inmates work, expenses and much else besides.  They are generally well-written but in an undeniably very monotonous hand.

Reference: G/TEW/8a/1

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Extract of Tewkesbury Board of Guardians Minutes 23 August 1837

This extract from the Tewkesbury Board of Guardians relates to Harriet Pumphrey, a pauper who escaped from Tewkesbury workhouse in August 1837.  When inmates did run away, they were not only guilty of absconding but also of theft, because when they were admitted to the workhouse their own clothes were taken away and they were given a set of clothes owned by the workhouse.  In this instance, Harriet was apprehended by the Master of the Workhouse quickly and sent before the mayor, who remanded her in Tewkesbury Gaol to be tried.  However, after a week’s imprisonment, the Master subsequently requested that the mayor discharge her back into the care of the workhouse.

Reference: G/TEW/8a/1

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Extract of Tewkesbury Board of Guardians Minutes

The Unions purchased supplies using the tender process, as at Tewkesbury Union shown here.  This meant that it wasn't always the highest quality (milk was often watered down) and goods were frequently past their best.  Also, as it was often stored poorly, it wasn’t unusual for inmates to have to pick rat faeces from oatmeal.  This list records tenders offered for bread, flour, meat, oatmeal, patna rice (this was the term for any long-grain aromatic rice), yellow loaf (vanilla or plain cake), candles, coals, milk, butter and coffins.  There were some scandals involving workhouse food – the most infamous being in 1845 at Andover in Hampshire where inmates were driven by hunger to fight over and eat the marrow and gristle from (often putrid) animal bones they were supposed to be crushing for fertiliser.

Reference: G/TEW/8a/1

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Cheltenham Union Statistics

Like most official governmental organisations, the Poor Law Unions kept good statistics.  These figures from the Cheltenham Union show the number receiving poor relief in March 1870.  By this date, the idea of ‘no outdoor relief’ had been dropped and for every pauper in the workhouse, nine were relieved in their own homes – these being people temporarily unable to work because of sickness or accident.  The reason was simple – it was cheaper than admitting these people to the Workhouse – even if the latter could accommodate them all.

Reference: G/CH/25

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A Visitor to Mitcheldean

Declining opportunities for employment on the land after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 meant that after the 1850s the numbers of vagrants increased.  Many of these were families seeking work in towns and cities, but there were also ‘professional vagrants’, who drifted from one casual job to the next until, through sickness or infirmity, they were admitted to an infirmary or workhouse to die.  This image – entitled ‘A Visitor to Mitcheldean’ – was taken about 1905.  The vagrant is probably genuine enough, but the event was probably posed and no doubt the tramp was paid for his services!

Reference: GPS/220/1

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