Parish Chest – Overseer of the poor an overview

Overseers of the Poor were created by the Poor Law Act of 1572 and were responsible for the ‘management’ of the poor. This included collecting the ‘poor rate’; paying poor relief in its various guises and removing those ‘unwanted’ persons from the parish.

Overseers accounts can provide a great deal of information valuable to the genealogist, particularly those from poor backgrounds. Agricultural labourers and their families will often appear at some time or other in the overseers accounts. Agricultural labourers were amongst the lowest paid earners and in years when crops failed or prices were through the floor, it was often these workers who suffered the most and required poor relief in order to survive.

Poor rates and relief

By an Act of 1551 parishes were required to register their poor and the clergy were to ‘gently ask and demand of every man and woman what they of their charity would be content to give weekly towards the relief of the lame, impotent and aged’. Following the appointment of Overseers, parishioners were ‘ordered’ to assist with supporting the poor but it was not until 1598 and the Great Poor Law Act of 1601 that the poor rate was introduced and remained in force until the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Under the 1601 Act parishes were to tax ‘every inhabitant, parson, vicar and other and every occupier of lands, houses, tithe impropriate and proprietors of tithes, coalmines or saleable underwood’.

The poor rate assessment was carried out by the Overseer although the Vestry had the overriding decision including who would be excluded from paying the rate. The rate was assessed based on the value of a parishioner’s property, irrespective of whether they owned it or just occupied it. The income was recorded in either the Overseers accounts (in smaller parishes) or separate Poor Rate books (in larger parishes) and will include the names and the amount paid so this could provide an indication of an ancestor’s wealth.

Further, because the rate was levied annually, an ancestor’s appearance or disappearance from the poor rate records may indicate their death, movement between parishes or their financial demise. Those who failed to pay their prescribed poor rate, could be set to gaol and details of those ancestors may be found in the Constables accounts (see below).

Poor relief was available to the sick, unemployment or old age; those simply unwillingness to work would not receive poor relief. The records include a recipients name, details of any family members; amount given and the purpose of the payment, usually made for a specific purpose such as rent, food, coffins and funeral expenses. Clothing would be provided and medical treatment paid for by the parish. Work may also be provide, e.g. women would often be paid to care for the sick or undertook laundry work; men would be set to work repairing parish roads and bridges.

Parish Apprenticeships

Under the Poor Law Act 1601, children of the poor, including orphans and foundlings were apprenticed from the age of seven, often without the agreement of the parent(s) although the agreement should have been executed by the child, his/her parents, their master and the parish officers and enforced by the execution of a bond.

Details of children apprenticed will be found in the Overseers accounts and Vestry minutes1, when separate apprenticeship register were to be kept. This register may be found amongst the parish records as will any surviving indentures.

Indentures will provide the following information:

  • Date of Agreement
  • Name of the child being apprenticed
  • Name of the Master
  • Names of the Churchwarden(s), Overseer(s) and Justices of the Peace endorsing the apprenticeship
  • The trade in which the child is to be apprenticed
  • Terms of apprenticeship

They are therefore a useful source of information to the genealogist, both in determining whether an ancestor was an apprentice and in determining whether an ancestors held a parish or legal office.

The later apprenticeship registers include the following details:

  • Date of Agreement
  • Name of apprentice
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Parents names (especially the father)
  • Residence of the parents
  • Name and address of the Master
  • Masters trade
  • Term of apprenticeship and fee paid
  • Names of Overseer(s) and magistrates endorsing the apprenticeship

They are therefore of greater value than indentures, providing additional useful information for the tracing of ancestors.

Poor Law Acts of 1576 and 1609-10 encouraged ‘houses of correction’ for those described as ‘idle’ and/or ‘disorderly’ where, as a form of punishment, they were set to work. By the Workhouse Act 1722 these became houses of industry or workhouses and smaller parishes could ‘unite’ to establish a ‘joint’ workhouse.

Overseers kept records of the possessions of those entering such houses. There may also be records of what work was undertaken whilst in the poorhouse. Anyone refusing to enter the workhouse would lose their poor relief and this may be apparent from the poor relief accounts.

The overseers accounts (including poor rate records and apprenticeship records) are arguable some of the records of greatest value to the family historian. These are the records which should provide the most information on individual parishioners.

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