Poor Laws

The administration of the poor rates became the responsibility of individual parishes in 1601 when the Poor Law Act was passed. Because some parishes weren’t as generous as others, the Poor Laws resulted in people moving from poor parishes into the more generous parishes, leading to much anger and the resentment of the rate payers of those more affluent parishes.

In the present day in England, we often refer to this as the post code lottery. That is, those that live in the more generous local authority areas in England may have access to better health and social care support, better access to medical services and expensive medication, better provision for day services for pensioners and access to better schools etc.

Because of the dissatisfaction and unfairness of the Poor Law act, the Poor Law Relief Act (also known as the Settlement Act) an ‘Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom’ was passed in 1662 to prevent the migration of people for purely profitable motives.

This is how it worked. If someone from outside of a parish appeared in a new parish, and the Churchwardens or Overseers of the poor of that parish made a complaint to the Justice of Peace within 40 days of the outsider settling in their parish (in any tenement under the yearly value of £10), a warrant would be issued for the removal of that person to the parish where they were last legally settled.

This again has similarities to the present day. If someone moves from one English local authority district to another, they wouldn’t be eligible for Supporting People funding unless they had family connections in the new area or could prove that they had lived there for six months out of the previous twelve. They would also be bottom of the housing register for social housing – housing once owned by local authorities but now mostly owned and administered by housing associations on behalf of local authorities.

In order to be considered to have a legal settlement, an individual had to meet one or more of the following conditions:

• Up to 1662, had lived in the parish for more than three years
• After 1662 an individual could be forced to leave the parish within 40 days of arrival (see above)
• After 1691, an individual had to give 40 days’ notice before moving into a parish
• Be born into a parish where the parents had a settlement
• Have married into the parish
• Previously have received poor relief in that parish
• Have continual employment from a resident of the parish for more than a year and a day
• Served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident
• Be able to rent property worth more than £10 per annum or pay taxes on a property worth more than £10 per annum.
• Hold parish office

Settlement Certificates

After 1662, if a man left his settled parish to move elsewhere, he had to take with him a Settlement Certificate which guaranteed that his home parish would pay for his removal costs from another parish to his home parish if he was unfortunate enough to be become a claimant on the poor rates. Parishes were unwilling to issue these certificates so people tended to stay where they lived — where they knew that they could claim on the poor rates if they needed to.

This is extremely important to the family historian because a settlement certificate can be evidence that a ‘lost’ or ‘missing’ ancestor moved to and resided in another parish, if there are no marriage or burial entries to be found. Settlement certificates are, unfortunately, relatively scarce. Search online and/or enquire at your county record office or local family history society.

London Poor Law Records 1581-1899