The Poor Law
The Poor Law Act of 1601 made each parish responsible for setting the able-bodied unemployed to work, and for relieving those unable to support themselves, and required that Overseers be appointed to see this done and to raise for the purpose a rate on the occupiers of property. But people did not always, by any means, stay in the place where they were born, and the question inevitably arose of which parish was responsible for incomers. Hence the ‘Law of Settlement’, and the mass of information in Devon parish records on the examination of such people to find where they belonged, and for their removal if necessary to the place where they were ‘settled’. The examination records show great numbers of brief working-class ‘biographies’, with movements, wages, and many other details of people otherwise unknown to history.
Successive Acts, from 1662 onwards, attempted to deal with this problem, and from them, and from the cases locally recorded, it emerges that a legitimate child got the Settlement of its father, an illegitimate one (until 1834) in its parish of birth, and a wife that of her husband. Settlement in another parish could be gained by serving an apprenticeship (the last complete forty days of it deciding where), by completing a year’s contract of living-in service, or by occupying and paying rates on a property worth C 10 a year. Lawyers did very well out of arguing hard cases, and sometimes odd decisions followed. In 1833, for example, an East Budleigh boy apprenticed to a Topsham shipmaster was held to have acquired a Settlement in Kenton (with which place he had no connection whatever), because the vessel had lain for forty days in ‘the Bight of Exmouth Harbour’- notionally in Kenton parish.
Parish Overseers, appointed in rotation for a year at a time from among the major property occupiers, had varied and arduous responsibilities. They provided out-relief in cash and clothing to the poor, and buried pauper dead (but had the right to claim their goods, if any, as parish property). They saw that the children of the poor were ‘apprenticed’ at an early age (often eight or nine) to local occupiers in rotation, nearly all boys to ‘husbandry’- farm work -and girls to ‘housewifery’- domestic service, in both cases for maintenance only. Boys were bound till twenty-four until 1778, and then till twenty-one; and girls till twenty-one (or, after 1734, till marriage if earlier). This relieved the Poor Rate, as well as poor parents, from the cost of maintaining children.
In the mid eighteenth century there was a widespread movement to establish parish workhouses, in the hope of reducing costs by making entry a condition of relief. ‘Church Houses’, often erected in Devon villages about 1 500 for various parish purposes, were taken into use for this purpose: and records survive of their stringent rules, running expenses, and diet. But the work required seldom went beyond spinning for women, and gardening or similar tasks for men (if they were able), and never paid much towards costs. With the later eighteenth century the extent of poverty grew too large for parish workhouses, and outdoor relief returned on an increasingly massive scale following the Act of 1 796 which authorised payment according to the current price of bread. Nationally, the amount of Poor Rate increased fourfold between then and 1818 – about three times as fast as the population – with the distress caused by, and following, the long Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Nothing was done to change the system until a reforming Whig government followed the Parliamentary Reform of 1832: but action then quickly ensued.
The New Poor Law of 1834, while leaving parishes (until 1865) still rated for their own poor, compelled them to join into Unions, under an elected Board of Guardians, which were to establish Union Workhouses and refuse any relief outside them, while making workhouse life ‘less eligible’ than that of the poorest independent labourer. This drastic change had the effect, at first of nearly halving Poor Rates, but at the cost of much human misery. It also, incidentally, abolished Settlement by apprenticeship to a shipmaster or fisherman, or by serving a year’s contract service, and gave bastards the Settlement of their mother instead of their parish of birth.
In Devon, sixteen Unions were established, apart from Exeter, Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse which were already organised under pre-1834 Acts. Each established its workhouse, replacing the local ones with a central institution with all the economies of scale; though Holsworthy was laggard. White, in 1850, reported the ‘Workhouse not yet erected for the Union, but there is a small old Poorhouse in the town’. For convenience, Axminster included three Dorset parishes, and five Devon ones were attached to Wellington. The two beyond the Tamar went to Launceston, and Yarcombe to Chard.
Under the central direction of the Poor Law Board, and later the Local Government Board, policy as to enforcing the ‘Workhouse Test’ varied in the later nineteenth century. At times outdoor relief was allowed in cases of sickness or old age, and at others refused. In 1865 responsibility for Poor Rate was placed on the Unions as a whole, which evened the burden between richer and poorer parishes: but not till the present century was a start made towards transferring the cost to the national exchequer, with Lloyd George’s old-age pensions (1909) and sickness and unemployment insurance for lower-paid workers (1911), followed eventually by the full development of National Insurance (1948). Workhouses were then no longer required, but many survive as hospitals or in other public use. Some were surprisingly well built, and that at Newton Abbot, which cost with its fittings L13 000, was described in the 1850 Directory as ‘one of the best in England in external appearance and internal arrangement’.
The Unions, incidentally, formed the basis for local government reform in 1894, when their rural areas became ‘Rural Districts’ and their town parts ‘Urban Districts’- lasting till the changes of 1974.