Home | Contact Me | Search

 

 
Set as Homepage
Bookmark Me
  Search Site
Latest News
Print this Page Print Page
 
 

Harrogate Story 

 

Index

 

OVERSEERS OF THE POOR

In Eighteenth Century Harrogate


English people have probably always had a strong feeling for the place where they live. It seems, however, that effective use was not made of this fact in matters of government till the time of Queen Elizabeth I. It was she who ordered the appointment of the first Overseers of the Poor, and by so doing founded the distinctively English system known as local government. The relief of the poor was the first activity to be handed over to local authorities, and it was to remain their most important function till recent times

It was Elizabeth's last great act as a ruler. After solving the problems of a national religion and of national security, she turned to consider what was then the extremely urgent one of the national welfare. She knew that adequate measures had not been adopted for the maintenance of the non-producers - the sick and disabled, and the very old and the very young - but the lack of employment for many of the "able-bodied " was her chief anxiety.

Elizabeth has been described, with some justice, as a dictator. Yet, instead of trying to secure the welfare of the community by state action, she adopted the principle of decentralisation in its most extreme form. Her government laid down only the method of dealing with poverty and unemployment: it left to the smallest unit that contained a church, the parish, the solving of these social problems within its own bounds.

Overseers were to be appointed, two at least to a parish, to help the Churchwardens in the care of the poor. Their business was to see to the support of the sick, the infirm and old, to provide employment for those able to work, and to have poor children educated and trained for an occupation. To pay for all this, they were empowered to levy a rate - a contribution from each parishioner according to the value of his holding.

After Elizabeth's time, as the result of experience, changes were naturally made in procedure. Some parishes, particularly in the North of England, had been found to be of an unmanageable size. Bilton-with-Harrogate, for example, was merely one of five townships in the. Parish of Knaresborough. So from 1662, instead of the parish, the township - if of sufficient size - was made responsible for looking after its own poor. There is good reason to think that this happened here - at that time or not long after.

The question as to what were the township's own poor was decided by drawing up rules of settlement. These rules were complicated and, quite often, puzzling, but those most frequently applied may be put briefly. Being born in a township gave one a settlement there, but only on condition that one had not acquired another elsewhere. This might be done in a number of ways: for example, by paying rates as a householder there (even if it were only a shilling a year), or being hired for a year as a servant (even if one did not serve the year out).

Disputes about a pauper's settlement were to cause endless trouble to Overseers for the next two hundred years. The lawyers seem to have been the only people to benefit, for when townships went to law, the advocate's fee, as the Harrogate records show, amounted sometimes to considerably more than would have kept the pauper for the rest of his life. It should be remembered, however, that this was a price that townships had to pay for their independence.

Paupers being the township's liability, it was natural that a sharp look-out was kept for stranglers. This was one of the Constable's many duties, and if anyone came into the township without a settlement certificate (a document from his own township officers promising to "make harmless and indemnified" any township to which he might become chargeable), the Constable had to "take" (arrest) him and "carry" or "convey" (take) him to be "examined" by a Justice of the Peace. Examinations (the details of a man's history which on these occasions were carefully written down) often give most useful information about such things as pay and conditions of labour: there are a good many among the Harrogate township papers. Unless the "stranger" could prove - as, surprisingly, he sometimes did - that he had a settlement in the township, he was taken by the Constable to the place to which the Justice decided he belonged.

To anticipate a little, we find that by the end of the eighteenth century the Overseers had taken out of the hands of the Constables much of the work connected with settlements. Nearly all other business, except crime, in which a poor person was involved became also their responsibility. On the other hand, the Constables continued to give "occasional relief" to the poor, such as money for a night's lodging, till the mid-nineteenth century.

It is difficult to decide what was the exact province of each township officer at any particular time, for we find an Overseer, a Constable, a Surveyor, and even a Churchwarden performing some duty that seems properly to belong to one of the others. In 1792, for example, an Overseer provides a boundary-stone, and later a Constable puts up signposts: both duties, one would think, of the Surveyor. Sometimes two officers carry out the same duty. The Constable and the Churchwarden both pay for the destruction of foxes, foulmarts (pole-cats), hedgehogs and sparrows, presumably because these pests may be considered either as "criminals" or as "enemies of mankind."

The Churchwardens were primarily church officers, but by Elizabeth's Poor Law they had become township officers also. From 1662, however, the Overseers did practically all the work involved in poor relief without the help of the Churchwardens. It was found useful, though, to have them add their signatures to such documents as the Indentures of poor apprentices, and to what amounted to promissory-notes, the settlement certificates that Overseers might provide for those who left the township.

William Baxter, "Overseer of the Township of Bilton-with-Harrogate," is named in a document of 1711 in the township records. In the following fifty years it has been possible to trace only fourteen others, but an almost complete list has been compiled of those who held the office from 1761 until the township was merged in the Knaresborough Poor Law Union in 1854.

It happens that the oldest document of all is an order to the Constable to take certain strangers to their examination. Presumably because there are four of them together they are not to be examined privately by one Justice, as was the usual practice, but at the Sessions at Knaresborough. The document is as here given, except that the phrase in brackets has been translated from the Latin, and a number of abbreviated words have been written in full.

West Rid To the Constable of Bilton cum Harrogate
Corn: Ebor or his Lawful Depute
WHEREAS Complaint hath been made unto us by the Overseer of Bilton cum Harrogate, that Ralph Unthank and Thomas Unthank his Brother; William Stainour, and wife, are lately come into Bilton cum Harrogate endeavouring to settle themselves there, without procureing any Certificate or other Indemnity for the said Towne of Bilton cum Harrogate, but likely to become chargeable to the said Towne of Bilton-cum-Harrogate, they haveing no Legal Settlement but travi'lld the Country from place to place whilst they placed themselves in the said Towne.
THESE are therefore in her Majesties name to Charge and Command you to cause Ralph Unthank and Thomas his Brother, Wm. Stainour and wife to appear before us on Monday the 23 Day of April, at Knarsborough to answer all such matters as shall be objected against them; touching there Settlement and wandring up and down the Country as Vagrants. Herein faill not. Given under our Hands and Seals at Knarsborough the 18th of April (in the fourth year of the reign of our Lady Anne in the year of Our Lord) 1705.

R. BYERLEY
W. VAVASOUR
FR. FAWKES
Also you are required to give the Overseer due notice of the Execution hereof.

This is not the only indication that the township was already managing its own affairs. Some indentures for poor apprentices are almost as old, and in 1730 a "town's house, belonging to the poor," is mentioned as having been in its possession for some years.

From the beginning of the Poor Law, one of its major objects had been the providing of employment, when necessary, for the "able-bodied." In the later seventeenth century a few progressive places had built "workhouses" for this -purpose and by an Act of 1722 the practice was extended to the whole country. If the building of a workhouse, however, proved too large an undertaking for any township, it was allowed to send its paupers to a workhouse elsewhere, paying for the privilege of doing so. In the 1780's Bilton-with-Harrogate paid to Pannal Workhouse this "rent" of two guineas a year, which had increased to 5 by 1798. This step ended the complete isolation of townships in general, and indicated the way in which the whole system of poor relief was destined to be transformed.

The Act of 1722 also permitted Overseers to make contracts with employers who would maintain able-bodied paupers in return for their services. This was to have the curious effect, in the end, of making workhouses receive only those who were incapable of work - at any rate, of anything strenuous. Light occupations, such as spinning and weaving, gardening and baking and brewing. were certainly carried on in the Harrogate Workhouse, which was built in 1810, but it is doubtful whether these justified the grandiloquent title of House of Industry that its Master gave it.

Once workhouses had been set up, paupers were not supposed to get outdoor relief, which in more recent times has been called the dole. If they needed support for more than a few days they must go into the workhouse. But the Overseer's Accounts for 1772 show that there were six pensioners receiving regular pay (outdoor relief) of 6d to ls 6d a week. The explanation of this anomaly that suggests itself is that accommodation in the Pannal Workhouse was very limited.

In the later eighteenth century there was a steep rise in the cost of living. Because of the consequent distress - for wages were not increased proportionately - the Government took action. Between 1781 and 1796 a series of Acts allowed Overseers to give outdoor relief to men who were fully employed. The object of this relief, as of our modern subsidies on food, was to enable the poorer workers to exist. But in effect it was the employers who were subsidised, for they were able to keep down wages. The people who suffered were the better workmen who could claim no township "pay" and the farmers and shopkeepers who employed little or no labour. Conditions for small farmers in the country as a whole were so bad that a number abandoned their farms. Harrogate farmers do not seem to have suffered so much. Possibly they had other means of eking out a living, such as spinning or weaving. Certainly the influx of visitors each summer would give them a good market for their farm produce.

These methods of poor relief were to be used until the second great Poor Law Act, that of 1834, so it is a convenient point at which to illustrate them by quoting further from the township records.

The Overseer's Accounts for 1772, already referred to, were drawn up very efficiently by William Farnell, and suggest clearly the scope of an Overseer's duties at that time. He divides his statement into three sections. The heading of the first is rather quaintly worded, but quite informative: "The relefe of the poor in Time of there Need and there meat for them while thay wear odered for close and shoues." Under this title are given details'of the casual or occasional relief he has provided in food (" meat "), clothing (" close "), furniture, tools and so forth. (Most casual relief in money was still at this time the Constable's business.)

Some items are:"Hannah Theakston two days meat ls. 4d.; Hanah Knapton 1 pare Shous for hir son 2s. 6d.; John Walker 1 bed and bed-Stocks 2 chares and 1 tabel 6s." The second section gives the names of pensioners and the weekly pay each received. The third section is headed: "The relefe of the poor for Turves graving and Leading and coles and Hous Rent and bilding." It has to do with the maintenance of the township houses ("bilding"), at that time occupied by paupers, and with the rents paid for, and the fuel supplied to, other poor in the township. "Coles" were usually supplied in "corves," a coil being a container that held, apparently, about 2cwt. Justifying the first part of the title are the following items:- 1,000 turves graving (digging) July 9s.; 1,000 turves leading (carting) December 9s." It is surprising that peat should be supplied when coal was available in the township itself, for the l3ilton mine was worked until about 1815. Its product was probably, however, poor house-coal.

In the Accounts of later Overseers, in the period when even men in full employment received outdoor relief, the number of "pensioners" on the township pay-roll rapidly increases. Farnall, in 1772, had had six; William Clarke, in 1797, records 34. with pay at ls. 6d. to 6s. a week; Samuel Teale, in 1805, gives 43 at is. 6d. to 10s. 6d. The higher rates are probably due to the lessened value of money; which has a picturesque illustration in the cost of leather breeches. These the township sometimes thoughtfully provided for poor boys. In 1780: "paid for a Shep skin for Andrew Elis Britches 3s. 6d.; paid Wm. Jackson making Andrew Elis Britches & for Harden thred ls. 6d." (i.e., a total of 5s.). But when Thomas Beecroft supplied "1 pair of Leather Breeches for Woods Boy " in 1805, the price was 11s. The increase in the number of "pensioners" was probably due to the rapidly growing population rather than to any special poverty in it.

In the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, there are very many pay accounts presented by employers to the township for payment. This fact shows, first, that the township still made contracts with employers for the employment and maintenance of paupers; and, secondly, that employers in this period considered that the cost of maintaining paupers exceeded the value of their labour.

The average rent that the township paid for a poor person's cottage remained, during the same period, about 30s. a year, but more rents were paid - again, probably because of the increase in the population. The amount of free coal distributed varied as much as our weather, which may have been the reason for the fluctuations. In 1783, 12 rents were paid. and coal worth 7 13s. supplied; in 1804, 24 rents, coal 5 14s.; in 1805, 28 rents, coal (to 39 people) 41 13s. 3d. Trafalgar year must have been a hard winter.

From, at latest, 1785, two Overseers were elected, but they carried out the duties of the office separately, one from April to September and the other till the following March. Each presented his account, and usually levied a half-yearly rate. An average one was "A Four Fold Rate or 20d. in the Pound on Land, arid 12d. in the Pound on Buildings." Though the totals of Rates collected appear earlier in the Overseer's Accounts, the oldest Rate Book that has survived dates only from 1803. This gives a list of owners and occupiers, with their individual assessments, but has no addresses or identification of the properties. The last may, in some cases, be gathered from the township Valuations, of which the earliest that remains was made in 1816. The Rate Books were drawn up either by the Overseer himself or by the Vestry Clerk, whom he paid for doing so. But when he first made his Rate - or lay, as he preferred to call it - he had to attend the Knaresborough Court to have it allowed by the Justices. He charged 8d. for this journey in 1783, but for the ten journeys in 1804, on this and other duties, he claimed 1.

It is an indication of how the calls on an Overseer's time were mounting that in 1805 he made this journey 15 times. As the Overseers were unpaid, they began to charge for a day spent on township business - at first 8d., but by 1810 this, too, had risen to 2s. When their journeys were further afield they may have made a little on their "expenses," for when the Justice came to sign their Accounts he occasionally reduced or altogether disallowed some of these.

Besides the settlements and examinations of paupers that Overseers took over from the Constables, there were not a few affiliation cases to be dealt with. On February 14th (an appropriate Saint's day!), 1816, Thomas Emmatt recorded a "journey to Knaresbro with Jemimah Normington and Ann Engleson to father their children"; only a month later he took two others there. If a Justice's verdict on any of these questions was disputed and the case was taken to the Sessions, it was often the Overseer who had to attend at Wakefield, Pontefract or Skipton, and he had to pay the lawyers' bills, of course, out of the Poor Rate. He had to accompany a pauper to the township of his "settlement" or to collect one from another township. A good deal of information about travelling at that period, its cost and its conditions, appears in his "Accounts."

Quite often paupers having their settlement in Harrogate lived in other townships and might receive outdoor relief there: it was only such as needed complete support, in a workhouse, that were returned to their townships. Similarly, Harrogate gave relief to its foreigners. Reimbursements between Overseers were made monthly - without too great an expenditure, if possible, of acrimonious language, or postage money. Postage, usually left for the recipient to pay, in order to ensure the delivery of the letter, was then a considerable item. In 1780, a letter from York cost 4d., one from Leeds 3d. But in 1792 the amounts charged were:- Leeds or Ripon 6d., Halifax or Doncaster 7d., Sheffield 8d., Sunderland 10d. Until 1840, when penny postage and the adhesive stamp were introduced, envelopes were not used: letters were folded, very expertly, and fastened by "wafers," which (in 1839) were three for a penny.

Rather than have a man permanently on its list of "pensioners," it was to the interest of a township to help him to earn a living. In 1805, a loom was hired for a weaver; in 1.816 and 1824, there are bills for bobbins, pickin sticks, shuttles, spindles and other weaving materials. In 1813, Thomas Boddy was paid for "setting out a Workshop for Thomas Shaw." In 1834, Nathan Sugden, living at Leeds, was granted 1, by Overseer Thomas Wilkinson, to buy a donkey and gears, with which, he said, he could provide a "comfortable livelihood" for his "young Familey." It is not surprising that the Overseer fell in with such a sound economic proposition.

The township bore the cost of medical attention for the poor, both in the workhouse and outside. From 1800, at least, a township "surgeon" was appointed at an annual salary of two guineas at first, rising to 20 in 1823 and 25 in 1842. The township also buried paupers, with due supplies of ale and food, though not often with .an expensive hearse. The following items suggest that the total cost was usually under 30s.:

1785 - Andrew Ellis: Ale 2s. ed.; Bread ls. 6d.; 31b. cheese ls. 2d.; 1-yd. crape at ls. 2d. a yd.; Bukrall feese 5s. 4d.
1797 - Bellwoods funeral: bread & ale at Funeral 5s.; sugar spice & cheese 5s.; shroud 4s.; coffin 12s.
1815 - Paid funeral expences for sailor 5s. 4d.; Jane Dobson for shroud' 9s. 6d.; flannel and other expences 9s. 6d.
1825 - Wm Vitty's funeral: William Morley bread 5s. 6d.; Hors un Cart for funurul ls. 6d.

The following year, the baker again supplied a horse and cart at the same charge. The funeral fees mentioned were paid to the clerk of St. John's Chapel, who also acted as sexton, digging the grave; hut they may have included the Curate's dues. A curious reminder that the Churchwardens were still nominally associated with the Overseers in the care of the poor is that the township paid the fees for the churching of poor women.

The township also saw that poor children had a year or two's schooling before they reached the age of nine, when, if possible, they were apprenticed. In the 1780's the township paid for repairs to a school, which suggests that it was attended by poor children. Richard Taylor's "Free School" at Bilton, founded about .1779, probably received pauper girls and, after 1810, those actually in the workhouse. We find that in the 1820's the Harrogate Workhouse boys were sent to the National School at Knaresborough.
In 1811, shortly after the building of the workhouse, a baby was born there, the first of quite a number. Some paupers appear to have been the Overseers' care "from the cradle to the grave."

 

 

Index

   

Home | Contact Me | Search

 

Copyright 2004, 2005 Harrogate Historical Society