In 1601 the Poor Law Act (43 Eliz) was passed, putting the administration of the poor rates into the hands of each individual parish. Some parishes were more generous than others: this led to some people exploiting the legislation by moving into these more generous parishes. The ratepayers objected to this abuse and in 1662 the Settlement Laws were passed in order to prevent it. Unfortunately, the laws also reduced the mobility of labour and discouraged the unemployed from leaving the parish of their birth in order to find work.

The legislation stated:

... it shall and may be lawful upon complaint made by the Church wardens or Overseers of the Poor of any Parish to any Justice of the Peace within Forty days after any such Person or Persons coming so to settle as aforesaid in any Tenement under the yearly value of Ten pounds for any two Justices of the Peace whereof one to be of the Quorum of the Division where any person or persons that are likely to be chargeable to the Parish shall come to inhabit by their warrant to remove and convey such person or persons to such Parish where he or they were last legally settled either as a native Householder Sojourner Apprentice or Servant for the space of forty days at the least unless he or they give sufficient security for the discharge of the said Parish to bee allowed by the said Justices.

... Provided also that (this Act notwithstanding) it shall and may be lawful for any person or persons to go into any County Parish or place to work in time of Harvest or at any time to work at any other work so that he or they carry with him or them a Certificate from the Minister of the Parish and one of the Churchwardens and one of the Overseers of the Poor for the said year that he or they have a dwelling house or place in which he or they inhabit and hath left Wife and Children or some of them there(or otherwise as the condition of the person shall require) and is declared an Inhabitant or Inhabitants there. And in such case if the person or persons shall not return to the place aforesaid when his or their work is finished or shall fall sick or impotent whilst he or they are in the said work it shall not bee accounted a Settlement in the cases above said but that it shall and may be lawful for two Justices of the Peace to convey the said person or persons to the place of his or their Habitation as aforesaid under the pains and penalties in this Act prescribed.

adapted from 14 Charles II, c.12

In order to have a legal settlement, a person had to fulfil one or more of the following conditions:

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 back to his home parish if he became a claimant on the poor rates. Naturally enough, parishes were unwilling to issue such certificates so people tended to stay where they lived — and where they knew that if the occasion arose, they could claim on the poor rates without any additional difficulty.

The Settlement Laws were a great economic advantage to the owners of large estates where they controlled the housing. It was not unknown for landowners to demolish empty houses in order to reduce the population on their lands and also to prevent the return of those who had left. At the same time, they would employ labourers from neighbouring parishes: these people could be laid off without warning but would not increase the rates in the parish where they worked.

Although magistrates could order parishes to grant relief to the poor, this did not often happen since the landowners were also the magistrates and were unlikely to make relief orders that would increase the poor rates.

These laws continued until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act when they were abandoned along with all other, earlier pieces of legislation. These included Knatchbull's Act (1723) and Gilbert's Act (1782); also, the Speenhamland System was abolished by the 1834 Act.


Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 12 November 2002