The basis of poor relief in Britain continued to be that of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law until 1834, although there had been some modifications such as the 1662 Settlement Act, the 1723 Workhouse Test Act and the passing of Gilbert's Act. After the French Wars (1793-1815) there was an increase in under- and un-employment in rural areas and agricultural labourers were hard-hit; they claimed on the poor rates for survival. As a result, poor rates increased rapidly, which was unacceptable to the landowners. In the post-war period, attitudes towards the poor changed; the result was the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

In 1818 the Act for the Regulation of Parish vestries (58 Geo. III c. 69 was passed. This set up a plural voting system in a parish vestry, depending on the rateable value of property. A landowner of property worth £50 was eligible for one vote; for every further £25 a man was given another vote up to a maximum of six votes. This scale was used later by the Poor Law Amendment Act for the election of Guardians of the Poor.

The following year, the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor (59 Geo. III c.12) was passed. This added a resident clergyman to the ex-officio members of the vestry. Vestries were told to distinguish between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The latter group was deemed to be idle, extravagant and/or profligate. This Act provided for the employment of salaried overseers, better-kept accoung and either the building or enlargement of workhouses.

Also, under this legislation, two JPs were needed to agree to force the Vestry to give poor relief, rather than only one JP as before. This was intended to prevent "generous" JPs from helping anyone who appealed for assistance.

Together these two pieces of legislation are known either as the Select Vestries Acts or the Sturges-Bourne Acts after the MP who was responsible for them.

Last modified 7 November 2002