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Wednesday 7 December 2016

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Poor Relief

Other Poor Law Records

Overseers of the Poor Accounts

Parish officers were supposed to keep a careful account of the money that had spent (‘disbursed’) on poor relief.

In many cases the Overseer was very particular about detail and noted every pair of shoes, petticoat, or blanket supplied or paid for, naming the recipients as well.

Many paupers had their rent paid and some received weekly relief in money, food, medicine and fuel over many years.

The overseer paid for nurses’, midwives’ and doctors’ fees (naming the persons who offered this service and those who received it). He also paid for coffins to be made and other funeral costs.

He paid the costs of travel expenses for journeys undertaken on behalf of the parish, or for the transport of paupers in and out of the parish, and usually recorded the name of the person whose case was involved.

He made payments to unmarried mothers, wives of militia substitutes and poor strangers passing through the parish. Payments from the fathers of bastard children to the parish may also be recorded annually.

References to a pauper family should be looked for in the overseers’ accounts of the parish where they were legally settled, and not where they were living.

In some parishes, particularly small ones, one book may have been used to record churchwardens’ accounts, overseers’ accounts and poor rates.


The poor rate was set each Easter at a Vestry meeting and was for a certain number of shillings/pence in the £; the amount a person paid was based on the value of their owned or leased property. If a parish needed more money to support its poor, it increased the number of times per year that the poor rate was collected.

A good set of Churchwardens’ Accounts will give an annual listing of all the ratepayers in the parish, together with how much they paid. Sometimes the payment of poor rates is recorded in the overseers' accounts or a separate Poor Rates book.


In the past the "vestry" was a decision-making body which took its name from the room where it met. All the important decisions about the parish, including those made about paupers and money, were made in the vestry meetings which were held weekly or fortnightly in many parishes. Vestries could be open – when most parishioners attended – or closed – where a small group of men including the parish officers and usually the incumbent attended.

A large variety of topics including what to do about individual pauper parishioners were discussed at such meetings.


Poor men often enrolled in the militia as substitutes in return for payment from those who were eligible for service, but who wished to avoid it.

The wives and children of these militia substitutes were often left chargeable to the parish. They were eligible for payment of relief by the parish, and the parish was able to apply to the County Treasurer for reimbursement of the money that had been paid out.

Parish records may therefore include the following:

  • Certificates of entitlement to relief
  • Militia Orders – i.e. orders to pay relief  
  • Magistrates’ Orders to pay relief


  • Commitment to Bridewell: a document commanding the parish constable to deliver a man to prison for refusing to support his family.
  • Quarter Sessions Order: a document issued by the Justices sitting at the Quarter Sessions ordering a man to support his blind son and his grandchildren
  • Letter from an emigrant requesting that the parish assist his family to join him in America

Unfortunately, for some parishes nothing from the collection of Overseers of the Poor records once stored in the parish chest has survived.  If this is the case, the Quarter Sessions records may have to be used – although this can yield results in some cases, it can be time-consuming to search, as most of the records are un-indexed.  

A short series of poor law documents – those relating to bastardy and settlement cases – and which date from the 1730s and 1740s, found among the boxed records of the Quarter Sessions during the The Right to Remain Silent? cataloguing project, have been catalogued in detail by a volunteer.

There are also personal name-based and subject-based card indexes to Devon County Quarter Sessions Order Books, dating from 1734-1802, in the searchroom, which can be used to search for 18th century poor law material.

Catalogues listing most of the Devon Heritage Centre parish records, including many Overseers of the Poor records, can be searched on-line through The National Archives Discovery Catalogue (they were formerly on the Access to Archives website, but that has now been incorporated into the updated Discovery Catalogue).

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