The poor law in Poldark’s days

The following is an extract from Chapter 10 (The Prison) of my The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820.

If the gastronomic delights of the free soup were not enough and charities insufficient, the poor could always turn to the official poor relief provided by the state since Elizabethan times ….

From the late 1600s, in order to qualify and receive relief a person had to prove that they had a ‘settlement’ in the parish. To keep families together, settlement was not automatically gained by being born in a parish, unless it were an illegitimate birth. Instead, the child would gain the settlement of his or her father. However, there were a number of other ways it could be acquired. If a woman married, she would gain the settlement of her husband. Working for a year in a parish, being an apprentice there for more than 40 days, or renting a house or land for a year also gained a settlement. To receive relief an applicant was examined to prove they had a settlement by one of these means. For example, at Helston in 1815 Samuel Eva, aged 67, was examined. He had been born in neighbouring Wendron parish but left at 17 to work as a granite stonemason, then went to Devonport for 30 years. He returned to Helston for a short period when ill and was given aid in the local workhouse for six weeks. On recovering, he went back to Plymouth for another seven years. Finally, back in Helston again, his settlement in Helston was eventually proven.

If an applicant for poor relief could not prove their settlement a removal order was made against them and they would be taken to the parish where they had a presumed settlement. As can be imagined, this left a considerable degree of room for disputes between parish overseers as to which parish was responsible for paying for a particular pauper. It led to a lot of ‘petty bullying’, as one historian has termed it, with overseers pushing potential paupers out of the parish before they could qualify for poor relief. This was particularly harsh for any unmarried woman who was unfortunate enough to get pregnant. Her child would automatically receive a settlement but was likely to cost the authorities money, so strenuous efforts were made to remove such women from the parish and dump them somewhere else.

After 1834 the old poor law was replaced by the less flexible new poor law and gradually workhouses, such as this one at Liskeard, became the place of last resort for the aged poor

Removals and legal measures such as that of 1697 that required paupers to wear a badge on their shoulders with a letter ‘P’ and the initial of the parish make the poor law of the time look exceedingly harsh. Indeed, a meeting of the ‘principal inhabitants’ of Redruth in 1813 proposed to badge the town’s paupers in this way. However, this also implies that hitherto it was not in place and in fact badging was rarely adopted in practice. The system was harshest on ‘vagabonds’ and strangers found begging. Such people were more likely to find themselves subject to summary justice. In 1819 vagrants at Bodmin were convicted of begging and flogged through the streets. On the other hand, if a pauper was elderly and well-known to the overseers, their treatment by the poor law in Poldark’s times could be quite humane. Small payments of money or sometimes in kind were regularly doled out to people in their homes. This could include help with funeral costs, clothing, tools or medicines. For example, at St Erme in 1776 Honor Plint received two shillings a week poor relief for 32 weeks. In addition, she was given wood, shoes and stockings, coal, an apron, half a pound of candles and even ‘liquor’ to the value of nine pence. Four week’s payment for nursing her while sick and her funeral charges suggest the overseer was making Honor’s last days as comfortable as possible.