Since the Old Poor law was enacted in 1601, an act which became basis of all local poor-law administration for the next two centuries, it established the centre of administration of poor relief as the parish, overseen by the Overseers of the Poor. This system of Poor Relief was found in Pembridge from the 17th century.
One aim of the system was providing money to those in need, the so called ‘deserving poor’. The system was based on a locally raised rate called the Poor Rate which was then distributed as decided by the Overseers of the Poor. A key part of the Old Poor Law was that it gave everyone the right to help from their parish.
However by the early 19th century the existing poor laws were beginning to be questioned. There is evidence from the time suggesting that the general perception was, from the side of those that paid for the poor law, that these were not working. John Meadows White, writing in 1829, stated that, “the poor laws are generally, and it is feared with much truth, considered an evil, almost beyond remedy”. The reforms in 1834 which lead to the New Poor Law act saw a change in emphasis in how the poor were treated, rather than supporting people in their home, there was a drive for the poor to receive relief in a prison-like workhouse.
In Pembridge there is evidence to show that there were regular payments made to the poor as part of the system of parish relief. The Weekly Pay book contains records of payments made to the poor during the 1820s, and having transcribed some of the figures from October 1828 to April 1829, it provides a great deal of information about Pembridge in this period.
When analysing the information from the Weekly Pay book, which lists those in regular receipt of relief from the parish, the first thing to note is that there were not that many of them in comparison to the population of the village. Those in receipt of weekly relief were only a small proportion of the village population. In village with a population of 1293, in 1831, only 56 households were recorded as receiving poor relief during the period October 1828 – April 1829 which would be a small percentage of the total population.
One distinguishing feature of the poor of Pembridge is that they did not always reside in Pembridge, which shows that the settlement acts and poor law were not insurmountable barriers in the movement of poor people. Although the parish did provide support for a number of people who lived in Pembridge, the weekly pay book showed that a number of the people supported lived outside the parish boundaries.
The weekly pay book gave a location of all of the people in receipt of relief, and 28 out of the 56 names listed in the 1828 records were for locations outside of Pembridge. This suggests that the poor were mobile and not tied to their parish or even county. Indeed, judging by this small sample of records it was better to live outside the parish as, on average, those living outside the parish of Pembridge received more in weekly relief than those in Pembridge, 11p a week rather than 9p. This shows that people were able to access poor relief, even when they were not living in the parish. However living outside the parish led to other issues, such as the timeliness of payments.
Those living outside Pembridge were more likely to receive occasionally lump sums, rather than a weekly payment and when these did not arrive when expected could cause some distress as shown in a number of letters surviving from James Edwards, one of the names recorded as receiving poor relief from Pembridge. One of the surviving letters suggests that the overseers did not always pay as regularly as the poor would like, It was address to Mr Howell, the Overseer of the Poor at this time:
January 16 1827, Worcester
mr howell you forgot me acordin to your promis the time is past last sunday of this month i am in great distress att present the last letter you sent me cost one shilling you must send me something down to pay the christmas rent
i am your humble servant
Overall £153.15 was paid out to the poor over the period between 4th October 1828 and 4th April 1829, recorded in the weekly pay book, with an average payment made of 10p a week. The minimum payment made was 0, suggesting that the record was written at the start of the period and included people that were likely to receive payments as well as those who actually received payment. Inclusion in the book wasn’t a guarantee of payment. The majority of names are written in rough alphabetical order of surname, apart from the last six, suggests that these were later additions.
This shows that the list of the poor was planned in advance, based on the local knowledge of who was likely to need help, but was flexible and added to throughout. Names could also be removed; two records have annotations to show that payments were stopped due to the death of the recipient. The weekly poor relief also shows that household received differing amounts, suggesting that it was tailored to the requirements of each households.
The amounts also occasionally varied, for example one payment to Susan Noakes, was increase from 1 shilling to 1 shilling 6p, with the annotation that she has fallen ill. The variation in the amounts recorded show that there wasn’t a one size fits all approach to provision of support for the poor. Instead it was tailored to what the overseers felt was necessary in the individual’s circumstances, although it doesn’t show if it was sufficient to what the poor thought they needed. As the letter from James Edwards indicated the poor were not always in agreement with what they were given.