Overseer of the poor

Last updated

An overseer of the poor was an official who administered poor relief such as money, food, and clothing in England and various other countries which derived their law from England such as the United States.

Poor relief Village sign language of Marthas Vineyard Island, Massachusetts

In English and British history, poor relief refers to government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty. Over the centuries, various authorities have needed to decide whose poverty deserves relief and also who should bear the cost of helping the poor. Alongside ever-changing attitudes towards poverty, many methods have been attempted to answer these questions. Since the early 16th century legislation on poverty enacted by the English Parliament, poor relief has developed from being little more than a systematic means of punishment into a complex system of government-funded support and protection, especially following the creation in the 1940s of the welfare state.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or simply America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.



In England, overseers of the poor administered poor relief such as money, food and clothing as part of the Poor Law system. The position was created by the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597.

The Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597 was a piece of poor law legislation in England and Wales. It provided the first complete code of poor relief and was later amended by the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which formed the basis of poor relief for the next two centuries.

Overseers of the poor were often reluctant appointees who were unpaid, working under the supervision of a justice of the peace. The law required two overseers to be elected every Easter, and churchwardens or landowners were often selected.

Justice of the peace Judicial officer elected or appointed to keep the peace and perform minor civic jobs

A Justice of the peace (JP) is a judicial officer of a lower or puisne court, elected or appointed by means of a commission to keep the peace. In past centuries the term commissioner of the peace was often used with the same meaning. Depending on the jurisdiction, such justices dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions. Justices of the peace are appointed or elected from the citizens of the jurisdiction in which they serve, and are usually not required to have any formal legal education in order to qualify for the office. Some jurisdictions have varying forms of training for JPs.

Easter Major Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus

Easter, also called Pascha or Resurrection Sunday, is a festival and holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day after his burial following his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary c. 30 AD. It is the culmination of the Passion of Jesus, preceded by Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and penance.

A churchwarden is a lay official in a parish or congregation of the Anglican Communion, usually working as a part-time volunteer. Holders of these positions are ex officio members of the parish board, usually called a vestry, parochial church council, or in the case of a Cathedral parish the chapter.

The new system of poor relief reinforced a sense of social hierarchy and provided a way of controlling the 'lower orders'. [1] Overseers of the poor were replaced in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, and replaced with boards of guardians, although overseers remained in some places as a method of collecting the poor rate. [2]

Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 United Kingdom poor relief law

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (PLAA), known widely as the New Poor Law, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Earl Grey. It completely replaced earlier legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601 and attempted to fundamentally change the poverty relief system in England and Wales. It resulted from the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws, which included Edwin Chadwick, John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. Chadwick was dissatisfied with the law that resulted from his report. The Act was passed two years after the 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to middle class men. Some historians have argued that this was a major factor in the PLAA being passed.

Boards of guardians were ad hoc authorities that administered Poor Law in the United Kingdom from 1835 to 1930.


Overseers had four duties:

Poor rate

In England and Wales the poor rate was a tax on property levied in each parish, which was used to provide poor relief. It was collected under both the Old Poor Law and the New Poor Law. It was absorbed into 'general rate' local taxation in the 1920s, and has continuity with the currently existing Council Tax.

Poorhouse facility to support and provide housing for the dependent and needy

A poorhouse or workhouse is a government-run facility to support and provide housing for the dependent or needy.


Overseers of the Poor in the U.S. state of Vermont were often reluctant but elected, unpaid officers of the town. Towns were sometimes so small in population that a few applicants for aid could overwhelm the budget.

Vermont State in the United States

Vermont is a U.S. state in the New England region. It borders the states of Massachusetts to the south, New Hampshire to the east, and New York to the west, and the Canadian province of Quebec to the north. Vermont is the second-smallest by population and the sixth-smallest by area of the 50 U.S. states. The state capital is Montpelier, the least populous state capital in the United States. The most populous city, Burlington, is the least populous city to be the most populous city in a state. As of 2019, Vermont was the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States. In crime statistics, it has ranked since 2016 as the safest state in the country.

Frequent requests for aid could result in the applicant being sent to a county poor farm where residents were not only expected to work to support themselves, but often to support handicapped or elderly residents, as well. Sometimes the latter predominated, putting an insupportable burden on able-bodied residents.[ citation needed ]

Relief was obtained when the state took over welfare in 1968. [3]

See also

Related Research Articles

English Poor Laws Laws regarding poverty in England, 16th–19th century

The English Poor Laws were a system of poor relief in England and Wales that developed out of the codification of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws in 1587–98. The system continued until the modern welfare state emerged after the Second World War.

Civil parishes in Bedfordshire Wikimedia list article

A civil parish is a country subdivision, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 125 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Bedfordshire, most of the county being parished: Luton is completely unparished; Central Bedfordshire is entirely parished. At the 2001 census, there were 312,301 people living in the 125 parishes, which accounted for 55.2 per cent of the county's population.

Civil parishes in Berkshire Wikimedia list article

A civil parish is a country subdivision, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 104 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Berkshire, most of the county being parished; Reading is completely unparished; Bracknell Forest, West Berkshire and Wokingham are entirely parished. At the 2001 census, there were 483,882 people living in the 104 parishes, accounting for 60.5 per cent of the county's population.

Civil parishes in Tyne and Wear Wikimedia list article

A civil parish is a country subdivision, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 10 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Tyne and Wear, most of the county being unparished; North Tyneside and South Tyneside are completely unparished. At the 2001 census, there were 41,044 people living in the 10 parishes, accounting for 3.8 per cent of the county's population.

A vestry was a committee for the local secular and ecclesiastical government for a parish in England and Wales, which originally met in the vestry or sacristy of the parish church, and consequently became known colloquially as the "vestry".

In England and Wales, an extra-parochial area, extra-parochial place or extra-parochial district was a geographically defined area considered to be outside any ecclesiastical or civil parish. Anomalies in the parochial system, they had no church or clergymen and were therefore exempt from payment of poor or church rates and usually tithes. They were formed for a variety of reasons, often because an area was unpopulated or unsuitable for agriculture, but also around institutions and buildings or natural resources. Extra-parochial areas caused considerable problems when they became inhabited as they did not provide religious facilities, local governance or provide for the relief of the poor. Their status was often ambiguous and there was demand for extra-parochial areas to operate more like parishes. Following the introduction of the New Poor Law, extra-parochial areas were effectively made civil parishes by the Extra-Parochial Places Act 1857 and were eliminated by the Poor Law Amendment Act 1868. This was achieved either by being integrated with a neighbouring or surrounding parish, or by becoming a separate civil parish if the population was high enough.

The Roundsman System, in the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601), was a form of organised labour exchange for the poorest labourers by which a parish vestry helped to pay local farmers, households and others to employ such applicants for relief at a rate of headline wages negotiated and set by the parish. It depended not on the services, but on the wants of the applicants: the employers being repaid out of the poor rate all they advanced in wages beyond a very low-wage amount. Variants of the Roundsman system operated and co-existed from parish-to-parish and sometimes depending on type of labour.

Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601 United Kingdom legislation

The Poor Relief Act 1601 was an Act of the Parliament of England. The Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601, popularly known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, "43rd Elizabeth" or the Old Poor Law was passed in 1601 and created a poor law system for England and Wales.

From the reign of Elizabeth I until the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834 relief of the poor in England was administered on the basis of a Poor Law enacted in 1601. From the start of the nineteenth century the basic concept of providing poor relief was criticised as misguided by leading political economists and in southern agricultural counties the burden of poor-rates was felt to be excessive. Opposition to the Elizabethan Poor Law led to a Royal Commission on poor relief, which recommended that poor relief could not in the short term be abolished; however it should be curtailed, and administered on such terms that none but the desperate would claim it. Relief should only be administered in workhouses, whose inhabitants were to be confined, 'classified' and segregated. The Poor Law Amendment Act allowed these changes to be implemented by a Poor Law Commission largely unaccountable to Parliament. The Act was passed by large majorities in Parliament, but the regime it was intended to bring about was denounced by its critics as (variously) un-Christian, un-English, unconstitutional, and impracticable for the great manufacturing districts of Northern England. The Act itself did not introduce the regime, but introduced a framework by which it might easily be brought in.

Elberfeld system

The Elberfeld system was a system for aiding the poor in 19th-century Germany. It was a success when it was inaugurated in Elberfeld in 1853 and was adopted by many other German cities, but by the turn of the century an increasing population became more than the Elberfeld system could handle, and it fell out of use.

The Scottish Poor Laws were the statutes concerning poor relief passed in Scotland between 1579 and 1929. Scotland had a different Poor Law system to England and the workings of the Scottish laws differed greatly to the Poor Law Amendment Act which applied in England and Wales.

Government of Vermont

The government of Vermont is a republican form of government modeled after the Government of the United States. The Constitution of Vermont is the supreme law of the state, followed by the Vermont Statutes. This is roughly analogous to the Federal United States Constitution, United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations respectively. Provision is made for the following frame of government under the Constitution of the State of Vermont: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. All members of the executive and legislative branch serve two-year terms including the governor and senators. There are no term limits for any office.

Civil parishes in Cornwall Wikimedia list article

A civil parish is a country subdivision, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 218 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Cornwall, which includes the Isles of Scilly. The county is effectively parished in its entirety; only the unpopulated Wolf Rock is unparished. At the 2001 census, there were 501,267 people living in the current parishes, accounting for the whole of the county's population. The final unparished areas of mainland Cornwall, around St Austell, were parished on 1 April 2009 to coincide with the structural changes to local government in England.

Leigh Union workhouse, also known as the Leigh workhouse and after 1930, Atherleigh Hospital, was a workhouse built in 1850 by the Leigh Poor Law Union on Leigh Road, Atherton in the historic county of Lancashire.

Scottish poorhouse

The Scottish poorhouse, occasionally referred to as a workhouse, provided accommodation for the destitute and poor in Scotland. The term poorhouse was almost invariably used to describe the institutions in that country, as unlike the regime in their workhouse counterparts in neighbouring England and Wales residents were not usually required to labour in return for their upkeep.


  1. 1 2 "The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law". www.victorianweb.org.
  2. Rees, Rosemary, Poverty and Public Health, 1815–1948, p3, ISBN   0-435-32715-1
  3. Fields, Michelle (2015-10-25). "Ledger Reveals Hidden Poor Farm History". The Vermont Standard. Retrieved 2018-04-02.