Down and Out in Georgian England

Begging in the street Nicola here, talking today about the experience of being poor in rural Georgian society. In our books we often read and write about the other end of the scale, the aristocracy, the wealth and the glamour. The poor existed right alongside but in another world entirely.


The Poor Law, which was laid down in 1601, established a system of administering poor relief in England that was still in force over 200 years later. It stated that Justices of the Peace should appoint overseers to administer poor relief in each parish. Each parish was responsible for its own poor and was to maintain the sick, disabled and those too old to work. The able-bodied must be found work and the idle were to be compelled to find work or imprisoned. Children were to be apprenticed.

In theory at least the attitude towards the poor was philanthropic. Instructions in the Overseers' Book from Bampton in Oxfordshire in the 18th century stated: "Bring the Poor that are cast out to your house. Charge them that are rich in this world to doe (sic) good. Give alms of such things as ye have. Thou shalt not glean in the field but leave it to the poor. Take heed that your alms be not seen of other men." In other words, don't make a big show of your charitable giving and exhort your rich neighbours to be generous too!


In reality of course the treatment of paupers was vastly different. For a start, no one seems to have been very keen to serve as Overseer and as a result people were fined if they refused. The law empowered the Overseer to levy a local Poor Tax on all those parishoners whose income was above ten pounds a year. Naturally this made the Overseer extremely unpopular with his – or her – neighbours. (In my locality there was only one female Overseer during the period, possibly because she was the only woman in the neighbourhood rich enough in her own right and also tough enough to serve in this difficult job!)

One of the problems with the Poor Law was that the rules were so complicated that it was almost impossible to decide who belonged to which parish and was therefore in need of support. For example a woman could be born in Parish A, serve as a housemaid for more than a year in Parish B and then marry a man from Parish C and would thus be entitled to claim poor relief in all three parishes.

Passing the Parcel

The Poor were a financial burden on a parish and so one of the main tasks of the Overseers was to Hogarth_william_crueltyrperfection move on as quickly as possible any pauper who looke as though they were going to be expensive. New arrivals in a parish could be expelled and sent back to their original home. Nowhere was this rule applied more harshly than in the treatment of women who were pregnant but unmarried. The eviction of a heavily-pregnant woman or even one in the act of giving birth was common. This would prevent the bastard child from being born in the parish and therefore becoming an encumbrance. Sometimes women were offered a substantial bribe to move on to a neighbouring parish:

"Gave hir (sic) to go off with her big belly 16 shillings." "Paid to the Warder to remove a big-bellied woman 1 shilling." And even more poignantly: "Mr Burgess and one other drove away Mrs Cooper's big-bellied maid so that ye shall hear no more of her. Burgess paid 1 shilling and 3 pence."

Picture 3 Illegitimate children of a parish were put to work from the age of about eight, watching cattle, scaring the birds or picking up stones from the fields. Many parishes sent pauper children to the cities to be apprenticed.

Unmarried pregnant women would be hauled before the Justice of the Peace and questioned closely as to the identity of the father of the child. If the father came from another parish it was in the interests of the Overseer to make sure that a marriage took place so that the cost of the bride fell on her husband's parish instead. There were a couple of ways of ensuring the match. In one record for a Catherine New, the record states "Five pounds paid to Atkins to marry Catherine New." Further down the list of expenses: "Expenses of men going about with Atkins until the marriage time – one shilling." These men had been told not to let the groom out of their sight in case he changed his mind, but in more extreme cases where it was thought that a groom might run away from his responsibilities he would actually be brought to the church in handcuffs.

Travelling Through

A heavy expense on the parish coffers was also caused by people travelling through. Soldiers and sailors returning from the Napoleonic Wars were pointed in the direction of their original parishes by the Army and Navy. These returning servicemen were not vagrants and they carried "removal certificates" to prove that they were entitled to lodging and food in every parish they passed through on the way home. An entry in one local Overseers' book recorded payment of one shilling to a retired serviceman who was passing through with his wife and seven children.

The cost of transporting the sick poor to hospital also had to be levied through the Poor Law. A glanceThe pest house  into the Overseers' records shows how prevalent sickness was in the rural communities with infant mortality high and many cases of contagious disease. A local carter charged the Overseer 5 shillings and 6 pence to transport a woman with smallpox to the "pest house." Evidently this local hospital could not help her for a week later there was a charge of 13 shillings in the book for her funeral. Pauper funerals were very costly for a parish; ironically they had every reason to try and keep their poor alive because the wool shrouds in which they were obliged to bury the poor by law were extremely expensive.

Fish Skin Breeches

The aim was to get the able-bodied poor to work so that they became self-sufficient and many of them were put to work on the manorial lands. In order to do this though they had to be appropriately dresssed and so the Overseers Book lists the clothing that was provided:

Two pairs of fish skin breeches – 7 shillings and six pence, two foul weather coats, 17 shillings, a pair of stockings (male), 1 shilling.

Beckett House There were no workhouses in the smaller villages but there were "town houses" which gave refuge to the  destitute poor. These were generally hovels with mud walls held up with wooden hurdles.

At the other end of the scale was the manor. Here is Beckett House, the seat of Lord Barrington in the Georgian and Victorian period. As I said at the beginning, another world entirely!

 Do you think that there is a place for exploring the "underworld" and the life of the poor in historical romance books or will we always prefer to read about the balls and the life of high society?