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Caring for the Needy: Poor Relief in Lancashire

The population explosion during this era led to an increase in the number of people seeking poor relief. Since the Catholic Church was not longer in a position to provide help, the poor were turning to the government for help. In Lancashire, a rural county far from London, poor relief was gradually woven into the local traditional legal systems.

The job of distributing poor relief often fell to the unpaid officers of the court that we discussed. Justices of the peace were tasked with determining who among the poor were “deserving” of relief. If the person who applied for relief was deemed to be fit to work, court officials know as overseers would find employment or send the people to a workhouse. There was also a push to apprentice children out to tradesmen. Justices of the peace would also check to make sure that there was enough money in the community to offer sufficient poor relief. If there wasn’t enough money, the justices were empowered to raise local taxes.

The poor who were seeking relief were not bystanders in this process. Petitions for relief steadily increased at the Quarter sessions from the late 162-s until 1642. They sometimes met resistance within their own community. For example, when her overseers approved relief for a woman named jane Barton, the other “inhabitants” refused to authorize it “without anie order from this honorouble bench.” In the early years the justices were heavily involved in forcing communities to provide poor relief.

However, as the years went on, poor relief was gradually written into the legal system and traditions of these communities in Lancashire. Petitioners could point to the legal obligations of the towns to provide assistance, rather than pleading that it was a moral duty. It became both statutory and eventually common law. In 1640, Elizabeth Stirzaker of Lancaster asked for money “according to the statute in that case ordained.”

The development of poor relief took time; it began during the reign of Elizabeth I, was disrupted by the English Civil War, and was finally in place by the 1680s. It served as an important force in spreading the reach of the government to far flung parts of England like Lancashire County. And it also helped to change some of the traditional roles of legal officials.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: Illustration for "Of Pride"

in John Day's A christall glasse of christian reformation, London, 1569


The Development of Poor Relief in Lancashire, c 1598-1680. Johnathan Healey. The Historical Journal.





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