Poor Relief – and some Cumbrian cases

Poor Relief; Parochial Relief; ‘on the parish’… if you see any of those words alongside the name of one of your ancestors, then it was all that stood between them and destitution – even starvation.

Here is an overview of how it worked. With some Cumbrian examples at the end.

Poor Relief down the centuries

While the Welfare State today may be facing massive challenges, it is something Brits take for granted. 

At its heart is a desire to establish a minimum standard of life for all – and fair play. 

Those who founded it had witnessed the mass unemployment and grinding poverty of the 1930s. They remembered the workhouses (which officially shut in 1930. You can read about workhouse life in Victorian Britain in this post).

They wanted to ensure a ‘safety net’ for anyone who, through no fault of their own, found themselves ‘on their uppers’.

In centuries past (post-1601), it was the job of the local parish to provide financial assistance to those in need due to ill health, injury, bereavement, or old age.

And the parish wasn’t overly keen to pay.

Strictly for locals

That was understandable – their income was limited and many couldn’t afford to be generous to those in need.

The 1662 Poor Relief Act – the Settlement and Removal Act – set down rules that were apply until 1834. Basically, if you didn’t meet the criteria of the Act, the parish didn’t have to help you.

In order to have a legal settlement, a person had to fulfil one or more of the following conditions (source):

  • be born into a parish where the parents had a settlement
  • up to 1662, live in a parish for more than three years; after 1662 a person could be removed within 40 days of arrival and after 1691, a person had to give 40 days’ notice before moving into a parish
  • be hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day (this led to short contracts so people did not get a settlement)
  • hold parish office
  • rent property worth more than £10 p.a. OR pay taxes on a property worth more than £10 p.a.
  • have married into the parish
  • previously have received poor relief in that parish
  • have served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident.

Kicked out, or dragged out

In the event of the parish authorities discovering that a person was likely to become a financial burden and become chargeable to the parish such as illegitimacy cases, those taken ill, suspected illegal immigrants or vagrants, the parish authorities undertook a Settlement Examination. The examination took place under the auspices of the Overseer of the Poor and a Justice of the Peace and was carried out to determine whether the person had a legitimate right to residency in the parish. The results of an examination are found in Examination Papers.

Following the findings, a guilty person would be served a Removal Order and then, forcibly if necessary, removed from the parish. These procedures were part of what is known as the Old Poor Law. 


If they accepted a person was entitled to help from the parish, they were granted a Settlement Certificate.

However, it didn’t stop the parish looking to pin responsibility on someone else to pay!

A deserted wife


John Sanderson of Black Syke* hath lately run away and left Ann Sanderson his wife upon the charge of the parish – the place of her legal settlement.

He hath disposable goods, chattels, and also a real estate to the value of £15 a year at Black Syke.

A warrant is issued to seize goods, chattels, and annual rents and profits of the real estate as thought fit towards the discharge of the parish.

The church wardens were given the go-ahead to command the constables to seize goods to the value of £4 (maximum) and rents to the value of £4 a year, for the maintenance of Ann.

*near Calthwaite

An abandoned mother


Appleby Midsummer Sessions.

Mary Walker, spinster, of Temple Sowerby, applied for parish relief. She’d borne a ‘bastard child’ (John) by Richard Fallowfield, ‘now deceased’ and was unable to maintain herself and the child.

With Richard dead, the parish granted her one shilling a week.

However, by 1742, the parish had decided one shilling a week was too much, and reduced it to 8d (eight pence) a week. 

In fairness, Richard Fallowfield had left £20 in his will, in trust, for the upbringing and education of the boy. It was his brother Henry Fallowfield, the main beneficiary and executor of the will, who’d either not been paying out; that, or perhaps the the trust was paying out, just not enough.

In 1742, the parish left it to Henry to increase the allowance to secure young John’s education – if nothing else.

A sailor returned

Fast-forward to 1910, and Bowness-on-Solway parish was asked to accept chargeability of a man named Heskett, who was in Liverpool and was said to have travelled all over the world.

Bowness accepted responsibility.

1861 has a Mary Ann Heskett, widow, landed proprietor, born West Indies, with a son Joseph Heskett, 18, at Bowness.

Mary Ann was already a widow in 1851, aged 44 with three children (Ann Rhoda 14, James 11, Joseph 8). All living with Joseph Askew, 85, with Mary his housekeeper.

Dad was John Heskett – 55 in 1841 and an agricultural labourer. Perhaps he’d been a sailor and settled down as a married man – a guess, as to how he married a woman from Grenada.

James for sure went to sea as a merchant seaman (mate). Which makes him a candidate for ‘travelled the world’

However, a Joseph Heskett, 64, shows up in the London Poor Law Hospital (Greenwich) discharge pages of 1908. He’d been a patient in the workhouse infirmary. 

  • The photo is of a lane leading away from Temple Sowerby.