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Poor Laws

The dissolution of the monasteries destroyed most of what we would now think as ‘social services’ as well as the power of the church. This left a gap in the provision of care for the sick and the poor. Elizabeth I enacted laws that made the parishes responsible for the needy in their geographic area of responsibility. These are generally called the Tudor Poor Laws although new laws were enacted in all subsequent eras. The influence of the clergy was still very strong and the church building was one of the few places that was suitable for people from different social groups to meet so they met in the vestry.  The meant that the people involved were called the vestry committee. The chairman of the committee in Chewton Mendip was usually the vicar or at least he was the person who signed the accounts first. The accounts were approved by the local justice of the peace (JP). Churchwardens were also members of the vestry committee and a set of their accounts for Chewton Mendip from 1699 to 1759  and Poor Law records from c 1730 to 1788 have been analysed as part of the research for this website.
 The law divided the people into three types regardless of social status or occupation but most taxes were still based on land. People who were proprietors of land assessed as worth £2 or forty shillings were classed as ‘substantial’ and were required to pay a rate to support the poor. They also had to pay rates to maintain roads and varies tithes.
 The Substantial people were sometimes called ‘forty shilling freeholders’ but this is a rather confusing term because they may not have been ‘freeholders’ in the modern sense of the word. Frequently they only held leases on the land. Another point of confusion is that they may have been something else other than farmers. The earl Waldegrave and other significant landowners like the Kingsmills had to pay the poor rates.
 The substantial people would elect one or more members to collect the rates and make the payments to those who deserved it.  These people were called Overseers.
 The second main group were the poor or paupers. Modern sensitivities would call them ‘claimants’ or ‘recipients’ but theses were not the historical terms.
There were several classes of poor. The deserving poor were given financial support or benefit in kind like sacks of coal for heating or potatoes for planting. Those who could work were made to work and ‘sturdy beggars’ could be whipped out of the village.
 Poor children were sent to work as ‘apprentices’ paid for by th parish. Some may have learnt useful trades but many were just used as subsidised labourers. Samuel Blanning may have risen from poor apprentice to a substantial person.
 An even less politically correct term used were link to bastardry cases. illegitimacy was a social stigma and practical problem which the parish had to pay for unless the father of the child could be found who was then responsible An alternative to ‘bastard’ was ‘base born’. A significant percentage of the apprentices paid for by Chewton Mendip parish were illegitimate.
 An act passed in 1662 was supposed to resolve who paid for th deserving poor based on the right of settlement. It was the responsibility of the parish where the person as born to support them so people were ‘removed‘ from the place where they were found and returned to their place of origin. This law resulted in a large number of court cases were the right of settlement was examined and a large industry of transportation. People were put into carts and transported like animals to market. The examinations and resulting removal orders provide a rich source of family history data.
 The majority of the village fell between the substantial and poor groups. They had to work hard to support themselves and their families.
 One reason why people required support was because the became ill. The Chewton Mendip poor law records are full of cases of people getting ill or injured and either dieing or recovering. There are references to people being inoculated against small pox which is unusual.
 There are some cases of people being punished or where the parish had to pay for people to be taken to jail. One of the Hippisleys was a notable example of an expensive culprit.
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