The Poor Law in practice

In the early medieval time the only social care for destitute people was provided by Monasteries or other religious institutions.

The only other source of support was by begging in urban areas or at crossroads.

This changed with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VII and as a result there was an great increase of beggars and vagabond carrying out petty crime to survive.

Elizabeth I agreed to pass a new law which appointed Overseers in each Parish with responsibility for finding work for the unemployed and providing accommodation for the destitute.

Amendments to the Poor law were passed from time to time although there seemed to be a general acceptance amongst parishes that there should be some provision for the poor and incapable.

In most Parishes accommodations was provided although some Parishes provided financial assistance for people to be housed elsewhere.

The system was funded by local taxation and as such was not popular with many parishioners who encouraged overseers to make conditions harsh to deter people making use of the system.

Overseers were respectable members of the community who were appointed at the annual vestry meeting.

The post was unpaid and so could only be undertaken by men with an reliable income.

The system provided great information for family historians as leger books relating to the payment of taxes, expenditure on the poor and details of those destitute people were all made in record books, some of which still survive.

Changes to the law in the time of King Charles II provided rules as to which parish should provide care for destitute people.

This provided arguments amongst parishes who tried to pass the responsibility and of course the expense of caring for people to another parish.

Often these disputes were only settled by the order of Quarter Sessions.

The Story of Jane Harris of Cold Norton

A good example is that of Jane Harris who in 1658 lived with her father in a small cottage in Cold Norton. Jane was described as an innocent a term that in modern times we would probably refer to as having learning difficulties.

When her father died Jane was unable to support herself but fortune seemed to call as her brother Richard married the daughter of a widow Mrs Wiccah who owned a cottage at Springfield near Chelmsford.

Richard obtained the key and moved in with his new wife taking his sister with him.

Mrs Wiccah seems not to have approved of her new son in Law or given him consent to use the cottage as she complained to the local JP.

On hearing of the complaint Richard and his wife ran away leaving Jane alone in the cottage.

Jane was unable to support herself and so became liable for support from the Parish at Springfield.

The Parishioners objected to this and appealed to Essex Quarter Sessions who ruled that she should be sent to be cared for by Cold Norton parish.

The Parish of Cold Norton than appealed to Quarter Sessions on the basis that the natural mother of Jane had lived in the Parish of Boreham.

The Quarter Sessions ruled that she should then be taken to Boreham to be cared for by that parish.

The Parish of Boreham was next to appeal as she had settled in the neighbouring Parish of Little Totham at which point The Court ordered that Little Totham provide support for her.

An immediate appeal from Little Totham was heard as she now appears to be resident within the boundary of Wickham Bishops who were ordered to take over her care.

The Court appears to have grown tired of this case as representatives of all Parishes were summonsed to appear before the court in 1661 and on hearing from all parties the court ordered that Jane should be cared for by her brother Richard and his wife  who were once again resident in Springfield.

So for no fault of her own Jane had to cope with the death of her mother and father ,desertion by her brother and then five forced moved by Parishes more interested in saving money than in providing care for a poor young girl.


If similar circumstances existed 75 years earlier then Jane would have received no support and would have become a beggar or faced starvation.

to visit a page with the story of Maldon Workhouse and the people who lived there

to visit a page listing the officials of the Maldon Union from 1846 to 1869

to visit a page listing the Guardians of the Maldon Union in 1911


to visit a page listing items ftrom the records of Maldon Workhouse 1895-1930