Tuesday 31 July 2012

Vestries and the Poor Law

London's parish vestries weren't terribly keen on the New Poor Law of 1834 which created a centralised national authority for Poor Law administration, and made various other changes to how paupers were treated. Here's how one parish responded to the Bill going through parliament. It's probably only of interest to those of you who contemplate the Poor Laws more generally, but I rather like the language of it:

St. Matthew Bethnal Green in Vestry Assembled
Most respectfully Sheweth
    That your Petitioners having carefully examined the Bill now before Parliament "for Amendment and better Administration of the Poor Laws in England and Wales" cannot help viewing several of its Provisions with a considerable degree of Alarm and Anxiety not onliny in a Constitutional Sense (regard being had to the Powers of the Commissioners) but more especially with reference to the Social Interests of this Parish, for although Your Petitioners (as is well known to His Majesty's Government) have for a long series of Years been oppressed with Pauperism, and would therefore feel most grateful to be relieved from so serious a weight, Yet Your Petitioners venture to assure Your Honourable House, that the Bill as it now stands according to their practical Judgment and long Experience in Parochail matters will only tend to increase their Burthens; what indeed may prove very advantageous to a Rural District would be highly prejudicial to the Interest of this Parish.
   That whilst Your Petitioners cannot fail to be aware and admit that the Intention of Your Honourable House undoubtedly is to remedy many Evils existing in the Poor Laws by relieving the Burthens of Parishes and at the same time to improve the condition of the Poor themselves, Your Petitioners most humbly submit that the Representations of a great Body of Parishioners, under their Local Act of Parliament in Vestry Assembled, should be still the only legally constituted authority for levying Rates and administering teir own Parochial Affairs and that to delegate unlimited Power to Commissioners having no practical or Local knowledge might tend to a vexatious not to say arbitrary Exercise of such power thus degrading any Vestry or Board of Guardians that may hereafter by Appointed, without the Right or permission of Appeal, except to Your Honourable House.
    Your Petitioners can not imagine the slightest Benefit to arise by uniting Bethnal Green (containing a Population of nearly Sixty five Thousand Inhabitants) to any other Parish, the Operative Silk Manufacturers being more peculiarly Circumstanced and perhaps oftener Distressed than the Poor of any other District, a Union therefore, as it appears to Your Petitioners, would not at all benefit the Inhabitants or tend to that most desirable of all Ends namely a Diminuition of Poor Rates, such a Measure however could with no Difficulty be accomplished, if the substantial, the affluent Parishes in and round the Metropolis (who really see nothing and only occasionally hear of one's Condition) were to Contribute to our Assessments. By them it would scarcely be felt but the Eastern District of London, would experience an all important Benefit an instantaneous Relief. Your Petitioners with great Humility therefore venture to arrest the Attention of Parliament and most respectfully to press this part of their Memorial on the just Consideration of Your Honorable House by Conjuring Parliament forthwith to try the effect of a General Assessment for London and Middlesex on the like Scale as the County Rate. If that Plan succeed the Poor Rates throughout the Kingdom might then be speedily consolidated, and thus a National Assessment under proper Authority and Regulations, would be the surest way of promptly alleviating not only the existing Burthens of this Parish and District in particular but the Country at large; ultimately perhaps doing away with the Necessity and Expense of Removals althogether.
    Your Petitioners are apprehensive that the intended Regulations as to Out Door Relief will be found to be almost impracticable at any rate to fall short of the Object of the present Bill in as much as we have frequently Hundreds of Families (able-Bodied People) soliciting Support who are not able to find Employment and we have likewise a vast number in work who are not paid sufficient to support their Families and come to the Board for the Residue. Hence the Enlargement or Re-building of Workhouses in such a District as this, would under the Provisions of the Bill now before Parliament be attended with Ruinous Expense without ultimately realizing the intended Benefit to this Parish or the Country.
    With regard to the Clauses making Birth, Parentage and Marriage the only Legal Settlements Your Petitioners beg leave respectully to represent to Your Honorable House that this being a Silk Manufacturing Parish Containing nearly Fifteen Thousand Houses (of which the major part are small Tenements with Rents extremely low) the Facilities and Inducements as will readily be perceived by Your Honorable House are very strong to Individuals taking up their abode among us more especially those from the Country who come to seek Employment. It is perfectly clear that such Individuals cannot possibly present themselves to gain a Settlement in the more affluent Parishes and that their thus making a Home in Bethnal Green will eventually burthen us with additional Settlers.
    With respect to the Section intending to repeal the existing Laws which now Compel putative Fathers of Illegitimate Children to provide for their Offspring, Your Petitioners respectfully beg to observe that such a repeal appears to offer a Premium to Profligacy, Prostitution, Poverty and perhaps ultimate Destruction so far as regards the unfortunately Deserted Female, all which seem to require the most serious attention of Your Honorable House, and in regard to the Facilities just spoken of, cannot help to entail a perpetual Incumbrance on this Parish. Your Petitioners are well aware that Your Honorable House in most instances can only Legislate generally and not partially, but in a measure of such vital Importance as the present Bill contemplates more especially regarding the established Law of Settlements Your Petitioners humbly yet Confidently trust Your Honourable House will in its Wisdom provide against one portion of His Majesty's Subjects being exposed to comparative Ruin at the Expense of another. But in endeavouring to strike at the Root of so vast an Evil as is undoubtedly the present System of Relief to Outdoor Poor Your Petitioners venture to think that the Provisions of the Bill will not at all benefit this large Parish or the Eastern part of the Metropolis.
     In Conclusion, Your Petitioners most respectfully beg leave to observe that in as much as the Bill proposes to introduce a wholly new System into the Administration of the Poor Laws which is uniformly admitted to be most difficult and Complex Question to Legislate upon And as the substitution of Birth Settlements cannot fail very seriously to Affect the Inhabitants of this Parish in particular
    Your Petitioners therefore most humbly pray that Your Honorable House will be pleased to take their Case into Your serious Deliberation and if necessary allow that Your Petitioners may be heard by their Counsel Agents and Witnesses against such Clauses in the Bill which appear so materially to Affect the Welfare and Interest of this Manufacturing Parish.

[A petition recorded in the Vestry Minutes of St. Matthew Bethnal Green, 1834]


  1. I would like to use this petition in my dissertation on London and the New Poor Law, where can i find the original source ?

    1. Hi - I should think I found this in the vestry minutes held by Tower Hamlets archives ... perhaps check with them that they have it, before visiting.