The 1601 Poor Law Act was the basis for Poor Law administration for two centuries. It was a temporary measure made permanent in 1640. Under its provisions, each parish had to select two overseers of the poor, these were often the churchwardens or substantial landholders. Paupers were to be maintained and set to work, the funds provided by taxes on the inhabitants and holders of lands or those receiving tythes or fines in the parish. The money was to buy stock and tools for those paupers able to work and relief for those unable to work. Poor children were to be apprenticed and poorhouses were to be erected on waste ground.

The parish would only look after its own poor, so paupers from other parishes who had no prospect of work within 40 days were removed to his/her home parish. After 40 days a stranger could claim that he was settled and if he needed relief, then he became a charge on the poor rate. Incoming poor must have a settlement certificate showing that they would be taken back by their old parish if they were in need of relief. Paupers and their families had to wear a capital P on their clothing, punishment for disobeying could be: loss of relief, imprisonment, hard labour or whipping!
The overseers of the poor in Henfield 1646, were John Lankester and Nicholas Wood : with Robert Pritchett and Nicholas Gallop as waywardens (responsible for the upkeep of the roads in the parish, and were empowered to levy labour for repairs). They collected the sum of £59 10s 7d. This money was to be spent for the benefit of the poor folk who could not work, and accounts mention mending shoes for John White (6d) buying stockings for John White (1s 6d), three coates for Ann Whits child (3s 0d). It was not uncommon for the Vestry to instruct the parish officers to go round the parish and to take inventories of pauper goods.

The Parish of Henfield looked after their own, but the finances were feeble and could not cope with emergencies. On the positive side, everybody knew each other, which may have lead to a greater humanity and it kept the village together.

Poor children were apprenticed to local tradesmen, the ‘art and mystery of husbandry’ for the boys’, and ‘the secrets of huswifry’ for the girls, so they were able to learn a trade and become a productive member of the community. Things were to change when the Workhouse Unions were introduced.

Steve Robotham, Assistant Curator, Henfield Museum
Image © Henfield Museum
Taken from the December 2017 edition of The Parish Magazine.
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