Feeding the poor
We've written before about the evolution of Poor Law in Scotland. The 1845 Poor Law (Scotland) Act established detailed rules for the provision of poor relief, with a central body - the Board of Supervision - responsible for monitoring its implementation. Before 1845, poor relief, such as it was, was greatly decentralised - parishes were responsible for their own paupers, and the rules were rarely outlined in much detail.
However, a meeting of the heritors, minister and Elders of the parish of Forgue parish in Aberdeenshire did record the rules for poor relief as established by an earlier meeting of freeholders of the county held in Aberdeen on June 6 1751.
Like many Kirk Session minutes, the entry starts with a preamble detailing the sederunt (i.e. the names of those in attendance), and the reason for the meeting:
At Manse of Forgue the 28th of June 1751 years, being the time fixed for the meeting of the heritors, minr & elders of the parish of Forgue for taking the state of the poor of sd Parish under consideration, in consequence of the repeated Intimations of the Sherriff Substitute of the County of Abdn, there being pnt Theod Morison of Bogny, Alexr Duff of Hatton, Mr Willm Irvine of Corniehaugh, George Phyn of Corse, Mr Alexr Forbes minr, And Harper, Geo Morison, Alexr Horn, Jas Anderson & Alexr Muir elders; When the Resolutions of the freeholders of the County of Abdn met at Abdn the 5th of June curt anent Vagrants & begging poor, wt abstracts of the Laws & proclamations of Council on that Subject were laid before the said Meeting; and in consequence of the sd Laws, Resolutions and repeated Intimations of the Sherriff, the Meeting thought it incumbent and necessary for ‘em to make a Record containing the Resolutions as to the Managemt of the poor, the publick funds and Collections of sd Parish, Present State of the poor and quarterly allowance formerly given ‘em; and to settle what further will be necessary for maintenance of such poor as will be subsisted by the parish of Terms of sd Laws, Proclamations and Resolutions.
One little thing that struck me about this passage - and it's repeated throughout the rest of the minute - is the use of 'em for them. Like many minutes of this period, the text is full of abbreviations - paper was expensive (and perhaps some clerks were keen to minimise their workload), but this is the earliest use of 'em I've come across.
The rules as laid out show some of the same preoccupations as contemporary framing of welfare systems, such as benefit fraud:
1. The Heritors, minr and Elders agree to use all possible means to detect all Impostors, and to prevent any person from being entered upon the poor Roll of sd parish but such as are unable & uncapable to maintain emselves either in whole or in part.
The next clause is reminiscent of modern concerns about the "workshy":
2. That such as are able to work for a part of their Subsistence either at Husbandry or Manufactures, shall be obliged to do it, & supply’d for the remainder only; and if they refuse to work confirm to their Ability, that they are to have no Relief and to be prosecuted as Law directs.
Families were expected to look after their own:
3. That parents when able are to maintain their children, and children their parents, in whole or in part, which if they refuse to do they are to be prosecuted before the Sherriff in terms of Law.
The fourth clause shows that paupers were expected to repay their benefits, even after death. Parish accounts often include details of roups (auctions) of the goods of paupers who died, showing that poor relief was often a loan, rather than a grant:
4. That all Persons before they be put upon the Poors Roll be made to convey to the Kirk Session of the Parish whatever effects they shall be possessed of or intituled to at Death (unless on the event of their circumstances being altered by succession or legacies sometime before their Death, or upon their repaying to the Session the full Extent of what was given out for their former support), in which Event the Session is to repone em, but in no other event are they to repone who once accept of a full subsistence; and such as accept of a partiall subsistence may be reponed by the Session at any time upon prepaying what was formerly given them.
We have 18th-century benefit caps:
5. That no more shall be allowed to any person but one peck of meal for each week, or the value thereof, unless upon extraordinary occasion & when done by consent of heritors, minr and Elders.
And "work for benefits". These sort of schemes were quite common - we've come across one parish that turned this approach into a competition, with a premium (meaning a prize) for the best spinners/weavers:
6. And in order to afford work to such of the poor as have not trades to buy flax or wool to ‘emselves, the Session agrees, that if no manufacturers will trust em, they will be Caution to such manufacturers or Merts for the value of the wool or Lint given to such Poor by their Advice, if not returned when manufactured, in order to put such poor people aworking what they can for their own Support, that the Parish may be relieved.
Parishes were keen to avoid liability for incomers, instead returning them to their parish of origin. (Resetter in this context means someone providing support, shelter or protection).
7. The meeting further agree that none shall be received upon the poors Roll but such as have resided three years in the Parish; and if any poor shall intrude the Constable for the District be called to remove ‘em; and that the Resetters of any such be prosecuted.
Landholders were liable for checking the papers of their tenants, and - if they fell ill and became unable to work - for returning them to their home parishes:
8. The Meeting also agree that every Heritor, tenent or subtenent that shall bring in any person upon the Parish who shall become uncapable to maintain emselves before the three years of Residence shall expire, by which they are intituled to Charity, whoever brings them into the parish shall be bound to maintain such Persons untill he transmit ‘em to their legall place of Residence for their maintenance; and that none shall be resett as a tenent or subtenent, but such as bring along with them certificates from the Parishes where they formerly resided.
Children found begging and orphans could be forced into bonded labour in return for food and clothing:
9. And as by the Laws it is enacted, that if Children be found begging under the age of fifteen, any person may take such Children before the Heritors, minr & Elders, & record their Names & enact emselves to educate such Child to trade or Work, such Child shall be oblidged to serve the person until the 30th year of his or her age for meat & cloath, and this not only to extend to the Children of Beggars but also to poor Children whose Parents are dead, or with consent of the parents if alive; if any such Children be found, the meeting agree that the Law in Relation to ‘em take place.
Poor relief was funded from church collections. Even in 1751 - nearly a century before the Poor Law (Scotland) Act was passed - there was concern that collections were insufficient to meet the needs of poor relief. (In fact, the 1845 Act was at least partly a consequence of the Disruption of 1843 and the formation of the Free Church - Church of Scotland parishes were responsible for poor relief for everyone in the parish, regardless of which church they belonged to: the Disruption meant that an ever-smaller number of people (Church of Scotland congregations) were responsible for poor relief. The 1845 Act stipulated that where a mandatory assessment was levied, responsibility for poor relief was transferred from Kirk Sessions to the newly established Parochial Boards:
10. They further resolve, that in the Event of the Congregation withdrawing the ordinary Collection, which formerly was the only support the poor had, every labouring servant if draws ten pounds scots of fee or above, shall be yearly assessed in six shillings Scots, and every servt that draws ten merks in thre shillings Scots, and every Grassman that pays 20 merks & below in 3 shillings Scots, and from 20 pounds to fifty merks yearly rent in 6 shill Scots, the masters to be accountable for the servt’s proportions which is to be put to accts of their wages; and it is not doubted by the principal Tacksmen will continue their Collections as formerly, as the maintenance of the poor will at last recur upon ‘emselves.
The final clause stipulated that penalties for moral transgressions were to be fixed, and used for poor relief. This particular clause is a little unusual, in that it makes explicit that "sinners" could avoid ritual public humiliation by paying an additional penalty, an option that would only be available to relatively well-off parishioners. It was in fact a common practice, but it's usually not explicitly mentioned in the records.
11. They further agree that the least fine that shall be exacted from any fornicator shall be five pounds Scotch; and it is the Opinion of the Heritors that the minr and Sess when they think fit may dispense with the public appearances upon the stool for paymt of a Guinea each; which sums when so paid, are to be annually applyd for maintenance of the Poor. And that the minr and session before Absolution require the Parents of Children thus begotten to enact emselves & find Caution to free the Parish of the Charge of the Children; and in Case of their Refusal, to cause the Constable summon every Person refusing before the Sherriff of Abdn and transmit to the pro[curato]r fiscal an Extract of their judicial confession in order to have the law there anent enforced.
It's striking to see many of the current concerns about benefits payments reflected in rules laid down over 250 years ago. These rules help clarify the position many people found themselves in the 18th century, usually through no fault of their own. It's also a useful guide to the practical operation of poor law in Scotland 90 years before national rules were codified in the 1845 Act for The Amendment and better Administration of the Laws Relating to the relief of the Poor in Scotland.
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