Timetable of Legal History logoMany legal historians mistakenly refer to the statute of 1601 as the first attempt within the English common law to address the needs of the poor; public welfare and social assistance.

That honour belongs to Henry VIII, with Chapter XXV (25) of his lengthy statute proclaimed at Westminster, London, in 1535.

A short chapter, Chapter 25, hidden deep within the 1535 statute, clearly seeking to invoke the fear of God and the hangman in the hearts of the "sturdy vagabond", but nonetheless set up a system of local responsibility for the local poor.

Even in 1551, according to Fowles, yet another statute identified "the impotent, feeble and lame, who are poor indeed", collectors of alms were to work the crowd at church every Sunday.

This was institutionalized and a maze of procedures set up in the 1601 statute.

And what a bureaucracy ... all, by no accident, designed to avoid any payments or financial outlays by the Crown for the poor of their land.

Nay; best leave that to the local folk.

The "sturdy vagabonds" were not intended to benefit from the 1601 Poor Law; they remained criminals and were dealt harshly as a crime, that of vagrancy. As a reminder, King William III added in a 1696 statute:

1601 poor law"That the money raised only for the relief of such as are as well impotent as poor may not be misapplied and consumed by idle, sturdy and disorderly beggars."

There is no nutshell version possible of the wordy 1601 Poor Law but here are the highlights:

  • The church warden of each parish and between 2 to 5 householders were nominated every Easter to be the official Overseers of the Poor for the parish, to meet at least once a month.
  • An Overseer who missed a meeting "without lawful cause" was fined 20 shillings.
  • The Overseers of the Poor were to "set to work" any child who, in the estimation of the Overseers, were not of a family able to maintain them.
  • A child could be bound to a job or apprenticeship until the age of 24 for a man, or 21 or until married, for a woman.
  • The Overseers also had authority over "the lame, impotent, old, blind ... being poor and unable to work ... married or unmarried...."
  • The relatives of a poor person, including grand-parents and children, had the first and direct obligation to "relieve and maintain every such poor person".
  • The Overseers could tax any and every inhabitant, even "weekly" if necessary, to provide clothing and other materials necessary to "get the poor on work".
  • Any inhabitant who refused to pay towards the poor fund could have their goods seized and sold and committed to jail "without bail or mainprize until payment of the said sum, arrearages and stock".