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Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

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Paupers and York Poor Law Union, 1837-42 


Dick Hunter has written an update report for our Poverty Project: April 2020

Ann Shipton, 43 and single, lived in Swann Street. She was unable to support herself as a char and washerwoman due to an accident in 1841 and applied for welfare, or relief as it was known. She was awarded four shillings a week for eleven weeks; and two shillings for the twelfth week. Relief was then discontinued as she had improved sufficiently to earn again. This account looks at how she applied for relief. Who was responsible for its provision? And how did the system work?

Prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) paupers applied to their parish, in this case St Mary Bishophill Junior. The parish overseer reported to vestry members who often knew the applicant, and decided on the merits of the case. Each parish was responsible through the parish poor rate for meeting the costs of those paupers who had legal settlement in the parish. Settlement could be conferred by birth, marriage, residence in an area for a particular length of time, employment, or through various property qualifications. Those applying for relief without being legally settled in the parish in which they were claiming could be removed to their ‘home’ parish. There was a financial reckoning, with parishes responsible for the costs of their settled poor living in other parishes. Thus a parish was not responsible for all those living within its boundaries but had responsibility for many living elsewhere.

After 1834, decisions were made by Poor Law Union Boards of Guardians. The Poor Law Commission was the governing body charged with overseeing the New Poor Law from its establishment in 1834 until 1847. It provided direction to poor law unions, though relations between unions and the central commissioners were sometimes fractious, as attested below. The Poor Law Union (PLU) was the basic administrative unit of the New Poor Law., with groups of parishes administering relief to the poor. York Poor Law Union, formed in July 1837, covered 103 square miles and comprised 80 parishes, of which 32 were urban and 48 rural. The poor law union was governed by a partly-elected board of guardians - all male - and financed by a rate levied on property owners. Each union was required to have a workhouse, providing in-relief.

York's population expanded from 26,260 in 1831 to 28,842 in 1841, and 36,303 in 1851. St Mary Bishophill Junior with a population of 1,462 was the largest of the 16 urban and rural  parishes within district one of the PLU.  Its guardian – Henry Smales – was elected vice-chair of the Board. York guardians met on Thursdays each week, and discussed issues relating to poor relief. They had discretion as to out-relief approved, with variations in amounts between  PLUs. Relief was in kind or cash (or a combination of both), enabling paupers remain in their own homes on temporary or permanent relief. The Board's decisions were characterised  by a desire to minimise cost to ratepayers. It noted instructions and guidance from the central authority, and discussed  'deserving' cases.

A large proportion of those in receipt of relief received it in the community. For example, in the quarter ending 27 June 1838 there were 15 men, 46 women and 48 children (a total of 109) receiving relief in the old parish workhouse in Marygate at a cost of £156. This compared to 2,067 receiving out-relief, comprising 343 men, 806 women and 918 children at a cost of £2653.

Relieving officers (RO) were appointed, one for the urban (city) area; one rural. They assessed applications; recommended any necessary action (such as admittance to the workhouse, or attendance by a district medical officer); and paid out-relief to those eligible. They reported directly to the Board of Guardians, were expected to know how to keep accounts; and live in the district where they worked. Posts were full-time, excluding other trade or profession 'or from entering any other service'. Their duties were:

  • to administer immediate relief - e.g. food; lodging; medical - in cases of sudden/urgent need, without regard for a pauper's settlement.

  • to supply weekly allowances to paupers, and to pay/administer relief to the amount ordered by the Guardians. The rates were frequently three shillings for a single person; and five shillings for a married couple. There was a maximum of one shilling and sixpence for a woman with. a bastard child. The award of four shillings a week to Ann Shipton illustrates discretion that was sometimes exercised by the Board.

  • to notify the appropriate Parish Guardian of the Board meeting at which the case would be heard.

Richard Leafe (36) was appointed RO for the urban area in 1837 on a salary of £60 a year, parsimonious compared to that paid by some Poor Law Unions in Yorkshire. Leafe was born in Bishopthorpe, and married with eight children. £200 sureties were provided by George Burton (farmer) of Lamgwith and Benjamin Leafe (farmer) of Elvington. Leafe was required to notify weekly Board meetings of the sum paid out in relief the previous week, and subsequently reimbursed. He was based in an office in Thursday Market (St Sampson Square) five mornings a week, from ten to twelve, to receive applications, a board fixed outside the office to notify the public. Guardians later transferred his office (relief station) to the front room of the vagrants office in Little Shambles, thus saving £20 a year. These premises incorporated a vagrant lodging house, and the Leafe family home. Claimants such as Ann Shipton might find it a demoralising place to apply to for relief, with the sound of vagrants breaking stone in the yard in the mornings. It was to here she arrived each week to receive her relief cash.

Leafe investigated initial applications, though once an allowance had been granted little was done to monitor the recipient or their situation. He was certainly busy, receiving ten to twelve applications each morning in 1838. With long lists of paupers it is unlikely he was able to make regular visits to those in receipt of relief, despite an expectation he do so. Guardians, concerned at the quality and effectiveness of staff, set up a committee to examine accounts, and efficiency of Leafe and Seymour, workhouse master. It found workhouse accounts imperfect, and Seymour incompetent. Leafe's accounts were not made up till three weeks after the end of the previous quarter. Moreover, the committee noted 'he does not devote the whole of his time to the duties of his Office but still carries on a Public House which he declines to give up'. Leafe was later forced to resign due to irregular financial dealings.

The Board heard applications for relief towards the end of their meetings at the Guildhall. Sometimes these were appeals against earlier decisions. One reporter commented that

The Board heard applications for relief from paupers who had been struck off the lists. There were at lest 100 paupers surrounding the doors, struggling for their turns, so it was somewhat difficult task to get in or out of the room. We do not detail the particulars of the ...cases, as we consider such practice improper, we cannot however but observe one circumstance which supports what we have before advanced. The parties applying for relief are in 9 cases out of 10 totally unknown to the few Guardians who remain to hear the applications – the consequence is that they have in most cases to rely on the paupers' own statements, connected with any little facts that the RO may have obtained, and yet this is held to be a preferable course to the old practice of going to the vestry meeting of parishioners, who were sure to know every circumstance connected with each pauper, and whether the applicants are deserving or not. Some parishes are totally unrepresented either from resignation, illness or absence of the Guardian and their parochial affairs are managed by parties wholly unconnected with them. Against the injustice of such a system we shall at all times raise our voice. The sitting of the Board continued till 10pm (lasting) 11 hours for which wearying...time many of the poor applicants had been wasting their small store of spirits, without food or relief of any kind. Yorkshire Gazette 14 October 1837 

Another reporter at the same meeting noted:

the Act bore down with unmitigated severity on many deserving able-bodied widow with a three year old child said she might support herself but not her child and begged for a small allowance for it. The Chair asked what she felt about it going into the Workhouse. She replied 'my child shall not go there'. She then withdrew, and the Board decided by two or three votes that no allowance be given. York Herald 7 October 1837

These contemporary press reports reveal:

  • how guardians prioritised meeting agendas. Pauper applications and appeals came near the close of sometimes long meetings. Other matters such as tendering for supplies for the workhouse, or financial transactions relating to settlement cases, took precedence.

  • the impersonal relationship between guardians and paupers, compared to the old parish vestry.

  • many guardians had gone home by the time individual cases were heard.

  • respect of the reporters in anonymising claimants.

  • determination of the widow to remain with her child, and readiness of the majority of guardians to refuse out-relief for the child.

  • a range of attitudes of guardians towards claimants.

Different attitudes were also exposed in relation to how categories of claimants were treated, for example women with bastard children. Guardians on 19 July 1837 resolved that no woman with more than one bastard child would in future receive any out-door relief. A later attempt to rescind this decision was rejected by 21 votes to 18. However, in December the Board agreed to suspend the rule where cases were exceptional. This issue was further contested when Pullyn (St Michael le Belfry guardian) gave notice of his intention to move a resolution that women with more than one bastard child be given relief in the workhouse. This dispute illustrates debates within the Board, influenced by pauper classification and other rules imposed by the Poor Law Commission (PLC) whose advice was sought. Its attitude towards such claimants was expressed by Assistant PL Commissioner Revens: 'were they to make a practice of allowing outdoor-relief to mothers of more than one child there would be no end to this sort of impropriety, as females might go on to have six or eight children and receive relief for them all due to the Board fear of workhouse admittance'.

Poor Law policy in York has been described by Anne Digby as 'a subtle blend of political independence, financial stringency, & old-style paternalism...'. An example of  the York Board expressing its independence in relation to the Commission arose in 1840. Charles Stanford  complained that he had been unable to obtain repayment for relief that he had advanced to John Undy, a pauper with asthma (and with an intellectually disabled daughter to maintain), who had worked for him for many years. Money had been withheld by RO Leafe. Assistant Commissioner Revens informed the Board  on 4 April that the PLC had decided Leafe be dismissed due to financial irregularities. However, the Board - at an unusually well-attended meeting - complained it had not been consulted by the PLC, and condemned its interference. It also objected to Leafe being unable to defend himself. The Board agreed to examine circumstances leading to his dismissal, and to examine his accounts. Henry Hillerby was appointed RO pending the appointment of a permanent RO. Leafe was subsequently largely exonerated, and the Board successfully sought his reinstatement in June 1840 (though he resigned in 1842 over discrepancies in the accounts –  owing £226 to York PLU, to the chagrin of his sureties).

Salaries of relieving officers were reviewed in October 1840. The Board noted Driffield, Malton and Beverley salaries were twice those of York's  £60 a year. It recommended to the PLC that the the salary of rural RO Giles be increased to £75 a year, plus £35 expenses for a horse. And it was agreed (with six Guardians dissenting) to increase Leafe's salary by £10 a year plus £10 a year for keeping the vagrancy office which had an average of eight applying for overnight relief in December.

Out-relief helped to bridge the gap between what a household needed to subsist and the resources available to it. Loans were sometimes given to help applicants with specific needs; for example, the Board on 25 July 1839 approved £2 to Elizabeth Bell to help her buy a cow. Guardians took into account sources of applicants' income including contributions of other family members to the household budget; keeping gardens, allotments, and pigs; poaching, and theft; the use of shop credit; savings and insurance schemes such as friendly societies and mutual aid clubs; and the contribution of kin and neighbourhood networks. Many claimants relied on small amounts from a variety of sources.

Guardians sometimes viewed out-relief as a supplement to support a recipient's irregular or inadequate earnings; or in addition to charitable aid. Other income sometimes came from relatives who were legally liable to pay, and who were taken before a magistrate if they refused. This allowed some Boards to pay low sums in out-relief of two to three shillings a week, as often the practice in York  Out-relief was an economical option for guardians, compared to workhouse admittance. Nonetheless, relief sums were low, and there were official worries that sums might lead to extended illness or death by starvation, with adverse coroners' inquests and legal repercussions for relieving officers and guardians.


Bradley, Sarah, 'Welcoming the New Poor Law: The Bromsgrove Poor Law Union, 1836-1847' in Family & Community History,, vol. 22 (3), October 2019.

Crossman, Virginia, 'Outdoor Relief' in Poverty & the Poor Law in Ireland, 1850-1914 (Liverpool University Press, 2013).

Digby, Anne, 'The Relief of Poverty' in Victorian York: Attitudes and Policies in York 1831-1981: 150 Years of Scientific Endeavour and Social Change ed. C. H. Feinstein (William Sessions and British Association for Advancement of Science, 1981).

King, Steven, 'Thinking and Rethinking the New Poor Law' in Local Population Studies No. 99, autumn 2017.

Kingsley-Curry, Anna,' Relief in Early Victorian Bromsgrove' in Pauper Prisons...Pauper Palaces...The Victorian Poor Law in the East and West Midlands, 1834-1871 (Matador, 2018).

Snell , K.D.M.  'A Cruel Kindness': parish out-door relief and the new poor law' in Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales 1700-1950  (Cambridge, 2006).