Life of the Poor

WLHF Spring Conference 2017

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre began the day by setting the scene with life under the poor law legislation pre 1834. Legislation was covered from the medieval period, touching on vagrancy and the role of the church. Then there were the Tudor poor laws and the effect of the Dissolution of the monasteries. Claire focused on the 1601 Act of Relief for the Poor, the 1536 Vagabonds and Beggars Act and the 1662 Poor Relief Act (The Settlement Act). She also considered the role of Overseers of the Poor. Topics also covered were bastardy and settlement issues, and apprentices. The 18th century acts were explained, including 1722 Knatchbull’s General Welfare Act and the 1782 Gilbert’s Act before moving on to the 19th century with the Sturges-Bourne Act of 1818. It was a very clear and concise guide to the poor laws pre 1837, of great practical use to local and family historians alike.

2017 conference speakers

Next up was Dr. Samantha Shave, introducing her research of the effects of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which focused on individual voices from archives. Her work has encompassed the Warminster, Cricklade and Mere areas, and we learnt about the story of Praxel Alford Hinwood who was prosecuted and transported with her children for her resistance to the new workhouse and poor law act with its focus on in-relief as a deterrent to claiming. The story highlighted the effect of the 1834 changes on local people and their experiences of being poor. It also gave an insight into the remarkable existence of archive material that can be found in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. Her book ‘Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780-1850’ provides further context.

An attentive audience

Paul Wilkins gave us a different angle with an in-depth look at the Highworth & Swindon workhouse, detailing the main buildings including the vagrant ward and mixing local detail with national context. He also looked at life in the workhouse; the work, the conditions, and the pioneering work of the Guardian’s wife, Hannah Archer, who brought a system of boarding out to the union and who led a delegation of women in 1870 to see the President of the Poor Law Board in London.

The day ended with a helpful guide to poor law material at The National Archives; what to find and how to prepare for a visit by Dr Jane Howells. It focused on documents contained within the Ministry of Health collection relating to the administration of the Poor Law Unions which contain details of employment and correspondence between the workhouses and the Union boards. The records are be extremely useful to local and family historians, and a visit to view them was definitely recommended.

The AGM was conducted over the lunch hour and there was the opportunity to view publications for sale and interesting displays thanks to society members and others. Tea and cake and the chance to meet and chat local history with many friendly faces ended a highly interesting and successful Spring Conference 2017.

Hope to see you at our next event at Shrewton in October!

Julie Davis, WLHF webmaster

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