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Forum - Parish News

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Forum - Parish News Poor Books

  1. Milton Abbas was a small, rural parish in Dorset with one manor. in the 18th Century. All property was leasehold and held by the Lord of the Manor.
    We are transcribing our Overseers of the Poor Book, 1771 - 1798. So far we have 14 000 records.
    There are many questions which arise.
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    We do not have Vestry Minutes from this period.
    We only have one manorial document - court roll 1754.

    We need assistance in putting the records into the context of a small rural parish.
    What did the Churchwardens and Overseers do?
    How were they elected?
    Who attended the monthly/annual Vestry Meetings?
    Are there weather records for the second half of the 18th century which can tell us which were exceptionally cold winters or wet summers in Dorset?
    How do we analyse the books to extract information? We can find the monthly and annual total expenditure,
    We can find the dates when an individual first and last appears on poor relief, but what does that tell us?

  2. It’s great to hear about your project and thank you for getting in contact.

    The position of churchwarden is the older of the two you mentioned, with responsibility for producing accounts of the parish income and expenditure. The works of Beat Kümin and Clive Burgess are good guides to their duties. My understanding is that the position of overseer emerged in response to the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and that the early years of parish relief took the form of a collection box in churches, while later a levy was introduced.

    Vestry meetings saw the parish’s heads of households meet to decide policy and select officials, sometimes including non-parish positions such as constables. These meetings are discussed in Mark Goldie’s ‘Officeholding in Early Modern England’, who notes that the exclusion of many parish residents from these meetings became a point of contention in some places.

    Although parishes originate as ecclesiastical units, across the sixteenth century they increasingly took on a secondary role as central government administrative units. The number of records increases with their widening role, such as with the parish register of births, marriages and deaths becoming a requirement from 1538.

    Can other members add information on parishes in the eighteenth century or give more specific information on poor books themselves or weather records?

  3. Good to hear of this project. A few ideas:

    - Check out Steve Hindle, On the Parish (for info on overseers and rural relief systems) and Wolfgang Behringer, A Cultural History of Climate (on the latest weather research and the impact of the 'little ice age' in the early modern period)

    - Still useful for many of your questions: Webb, S. and B., English Local Government: The Parish and the County (1906) [plus see the large body of parish-related sources / literature on the My-Parish bibliography:]

    - Approach the county record office for advice on how to interpret your records (perhaps with reference to similar surviving Dorset sources)

    Hope others can add further clues.

    With best wishes for your work,


  4. Many thanks for your advice. I am now busy researching the references you quoted.

  5. If we obtained an HLF Community Grant for research could we interest a university department to advise or supervise a researcher on analysing Overseers of the Poor Accounts and Churchwardens' Accounts of the 17th and 18th centuries which we have transcribed?

    We want to tell the story of the parish of Milton Abbas, Dorset during this period. In particular the destruction of the Old Town and the building of a model village around 1780.

    We have access to plenty of documents such as wills, leases, settlement orders, maps, surveys etc as well as the Overseers and Churchwardens.

  6. Yes, we could seek expressions of interest from within the Network; if the material is extensive enough, it might be worth considering asking for funding for an MA / research student based at a suitable university (with Warwick one possibility).


  7. Interested to read of your endeavours re overseers' and churchwardens' accounts and the 'Model Village'.  I've more experience of churchwardens' accounts than of those of overseers, but in giving context to either, have you thought of the local economic conditions at the time? The late eighteenth century includes the aftermath of the American War and the earlier stages of the Napoleonic wars. The latter came at a time of increased costs of living--try L.H. Office (on-line) on Uk earnings and prices. W. G. Hoskins examined the wheat prices at Exeter over a long period of time and gives comments on status of the local/national wheat crops of the years, but I think only to 1759. (Agricultural History Review 16).

    To be entitled to parish relief from the overseers, it had to be the recipient's legal settlement. This means that most of those receiving such charity are likely to be long-term or original residents residents of the parish and so some may be traceable also through the parish registers. By this time many areas had a workhouse. If you're not sure about this for the area, the information for 1777(I think) is on-line, with the size of the establishment i.e. how many it could take. There may be records for the workhouse at Dorset archives. One such may have served several parishes, but the parish of each person may be given.  There are also House of Commons Parliamnetary Papers for 1777 and 1787 and 1803-04 which provde' returns made by the overseers of the poor' for every parish in each county. These are available on-line, but difficult to access--I'd enlist help! they would put the area in context.

    The date of the Model Village, if established by the holder of the manor might be linked to the re-design of his grounds under the influence of Lancelot (Capability) Brown---or purely altruistic?

    One last query from me to you. Please, were your churchwardens giving any alms to travellers, although this should not have occurred between 24 June 1700 and circa 1712?

    New member of My-Parish


  8. Thanks for your interest and the info - what is LH Office??

    Unfortunately your reference "Harvest Fluctuations and English Economic History, 1620-1759" W G Hoskins, AGHR 16, does not cover the work we are doing 1750 - 1800.

    We have plenty of info on social history of the time, including Napoleonic wars, landed gentry, agricultural changes, travelling, Settlement papers, Bastardy Papers, wills, leases, etc.

    There was certainly no workhouse. There may have been a poorhouse later, The poor were on out relief. There are NO records of a workhouse or poorhouse at Milton Abbas. The Union workhouse did not open until 1836 in Blandford which is not our period of interest. Please see our website  for what we are trying to achieve.

    There were a few travellers receiving occasional disbursements, usually from the Churchwardens, rarely from the Overseers. There are entries such as "gave 12 poor Irish men", or "gave man with a a pass", but not more than once a year on average.

    The payments are never called "alms" or "charity". There are regular monthly payments to selected (at the Vestry meeting) poor and ad hoc "disbursements" as need arose.

    Best wishes, Bryan

  9. Thank you for responding to my request re references to giving money to travellers. Even a few are interesting, in that after the change in the law from midsummer 1700, in many cases such payments cease completely in many Devon parishes.

    Please accept my apologies for a typing error. L. H. Office should be L. H. Officer, the author of the data set which does run long enough for your time period.  Other sets which run on into the nineteenth century or further include:

    Gragory Clark, 'The long march of history: Farm wages, population, and economic growth, england 1209-1869', The  Economic History Review, February 2007, Vol. 60 Issue Number 1 p97-135.  For Exeter wheat prices I remembered that there is an article which gives them through to 1820: W. H. Beveridge, 'A Statistical Crime' (with Exeter wheat prioces 1300-1820) Journal of Economic and Business History, 1928/29, p 503-533. 

    However, I realise now that these may be surplus to your needs. I'll read more carefully in future.