A man on a horse gives directions to a boy standing W.H. Pyne, Butchers, 1806. © Bristol Public Libraries.


The idea that each person had a place of settlement, or home parish, was central the Old Poor Law itself,1 and formed a natural corollary to the role of the parish in raising taxes and distributing relief to the poor. In many respects this idea was also implicit in earlier vagrancy legislation passed between the late fourteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which was designed to return vagrants to their home communities. But the term settlement was popularised with the passage of the An Act for the better Reliefe of the Poor in 1662, widely referred as the Act of Settlement.2 Typical of much Poor Law legislation, the 1662 Act was a hodge-podge of clauses and special cases, and included, for instance, provision for the creation of Corporations of the Poor in London and Middlesex.3 Its significance, however, derives from the inclusion of relatively simple provisions for defining who was settled where.

In essence the Act defined settlement according to place of birth, and was principally concerned with restricting migration, and providing the basis for the exclusion of outsiders from a given parish. Under its auspices (modified in 1685)4 newcomers to a parish who could not prove their financial well-being by having rented a property worth at least £10 per year were required to notify the parish officers of their presence within forty days, giving details of their residence and family. This in turn allowed the parish officers to seek the removal of the newcomers if they were believed likely to require poor relief from the parish, or were simply undesirable in some other way. Evidence reflecting how the Act was implemented is fragmentary. Certainly, relatively few examinations and removal orders of the sort that would became commonplace from the 1690s can be found in judicial or parish records for the decades immediately after 1662.

The creation of a more workable system for the regulation of settlement and migration had to await the passage of two further Acts of Parliament in 1691 and 1697.5 Between them, these later Acts created a system directed at monitoring migration, in preference to the simple exclusion of outsiders. From the 1690s you could gain a settlement through, birth, marriage, apprenticeship, regular employment for a period of a year, renting a house worth £10 per annum, paying parochial taxes, or serving as a parish officer. As importantly, the 1697 Act built on the rudimentary provision for granting certificates of settlement laid out in the 1662 Act to create a more comprehensive system and mechanism whereby poor migrants could defend themselves from removal, while they sought work. After 1697 a certificate man could not be removed until they actually sought relief from their parish of residence.6

A poorly written letter from Hannah Rumbell seeking relief from St Dionis Backchurch,  1758 London Metropolitan Archives, St Dionis Backchurch, Letters from Paupers, 1758-9, Ms 19233, LL ref: GLDBPR308000003.

The resulting system of settlement and removal, while extended and modified in small measure by regular Acts of Parliament and case law, remained in force throughout the eighteenth century. The most significant modification to the system, prior to the passage of the New Poor Law in 1834, came in 1795, when removal under the Poor Law was further restricted to those actually applying for relief, whether or not they had a certificate.7 It remained, however, a complex system. Richard Burn, for instance, devoted over 65 pages of the first edition of his manual for parish officers and justices to the querulous issues of settlement and removal before going on to tackle poor relief itself.8

Many eighteenth-century commentators and some historians, have argued that this system of settlement and removal effectively restricted the movement of working people, tying them to a single parish and contributing to the exploitation of their labour by local employers. Adam Smith expressed a common elite concern when he lugubriously declared: "There is scarce a poor man in England of forty years of age, I will venture to say, who has not in some part of his life felt himself most cruelly oppressed by this ill-contrived law of settlements".9 Many later historians of the poor law have largely agreed, or recast the issue in terms of judicial oversight and control of pauper migration.10 Dorothy Marshall, writing in 1926, believed the system "ensured that that the rural labourer, at least, should become not unlike the shell-fish, which cling to the rocks and let the drifting tide bring them their daily food", 11 while Sidney and Beatrice Webb described the system as "charity in the grip of serfdom".12

More recently historians have come to look upon the role of settlement with a more sympathetic eye, and have suggested that while settlement and removal acted to curb some forms of migration, it also gave to the poor a clear set of criteria they could employ in their negotiations with parish officers, and that to some extent a settlement can be viewed in the light of a legal contract between the parish and the pauper. Steve Hindle has argued that the system did not create a legally enforceable "right to relief", but it is clear that it served to define the relationship between the community and its poorer individual members in a way that substantially empowered them to negotiate for relief.13 The existence of Pauper Letters (PR) demanding relief from distant parishes provides significant evidence of the complex ways in which settlement and removal both restricted and empowered the poor.14


Printed Settlement Certificate on behalf of Petter Hughes and his wife Jane London Metropolitan Archives, St Dionis Backchurch, Churchwardens' Vouchers and miscellaneous Papers 28th March 1683 - 15th October 1729, Ms 11280/Boxes 1 & 2, LL ref: GLDBPP307010160.

Following the passage of the 1697 Act, certificates become commonplace, and generally take the form of pre-printed documents, with details of the individual whose settlement is being confirmed entered into the blanks, along with the signatures of the churchwardens and overseers of the poor granting the certificate and two Justices of the Peace.15 A typical printed certificate of the sort found both in most parish archives and in collections of manuscript Sessions Papers (PS) was produced on behalf of Petter Hughes and his wife Jane by the parish of St Katherine Cree in 1715 and now lodged in the archive of the parish of St Dionis Backchurch. When moving to a new parish, even one just a few hundred yards away as in the case of Petter and Jane Hughes, the parish officers of the new parish normally asked the individual involved to procure a certificate from their home parish. This had numerous advantages for the new parish of residence. If the individual concerned became ill or unemployed, and needed to be removed to their home parish, the cost of both maintaining the pauper in illness and their removal could be charged to the parish of settlement. But the system also had advantages for the parish granting the certificate. Assuming the move was to take up new employment it was almost always in the interest of the old parish to provide a certificate in the hope that the individual or family involved could either maintain themselves elsewhere without parish support, or establish an alternative settlement through marriage, taxation, apprenticeship or the establishment of a household. Parish accounts, such as those from St Botolph Aldgate, suggest that the cost of generating these certificates was normally borne by the parish of settlement, implying in turn that most London parishes, at least, saw their greater interest in facilitating migration under this system, rather than in trying to limit it. The cost of creating a certificate was usually in the region of two shillings per document.

Procuring the six signatures required to create a legally binding certificate was time-consuming and costly, and the resulting document was valid only in relation to a single move. The certificate itself was addressed to the overseers and churchwardens of a named parish, and was usually lodged with that parish's papers. If an individual wanted to move again, a further certificate and more signatures were required. Although expensive and bureaucratic, the large number of certificates surviving in parish archives suggest that the system was made to work despite its bureaucratic complexity.

Establishing a Settlement

A pauper examination given by Eleanor James on 23 October 1788 to the parish of St Botolph Aldgate London Metropolitan Archives, St Botolph Aldgate, Pauper examination books, 1788-1790, Ms 4215/1, LL ref: GLBAEP103000019.

In London at least, the vast majority of those in receipt of relief or who sought a certificate were never obliged to legally assert their settlement through an examination. The cost of producing such documentation ensured that a good local reputation and a plausible account of oneself given informally to a parish officer were normally enough to obviate the need for a more precise legal process. But if a parish wanted to remove someone, either because they were unable to produce a certificate, or were deemed to be undesirable, or in response to a claim for relief, a Pauper Examination (EP) was used to establish the legal status of the individual being examined and by extension of their family. John Black has estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 of the resulting examinations survive for London for the century between 1730 and 1830.16 Tens of thousands of them have been reproduced on this website as part of both parish archives and in Sessions Papers (PS). For a description of the resulting documents see Pauper Examinations (EP)

In the majority of cases, settlement examinations were heard at petty sessions, and were produced under relatively formal conditions. Most are clearly and expertly drafted, and appear to result from a process of informal investigation, followed by the drafting of a frequently formulaic document, which could then be signed or marked by the examinee, and finally by the Justice of the Peace.

The Process of Removal

A removal order for Elizabeth Howard London Metropolitan Archives, Sessions Papers, 6th April 1741 - 21st December 1742, LL ref: LMSLPS150530136.

An examination was frequently a prelude to removal from the parish. The cost of removing a pauper could be extremely high, particularly in the case of the removal of paupers with certificates. In 1792, for instance, St Botolph Aldgate recorded a charge of £4 7s 6d, for removing a Mrs Dymock to Stretham in Cambridgeshire. The high cost ensured that the numbers affected by this process remained relatively modest.

The first step in removing a pauper was to create a legally binding Pauper Examination (EP) signed by two Justices of the Peace, at least one of whom had to be of the quorum.17 Once this was completed, and the officiating JPs were satisfied that the pauper's settlement lay elsewhere, a Removal Order (RV) or warrant was drafted. These normally took the form of pre-printed documents with the details entered by hand.

The obligation to physically remove the affected individual then lay with the overseer of the poor of the parish of residence. In London, where most settlement removals involved local parishes, overseers no doubt accompanied the pauper to their home parish. For longer journeys, the person being removed was, if unwell or incapable, given over to a commercial transport wagon or coach, or else simply given the relevant documents and trusted to make their way to their home parish.

Because the cost of removing paupers in this way fell to the parish rates, it was frequently to the advantage of a parish to treat someone as a vagrant rather than a pauper. This ensured that the cost of removal was borne by the county rather than the parish, and helps to explain the relatively high levels of vagrancy removals evidenced in the Sessions Papers (PS) of the City of London and Middlesex. Overall, however, the level of removals under the poor law, and hence the impact of pauper settlement, remained modest. In England as a whole, and over the course of the eighteenth century, Lynn Hollen Lees has estimated that between 2.3 and 5.3 per cent of all the money raised for poor relieve went on the removal;18 while Keith Snell suggests that for southern rural parishes no more than one or two individuals were likely to be removed in any given year. The figures for London parishes were markedly lower than even this figure would suggest. In St Botolph Aldgate, a poor parish with a population of around 13,000 (well over ten times larger than most of the rural communities studied by Keith Snell), the number of examinations undertaken at mid-century averaged between ten and fifteen a year, and not all of these resulted in a removal.


The parish to which a pauper was removed by order could appeal to the Middlesex Bench, or the Court of Aldermen in the City of London, and seek to overturn the order. In particularly difficult cases, a further appeal to the Court of King's Bench could also be mounted. In this way a substantial body of legal case law relating to settlement and removal developed over the course of the century, creating an ever growing thicket of legal opinion.19 At their most extreme these cases could depend on the tiniest detail of a pauper's personal or family history. Where in their house they slept, with their head in one parish and their feet in another, for instance, could be used to determine a settlement (in this instance, the parish at the head end was determined to have precedence). Or a settlement could hinge on that of distant and long dead relatives. The concept of derivative settlements rapidly evolved following 1697, and occasionally determined that paupers were removed to parishes in which no living relative or friend had been resident for decades.

A man in white breeches, proffering a pair of socks with one hand looks straight at the viewer.  An equestrian statue and a man in the pillory can be seen in the background Paul Sandby, Sock Vendor, 1759. © Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The high profile of the documentation generated by this legal tooing and froing gives the impression that it was more common than it was. A clear measure of the cost of adjudicating issues of settlement and removal, and the impact of the system on the parish poor, can be found in the figures reported to Parliament in 1787, reflecting expenditure for the three years, 1783, 1784, and 1785. The median expenditure on poor relief in general for all eight Westminster parishes was £52,359, and of this £807 was spent on Law Business, Orders, Examinations and other Proceedings relative to the poor. In other words, only around 1.5 per cent of poor relief costs went on the administration of settlement.20

Friendly Passes

One possible explanation for the low legal costs found in London could lie with the development of the capital's unique system of friendly passes. These were essentially informal agreements between two or more parishes whereby they agreed to accept without contest paupers believed to be settled in one or other jurisdiction. These become commonplace from the early 1770s, and were common enough to justify printing blank passes for the purpose. Typical of these passes was that issued by the parish of St Botolph Bishopsgate, and addressed To the Church-Wardens or Overseers of the Parish of St. Dionis Backchurch:

Exemplary Lives

Lives using the keyword Removal:

Lives using the keyword Settlement Disputed:

Introductory Reading

  • Hitchcock, Tim, and Black, John, eds. Chelsea Settlement and Bastardy Examinations, 1733-66. London Record Society, 33, 1999 for 1996.
  • Lees, Lynn Hollen. The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948. Cambridge, 1998.
  • Snell, Keith D. M. Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950. Cambridge, 2006.
  • Taylor, J. S. The Impact of Pauper Settlement 1691-1834. Past and Present, 73 (1976), pp. 42-74.

For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography.


1 43 Elizabeth c. 2.

2 14 Charles II c. 12.

3 Stephen M. MacFarlane, Social Policy and the Poor in the Later Seventeenth Century, in A. L. Beier and R.A.P. Finlay, eds, London, 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis (1986), pp. 252-77.

4 1 James II c. 17.

5 3 William & Mary c. 11 and 8 & 9 William III c. 30.

6 For the evolution of the system of settlement up to 1662, see Steve Hindle, On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750 (Oxford, 2004), ch. For the development of the system into the eighteenth century see, J. S. Taylor, The Impact of Pauper Settlement 1691-1834. Past and Present, 73 (1976), pp. 42-74.

7 35 George III c. 101

8 Richard Burn, The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer (1755), vol. 2, pp. 190-255.

9 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776, Everyman edn, 1910), vol. 1, p. 128.

10 Most recently Norma Landau, The Eighteenth-Century Context of the Laws of Settlement, Continuity and Change, 6:3 (1991), pp. 417-39; and Norma Landau, The Regulation of Immigration, Economic Structures and Definitions of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century England, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 541-71.

11 Dorothy Marshall, The English Poor in the Eighteenth Century (1926), p. 248.

12 Beatrice and Sidney Webb, English Local Government: English Poor Law History: Part 1. The Old Poor Law (1927), p. 396.

13 Hindle, On the Parish, pp.306-10.

14 For a magisterial treatment of the phenomenon of pauper letters, see Thomas Sokoll, ed., Essex Pauper Letters, 1731-1837 (Oxford: British Academy, 2001), Introduction.

15 8 & 9 William III c. 30

16 John Black, Illegitimacy and the Urban Poor, 1740-1830 (University of London PhD, 1999), p. 40n.

17 By the end of the seventeenth century the designation of being appointed to the "quorum" as part of the formal commission of the peace had been extended to all Justices, making this provision irrelevant. Beatrice and Sidney Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: The Parish and the County (1906), pp. 302-3.

18 Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948 (Cambridge, 1998), p. 51.

19 Carolyn Steedman, Lord Mansfield's Women, Past and Present, 176 (2002), pp. 105-143.

20 These returns are most easily consulted using the 1803 cumulative returns. See Parliamentary Papers, Abstract of Returns relative to the Expence and Maintenance of the Poor, 43 George III, 1803.