Background to parish councils

It is important not to underestimate how history has played its part in shaping our modern day lives at the local level of government administration. The country was by and large a wholly religious place during the Elizabethan era when many of the concepts of government were in their infancy, in particular local government was meted out through the auspices of the clergy. Today’s parish council has evolved directly from conditions prevalent in Elizabeth I’s rule.

The 1601 Act

In 1601, the 43rd year of the largely successful reign of Elizabeth I, saw the passing of ‘ An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore ‘ which is largely known as ‘ The Poor Laws ‘. The significance of this Act upon local government and your Parish Council today makes for interesting reading.

In brief, under this Act, each parish was obliged to:

  • relieve the aged and the helpless
  • to bring up unprotected children
  • provide work for those capable of it but who were lacking their usual trade.

and the main objectives were:

  • to establish the parish as the administrative unit responsible for poor relief, with churchwardens and/or parish overseers collecting poor-rates (a local income tax – see below) and allocating relief to those they deemed worthy
  • to provide basic working materials that would enable the able-bodied to work
  • setting children to work to be be apprenticed
  • to offer relief (the poor rates collected) to the ‘impotent’ poor, that is the old, the blind and the infirm. This usually meant the distribution of bread and money and could even include the provision of almshouses or poorhouses rather than workhouses.

As an’ incentive’, any able-bodied pauper who refused to work was liable to be placed in a “House of Correction” or prison.

The 1601 Act empowered parish overseers to raise money for poor relief from the inhabitants of the parish, according to their ability to pay. The officials who performed the assessment and collection of the poor-rates were called overseers, of which there were normally between two and four in each parish. Overseers were appointed annually, subject to the approval of the local Justices. In addition, churchwardens were able to act as ex-officio overseers. The parish overseers were elected annually by the Parish Vestry, the governing body of the parish. (The Vestry derived its name from the church room where it usually met, which was originally where the priest put on his vestments.) The Vestry’s membership comprised a chairman (the minister of the parish), the churchwardens, and a number of respected householders of the parish. The poor-rate was originally a form of local income tax, but over time evolved into the rating system – a property tax based on the value of real estate. In general, the poor-rate was paid by the tenant of a property rather than its owner, not dissimilar to today’s council tax.

The distribution of poor relief and the setting-up and operation of workhouses often proved an onerous task for a parish. One solution to this was for the poor to be managed by a contractor who housed and fed the paupers for an annual fee from the parish. Income from work earned by the workhouse inmates benefited the contractor.

Failure to pay the poor-rate would result in a summons to appear before a Justices of the Peace who could impose a fine or the seizure of property, or even prison.


In 1662, another highly significant piece of legislation ‘An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom’, otherwise known as the ‘Settlement Act’, was passed. The new Settlement Act allowed for the removal from a parish (generally back to their parish of birth) of newcomers whom local justices deemed ‘likely to be chargeable’ to the parish poor rates or in other words could or had become a financial burden. Whereas ‘Settlement’ could be acquired in a number of ways, by renting a property worth at least £10 a year for example, but of course this was well beyond the means of an average labourer so Settlement was very selective. It was possible to qualify for Settlement in a new parish by being in continuous employment for at least a year: naturally hirings were often for a period of 364 days rather than a full year to ensure no lasting burden on the poor-rate.


Realising the injustices of the Settlement Act, in 1697, an ‘Act for supplying some Defects in the Laws for the Relief of the Poor’ gave newcomers with certificates from their own parish protection until they actually became chargeable on the poor-rate. Almost a century later, in 1795, ‘An Act to prevent the Removal of Poor Persons until they shall actually become chargeable’ extended this protection to all except pregnant unmarried women. Parishes made these the least welcome because they were considered the most expensive to support.

Little know today, the 1697 Act also required the “badging of the poor” — those in receipt of poor relief were required to wear, in red or blue cloth on their right shoulder, the letter “P” preceded by the initial letter of their parish.


The first significant changes to the Poor Law came in 1833.This was a severe backward step. Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, set up a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the Poor Law system in Britain. In their report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. As a result, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The act stated that:

(a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse;

(b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help;

(c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes;

 (d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission;

 (e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country.


The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced a new national system of poor relief for the whole of England and Wales. The system was based on a new administrative area called the Poor Law Union, each of which was required to operate a Union workhouse as the principal channel for providing relief.

From 1834, administration of poor relief was transferred from the parish to the Poor Law Union. However, the collection of the poor rate within each parish continued to be performed by parish overseers. Overseers performed a number of other local administrative duties relating to poor relief, education and health, often in conjunction with Union officials such as the Board of Guardians or the Relieving Officer. The overseers’ duties included such matters as compiling lists of those eligible for jury service, ensuring the maintenance of graveyards, providing and maintaining a fire engine, and protecting the village green from damage by cattle.


The Local Government Act of 1894 transferred the civil functions of a parish to parish councils and parish meetings. However, the overseer’s role as rate-collector continued until 1925 when a unified system of rating authorities was created. In the role of overseer for CWPC, it fell to C.H.Hunt to convene the first parish meeting which he chaired. Overseers were allowed to appoint a paid assistant to perform certain duties such as accounts and deputising for the Overseers. From 1895 to 1927 the role of Assistant Overseer in CWPC was combined with that of the Clerk to the Council.

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