Every parish had its Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for raising the ‘poor rates’ and for the payments to the poor. The agricultural labourers (ag labs) in Dorset at this time were some of the poorest in the country on very low wages. There were many who had been injured at work, or who were too old to work or had died, leaving their families with hardly any income. There may not have been work available every week of the year either, and hence fluctuating income. As well as the Almshouses for ‘six poor widows’, there were many people in temporary or permanent need and there had been a system in place for centuries to help them. This relief of who and how much individuals were to receive was decided on at the Vestry meetings, and there were two different payments: one ‘monthly pay to the poor’ was fixed, and every four weeks the individual would receive so many shillings, the other ‘disbursement’ was for extra needs, when work was unavailable, or injury prevented work, or the winter was hard, or any other case considered worthy. ‘Disbursements’ were also paid by the Overseers for other expenses, such as going to Petty Sessions, buying paper for the accounts, getting the JP to sign the accounts, removing paupers to other parishes, and many other ad hoc items. The Overseers of the Poor Account books for Milton Abbas cover the period 1771 – 1836 without a break, and are an excellent resource for local and family historians. We have transcribed all these records so that they can be searched, a total of 60 000 records. Just a few entries in these accounts mention grist for the years 1800 and 1801. Nevertheless these entries help us understand what was going on at a local level in these very disturbed times, and how people were affected.
We have researched the use of grist for feeding the poor in Milton Abbas. We would love to know how other parishes managed these very difficult times. Of course, we know that the Speenhamland system began in some parishes which tied the cost of bread to the poor relief, but this was not used in Milton Abbas.
Do get in touch here if you have looked at the Overseers of the Poor records for your parish around 1800.
We will be publishing our research in due course.