high littleton holy trinity church

High Littleton & Hallatrow
History and Parish Records


The Poor Law, Overseers and the Vestry

Prior to the Reformation the Church assumed responsibility for the care of the poor and one third of the vicar’s tithes was intended for this purpose. In the case of High Littleton the rectory was in the hands of Keynsham Abbey and the vicar’s living was very meagre. After the dissolution of the monasteries the problem of relieving the poor became so acute that the clergy were directed to collect alms for poor people. All this changed with the Great Poor Law of 1601, which placed an obligation on annually appointed Overseers of the Poor to maintain and provide work for the poor of the parish. Such funds as were needed for this purpose were raised by levying a Poor Rate on the owners of land. The Vestry, an unelected body of parishioners from amongst the larger ratepayers appointed and directed the Overseers and generally implemented the poor law.

At least two Overseers were appointed by the Vestry at Easter each year. Those eligible for appointment were the occupiers of the larger estates, farms and houses in the parish. Thus, those providing the money were in a good position to see it wasn’t wasted. The office was unpaid and, to spread the burden, appointments tended to be made on a rota basis from a list of some 8 to 10 persons. Women were not exempt from serving and a widow, who continued to run the farm after her husband's death, was liable to take her turn as Overseer. Appointments were subject to the approval of the Justices of the Peace.  Churchwardens were ex officio Overseers. 

The Poor Relief Act of 1662, which established the law of Settlement and Removal, placed an additional burden on Overseers, who thereafter had to be vigilant and act quickly when strangers attempted to settle in the parish. The Overseers were not only involved in the process of causing paupers to be examined and obtaining orders of removal but also in the physical removal of pauper families and their possessions. Although Overseers were allowed a certain amount of discretion, they took their instructions on most matters from the Vestry. 

An Act of 1691 obliged Overseers to keep Accounts. At the end of each year these were scrutinised and signed by the Vestry and then perused and allowed by the Justices. To provide a measure of continuity as well as removing some of the burden from the Overseers, it was common to employ someone to keep the Accounts. In later years the Vestry appointed an Assistant Overseer, who did the majority of the work such as collecting the rates, paying the long term poor and maintaining the Accounts. Most of the duties of Overseers were removed with the formation of Poor Law Unions in 1834, when Relieving Officers and Guardians assumed responsibility for relieving the poor. Parishes continued to appoint Overseers annually but their duties were very limited and the office was finally abolished by the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925. 

Vestry Minutes and Overseers' Accounts tell one much about life in the parish. Large numbers of people are mentioned. The poor, who made up the majority, are mentioned receiving regular and occasional relief in the form of money, clothes or having their rent paid. Women may be delivered of children at parish expense, people inoculated, the sick receive hospital treatment, coroners called to handle unexpected deaths and the poor buried. Unmarried mothers and the men responsible are pursued to provide maintenance for their bastard children, unwelcome strangers are removed and dependent children apprenticed or put out to service. Parishioners drawn to serve in the militia or army are paid a bounty and families relieved in the men's absence. When long term paupers died leaving property, it might be sold or made over to the parish, to repay relief received during the pauper's life time. At the other end of the social scale the Overseers' Accounts named ratepayers, members of the Vestry, parish officers and landlords who rented their houses to the parish to accommodate pauper families. Few parishioners avoided some sort of a mention in the Accounts at some time.

The earliest surviving Overseers' Accounts for High Littleton cover the years 1754/5 to 1786/7 and Vestry Minutes date from 1755.


Click to view/download the documents (in pdf format)

HL Overseers Accounts 1754-1787 & Index
Removals to HL1676-1863 & Settlement Certificates from HL1764 & Index
Removals from HL1702-1861 & Settlement Certificates to HL 1698-1780 & Index
HL Misc Exams 1711-1856 & Index
HL Bastards 1600-1850 & Index
HL Parish Apprentices 1702-1832 & Index
Clutton Union Workhouse Deaths 1838-1927 & Index
HL Vestry Minutes1755-1910 & Index

At the front of each file is an introduction to the subject, which will help readers to better understand the relevancy and contents.