Originating from the Poor Law of 1601, churchwardens and overseers of the poor were appointed in every parish to collect money from each householder and to distribute it to the paupers of the parish.
The new system of poor relief reinforced a sense of social hierarchy and provided a way of controlling the “lower orders”.
Over the next 300 years other Acts of Parliament were passed to refine this system and to set up the workhouses.
In the larger parishes the responsibility fell to the Parish Vestry – a committee of people who controlled parish affairs, including the administration of poor relief. Churchwardens were authorised to act as overseers and the position of churchwarden was undertaken by the wealthier male inhabitants of the parish and was changed anually.
Overseers of the poor were also chosen annually from the better-off male inhabitants. Unlike churchwardens, the appointment of overseers was confirmed by the Justices of the Peace, rather than the vestry and minister.
In some parishes the system worked very well but in general the plight of the paupers and the conditions they had to endure at the end of the 18th century were still terrible.
It was not until the sweeping social reforms introduced between 1909 and 1912 during Asquith’s government that the situation began to improve.
Overseers and Vestry commercial overprints exist on Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V stamps for use on Poor Rate receipts.
By Mark Matlach