Originating from the Poor Law of 1601, churchwardens and overseers of the poor were appointed in every parish to collect a tax on property called the poor rate, 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. The poor rate was set by the Parish Vestry once a year and churchwardens were authorised to act as overseers.
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 19th 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. In the 1920s the poor rate was absorbed into “general rate” local taxation and has continuity with the currently existing Council Tax.
Overseers, Vestry and Rates commercial overprints exist on Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V stamps for use on Poor Rate receipts.
Croydon Poor Rate
Chiswick Poor Rate
Churchwardens and Overseers Parish of Lambeth
Nottingham Union Poor Rates
Overseers of Bristol
Overseers of Everton
Overseers of Toxteth Park Township
Streatham Poor Rate
Trustees of the Poor – Parish of Hackney
By Mark Matlach