An Act of Parliament in 1691 described the various ways in which a settlement could be gained, and there was very little change until 1834 when the Poor Law Unions came into being. From this time various poor law documents became widely used and it is these documents that can be so helpful to family historians. Our ancestors did move around a great deal and their movements can often be traced through poor law documents. Theoretically it was not possible for the majority of the population to just move from place to place at will, although many did. By law, most should have taken a settlement certificate with them when they moved.

Settlement certificates, although issued by the Overseers of the Poor, were not used exclusively by paupers. A settlement certificate was, perhaps, the most important document ever owned by a great many families as it proved beyond doubt that the family belonged to a particular place, and at this place, and this place only, they were able to seek relief if they fell upon hard times. That relief may have come in the form of weekly maintenance, payment of rent, seed potatoes, fuel, clothing, medicine and even a funeral with a wake.

Among those needing a settlement certificate to move were those who lived literally from hand to mouth, labouring by the week or by the year. If the head of the household met with an accident that rendered him incapable of work, or even worse, if the head of the household died leaving a widow and several children, the family would immediately be in need of assistance. Craftsmen and tradesmen were not exempt either. If premises burnt down, or trade became slack, their families too could be reduced to seeking help from the Overseer of the Poor. Certificates were issued as a kind of insurance to indemnify the parish or township to which the bearer wished to move against any costs that may be incurred if the bearer needed poor relief.

Certificates were required for several purposes. Many single and married men moved in order to work somewhere else where, often, they had a job lined up. Some moved to be nearer to other members of their family and single women expecting illegitimate children were often given certificates so that they could be with their families when the child was born. The certificate covered the bearer, his wife and children and any children that might be born thereafter, but became invalid if the bearer subsequently gained a new settlement elsewhere. Certificates were not always used immediately they were issued, and many certificates were issued some time after the bearer actually moved, often at the request of the Overseers of the bearer's new place of abode.

An Overseer of the Poor had more than one option if a non-settled member of his parish needed poor relief. If the pauper had arrived with a settlement certificate his job was made much easier. He could simply remove the pauper with any dependent family he might have back to their place of settlement. If he had given them any poor relief he would be reimbursed by the Overseers of the pauper's place of settlement. However, the pauper could be allowed to remain in his present place of abode whilst being maintained by his parish of settlement. This would make sense if the pauper had a job but did not earn enough to keep his family in the necessities of life. A pauper who was, for example, a waterman living in Weaverham, could not ply his trade if he was removed to a parish where he had no access to water. Overseers of the Poor were in the main sensible people who interpreted the law to fit the circumstances. Yet another option for the Overseer of the Poor was to find a relative of the pauper who was able, if not willing, to give financial support. Regardless of the way in which the Overseer treated his pauper, documentation was involved. Removal Orders, letters and maintenance agreements may survive either in parish or township records, or in the Quarter Sessions.

A legal settlement could be gained in a number of ways. Every legitimate child gained a settlement immediately after birth from his or her father. This way of gaining a settlement is often misleadingly referred to as "settlement by birth", which could be interpreted as "settlement in the place of birth". The father's place of abode, and therefore the place where the child was born, was often different from the place of his legal settlement. Only illegitimate children could claim a legal settlement in their place of birth, provided that their mother had not been issued with a settlement certificate allowing her to live somewhere other than her place of settlement when the child was born. However, most pregnant single women were, by fair means or foul, removed to their places of settlement before the child was born. Of course, an illegitimate child that was not born in its mother's place of settlement had a different settlement from its mother and the two could be, and often were, separated.

On reaching the age of seven (but sometimes as young as five) a pauper child could be apprenticed to a craft or trade or, more usually, to learn the art of "husbandry", "housewifery", or "womens' business". In other words the children were placed in the houses of neighbours, or local farmers, who often took pauper apprentices on a rota system, to be unpaid servants. Some did eventually become journeymen (employed) blacksmiths or carpenters and sometimes even went on to become master craftsmen. Until 1777-8 an apprentice had to serve his master until his 24th birthday, but after that date the apprenticeship ended when the apprentice was 21. The settlement was actually gained where the apprentice had slept for the last 40 consecutive nights of the apprenticeship, provided that a proper apprenticeship indenture had been drawn up. The same rule applied where a child, usually at the age of 14, was apprenticed by his family to a trade.

Most legal settlements were gained by service. Hiring fairs, or statutes, were held generally twice a year on May Day and at Michaelmas. Those of you who have read Thomas Hardy's book "Far From the Madding Crowd" may remember how Gabriel Oak went to the Statutes with his shepherd's crook, to show his occupation, where he was hired by Farmer Boldwood. The servant and employer made a bargain, sealed by a "fastening penny", and the servant lived in his master's house, receiving his wages when he left his employment. The servant had to work a full year, from May Day to the following May Day, and receive his full wages to gain a legal settlement in the parish or township where he did his service. Incidentally, this is probably why there are so many marriages during May in rural communities. Both women and men would leave their masters with a full years wages on May Day; what better time would there be than this for getting married and setting up a home. If marriage was not on the agenda it was back to the Statutes to start the process over again, or perhaps a continuation of service with the same master. In this way many consecutive legal settlements were gained.

A settlement by apprenticeship or by service was usually gained before marriage, although some married couples were hired by the year. Parish registers cover the main events of life; baptism, marriage and burial. They are silent about the years in between. Yet it is in these in between years that settlements were gained. A year's service may have given a man a lifelong settlement in a township or parish many miles away from where he was baptised and married and spent the rest of his life. If that man, perhaps in old age, became a pauper it was to his place of settlement that he would look for help. The Overseers' Accounts and Vestry Minutes of his place of settlement are the most likely source for details of his trials and tribulations. Suppose that man in his mid 30s, a labourer with no means other than what he could earn, broke his leg and could not work for two months. His place of legal settlement would have supported him during that time. You won't find any mention of this in the parish registers, but poor law records could turn up a wealth of information about the man and his family.

When a woman married she immediately gained her husband's place of settlement. A widow with children who remarried gained a new settlement by her second marriage but her existing children retained their father's place of settlement. This often led to older children having a different place of settlement to their mother and stepfather.

Payment of rent over £10 a year for a full year and paying parish rates or serving as a parish officer for a year also gave legal settlement in the parish in which the rates were paid and the office served. Inheritance of an estate, regardless of value, also gave legal settlement in the parish in which the estate was situated, provided that the owner did not live more than ten miles away from the estate.

This article has been written in the hope that researchers will try to discover the place of settlement of their ancestors, as well as looking for their places of baptism, marriage and burial. If poor law documents, including Overseers' Accounts, Vestry Minutes, Churchwardens' Accounts and township books are extant for the parish or township in question, you could learn a great deal more about your ancestors' lives.