Lindfield under the Elizabethan Poor Laws


In 1598 and 1601 legislation was passed which drew together the best of previous laws dealing with the relief of the poor. Under the 1601 Poor Law Act two to four men from the parish, generally tradesmen, were appointed as Overseers, with responsibility for collecting the Poor Rate and distributing the funds among the poor. The poor rate was set by each parish individually, according to their needs. In order to keep the rates down to a minimum the Overseers often made payment to the poor ‘in-kind’. This took the form of flour or clothing, with the Overseers giving out frocks, knickers, gowns, shift (women’s undergarments), stockings, tuck aprons and shoes, along with patterns for making clothes. As well as providing relief ‘out-of-doors’, the parish also took the most needy paupers into the workhouse.

Described as ‘a curious specimen of ancient domestic architecture’, Lindfield’s workhouse was believed to have been the West Wing of the building known today as Old Place, although Figg’s map of 1829 shows that the workhouse may in fact have been located further to the East, in the adjacent grounds. It was able to accommodate 32 inmates, a mixture of the elderly, disabled, able-bodied paupers and orphans. Expectant mothers were taken care of and their illegitimate children delivered at the workhouse. In exchange for their keep the able-bodied were expected to work, either inside the workhouse or being hired out by the master of the workhouse. Pauper children were apprenticed in an effort to provide them with a skill and thus break the cycle of poverty. The belief that the poor could help themselves to stay out of poverty was also evident when William Allen set up an agricultural experiment on the 100 acre Gravelye estate in the 1820s. He provided paupers with the opportunity to rent cottages which had land attached to them, allowing the paupers to farm the land in their own time, keeping the profit for themselves. The intention was that this would enable them to supplement their income and thus avoid needing to call upon the parish for relief.

Charities also played their part in helping the ‘deserving’ poor (those which society considered to be poor without any fault of their own – the elderly, disabled and young) and by the time that the government had recognised the need for reform of the poor laws in 1832 at least three charities were providing assistance to the poor as well as a Benevolent Society. A Friendly Society was also set up which provided a basic insurance against loss of income for those members and their families who would suffer should the wage earner not be able to work as a result of illness or death.

For over two hundred years the parishes continued to deal with the poor by their own interpretation of the Elizabethan laws until, in 1834, the Victorian Poor Law Amendment Act changed the way that local government was able to assist the poor. Legislation led to uniformity across the country and brought in the Union Workhouses in England, made notorious by their appearance in novels such as Charles Dickins’ Oliver Twist.

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