Unemployment and vagrancy

Casual employment was among the worst afflictions. Regular employment contracts were hard to come by for the lower classes, and workers in both town and country relied on seasonal jobs dependent on the state of the weather and economy.

Those with no income at all could apply for ‘outdoor relief’ from parish officials, consisting of small monetary payments towards food and rent. Local newspapers often contained reports of people applying for poor relief. Most were not successful and were instead forced to admit themselves and their families into the workhouse – here, the able-bodied poor were put to work, but increasingly the tasks were punitive and pointless.

Details of those receiving outdoor and indoor relief may be found at the local archive in records of the Overseers of the Poor prior to 1834, or in the Board of Guardians’ records after the Poor Law Amendment Act. Digitised collections for London, Dorset and Warwickshire are online at www.ancestry.co.uk.

In an attempt to avoid the workhouse some poor people, including children, resorted to begging on the streets, however it was illegal for able-bodied people to do so. Beggars and vagabonds ran the risk of imprisonment. Petty theft was also common, and the punishment could be harsh.

Records of Petty Sessions and police courts are held in local county archives, though some larger court records are now online at www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk. Regional newspaper reports on the latter site are often even more detailed.

The National Archives has an overview guide here.

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