Poor relief in Elizabethan English communities: an analysis of Collectors' accounts


  • The extended period of research and analysis that underlies this article was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities; Newnham College, Cambridge; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; the Borthwick Institute, York; and multiple grants from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I am grateful to Richard Smith, Ian Archer, Steve Hindle, Paul Slack, and Lynn Botelho for their bibliographic advice, unpublished information, and/or comments about the article, and I appreciate the helpful suggestions of the journal's anonymous reviewers.


This article analyses 30 accounts of income and expenditure left by Collectors for the Poor in Elizabethan England, before the period known as the old poor law. Collectors were appointed by parishes and incorporated boroughs in accordance with the poor laws of 1552 and 1563, but few of their fragile records survive. The accounts examined here document early use of compulsory rates to provide income, but several features of the distribution of relief differ from patterns common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Adult male recipients outnumbered women in many of the parishes; children were frequently helped directly; and cities and towns assisted a smaller fraction of their total populations than did villages but awarded larger per capita payments. Accounts from the 10 villages and small towns analysed most fully show that Elizabethan Collectors were moving away from the late medieval practice of providing only occasional aid; increasingly they awarded regular payments to a selected subset of the local poor. Comparison with the early seventeenth century suggests that the poor laws of 1598 and 1601 contributed to a transition that was already underway but did not create a new system of relief.