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It has been clear for some years that the poor law statutes of 1597-8 and 1601 were neither wholly new, nor did they immediately bring into existence new systems of poor relief where they had not previously existed. Hindle and Healey have, for hundreds in Warwickshire and for Westmorland respectively, used returns to the Privy Council in the 1630s to show how far poor relief had developed in those counties before the Civil War. Here we draw on a new and unsuspected archive – parish poor law accounts submitted to the borough authorities in Shrewsbury from the parishes of its rural liberties – to show the development of poor law provision after about 1625. The identity of the poor is revealed and the practice of paying them to go away described. We show how great a disaster for a parish orphans or illegitimate children might be. But most of all we shed new light on the transition from begging, or the feeding of the poor by households in rotation, to relief by doles financed from rates, and how this was imposed on communities who saw little wrong in maintaining the traditional forms of relief.

Richard Hoyle is Visiting Professor of Economic History at the University of Reading and long-time co-convenor of the seminar.

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