Friday 20 December 2013

Poor Law Stories: George Crosby's family and a Christmas Removal

1848 did not provide a good or happy Christmas for the Crosby family. On December 21st, the overseers of the poor for the parish of St Mary Castlegate in York applied to the Justices of the Peace for the city of York for the right to remove them.

PR Y/MC.100/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and Family
PR Y/MC.100/32/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and family
George Crosby was married to Mary and they had had at least four children. By December 1848, only two still lived: John who had just turned seven years' old, and Mary who was barely eighteen months' old. They had been living in the parish of St Mary Castlegate, off and on, since 1840 when their eldest son James was baptised there. Now they had fallen upon hard times there, and had turned to the parish for support to help them.

Although the Crosby family lived a long time before the advent of the modern welfare state, there was a safety net (of sorts) to catch people who could not support themselves whether through illness, injury or unemployment. The Poor Law had operated since Queen Elizabeth I's day and was administered through parishes. The better-off residents of a parish contributed to a fund through their rates, which was then paid out to paupers. By the nineteenth century this system was seen as bloated, expensive and counter-productive and notions of the undeserving poor surviving on handouts from their hard-working neighbours fed into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act established poor law unions and the dreaded Union Workhouses which loom so large in our collective memory. There had been workhouses before, but they had tended to be small and local. The Union Workhouses were built on a massive scale and unpleasantness, an important part of the 'less eligibility' mindset (the idea that the workhouse should be a deterrent to discourage all by the most desperate from seeking assistance), was a fundamental driver of their construction.

York's Poor Law Union was incorporated in 1837 but for many years was ineffectual. The pre-existing workhouse on Marygate (next to the Minster Inn) was very small, overcrowded and subject to outbreaks of disease. It had been set up in 1769 as a joint initiative by a number of the city centre parishes and could only accommodate 90 paupers. In 1845, an official inspection of the workhouse found that the privies were "without exception in an offensive state". There was an open cesspool in the girls' yard. Many of the inmates were diseased and the children were placed "in the infectious wards with adults labouring under syphilis and gonorrhea".        

The spaces in the Marygate workhouse were taken up with the deserving poor: the elderly, the infirm, and children. This meant that other paupers, despite the provisions of the 1834 Act and its aim to stop out-door relief to the able-bodied poor, were still supported by the city parishes with the old-style payments. So at least for the moment, the Crosby family knew they would not end up at the gates of workhouse, to be separated.

They did, however, have to move. The city of York, as a legacy of its rich and ecclesiastical medieval history, had a lot of parishes. Although there had been some rationalisation in the sixteenth century, there were still more than 20 parishes operating in the middle of the nineteenth century. Each of these parishes had poor law overseers who paid out poor relief. Their job also required them to make sure relief was only paid when absolutely necessary. This led to a system whereby pauper families could be removed and sent back and forwards across the city as each parish attempted to avoid paying relief (and thereby, establishing a precedent).

PR.Y/MC.100/32/1-3 Removal Order
PR Y/MC.100/32/2 Removal Order 
Luckily for the St Mary Castlegate overseers, a precedent had already been set. On 9th September 1844, the Crosbies had applied for poor relief. Then, George and Mary had had three children: James, John and Emma, and they had been living in the parish of All Saints North Street, whence they had been removed to the parish of St Mary Bishophill Senior. So it was a simple matter to apply for the family to once again be removed to St Mary Bishophill Senior.

The family's settlement was in St Mary Bishophill Senior because that was where George Crosby was born. All of his legitimate children, and his wife, shared in his settlement. There were a number of ways that George could have gained a different settlement from that of his birth, and the fact that he retained his birth settlement tells us something about him. He had never completed an apprenticeship, for example, or served as a domestic servant for over a year. He had never rented a property of a rateable value of £10.00 or more, or run a business. Looking at the areas we know George Crosby lived in, it seems likely that he was a labourer. Castlegate and North Street in the mid-nineteenth century were notorious slums, the haunts of prostitutes and thieves. Hagworms Nest, a court off one of the Water Lanes in St Mary Castlegate, had been a source of epidemic cholera from the seventeenth century through to the famous outbreak of 1832 whilst North Street recurs again and again in the police records of the period. Labouring was a precarious way to earn a living, and so it isn't surprising that the family fell upon hard times regularly - nor, sadly, that they lost so many children.

Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby (reverse)
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
There is currently an ongoing project at the Borthwick Institute to index all of the surviving poor law papers for the city centre parishes. Perhaps George and Mary Crosby will turn up again in another parish and we can continue to follow their struggle.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating reading. It would be interesting to hear if indeed George and Mary show up again.


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