Pages vii-xxii

Chelsea Settlement and Bastardy Examinations, 1733-1766. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1999.

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Hannah Elliett and her infant daughter Mary were abandoned by her husband and Mary's father, George, in the Spring of 1749. Destitute, she applied to the parish of Chelsea for poor relief and was examined in the committee room of the parish workhouse as to her legal settlement by two justices of the peace on Friday, 6 June. Hannah was asked about her age, the circumstances of her marriage, details of her daughter's birth, her husband's, her own and her father's employment history, and whether she, or they, had ever rented a house of £10 per year, paid any parochial taxes or served as a parish officer. The details of her answers were then transcribed into a large bound volume kept for this purpose by the attending clerk. The entry was then signed by Hannah with a mark, and by the two attending justices, Peter Elers and Henry Fielding. A note was later appended to the entry stating that she was passed by an order to the parish of St John Southwark – the place of her legal settlement, and the parish now responsible for her support (207). It is the contents of the volume this information was entered into, along with that of a subsequent volume, which are reproduced here. Some 466 examinations were entered between 1733 and 1766, and they record both enquiries into the legal settlement of paupers (settlement examinations) and the paternity of illegitimate children (bastardy examinations). In the first case, the information recorded is concerned with the issues addressed to Hannah Elliett; and in the second, in the bastardy examinations, the sexual behaviour of the mother, the name, date of birth or likely delivery date of the child, and the name, occupation and behaviour of the father were all scrutinised.

These examinations bring into sharp focus the meeting point between the poor and the system of relief, the Elizabethan Poor Law, upon which the majority of the eighteenth-century population relied at some point during their lives. In the case of the settlement examinations, although they were recorded as a means of establishing who was entitled to relief from which parish, they likewise provide an insight into the ambivalent, ambiguous, and often contradictory relationship between the recipients of relief and those who administered the system. At first sight the settlement examinations would appear to reflect the dominant concerns and views of the parish officers, magistrates and clerks – the interlocutors who elicited and recorded the responses of the examinees. But at the same time the documents produced reflect the admittedly limited choices made by the poor, and illuminate the strategies the poor could adopt in order to influence the outcome of the interviews to their own advantage. By judicious self-censorship the apparent victim of the process could, within limits, effectively control its result. And, while the system of legal settlement, which tied individual paupers to a single parish (see below), has traditionally been criticised, from the eighteenth century onwards, for its oppressive role in the lives of the poor, more recent work has helped to remind us that the eighteenth-century poor believed their legal settlement in a particular parish represented the possession of a positive claim on that parish, and a 'right' to relief from it. (fn. 1) The frequent references within the examinations themselves to discussion of individual legal settlements between parents and children and husbands and wives, suggest it was a matter of no small consequence, and self-conscious concern, to the poor themselves (36, 51, 69). And indeed, the answers recorded in these examinations frequently suggest that the individuals involved had a very clear idea of the legal requirements for a settlement, and likewise that they were in a position to manipulate the system to their own ends.

The same ambiguity apparent in settlement examinations is present within the bastardy examinations. Unmarried mothers and their illegitimate children are often viewed by historians as the section of early modern English society most vulnerable to ill treatment by the parish and legal system. (fn. 2) Nevertheless, bastardy examinations taken under oath before one or two magistrates were a powerful means by which the mothers of illegitimate children could establish the parish and/or the putative father responsible for the physical well-being of their child or children. In many ways the parish was in effect enforcing the rights of the mother and child against the father. It was acting as a powerful coercive mechanism directed in part by one of the least powerful groups within society. (fn. 3)

In some very important ways, therefore, these examinations reflect the working out of the power relationships amongst paupers and administrators. At the same time they also contain a great deal of information about the lives and experiences of the poor. Patterns of apprenticeship and of service, employment and matrimonial histories are each recorded here. The examinations give new insight into the nature of family relationships among the least articulate members of eighteenth-century society. Likewise, patterns of sexual behaviour are recorded, as are indications of the resources available to the poor and the nature of the communities within which they lived. In a whole range of ways the material reproduced here adds a new level of complexity to our understanding of eighteenth-century London and its environs, and the experiences of the approximately fifty per cent of the population who were likely to need relief from the parish at some point during their lives. In relation to migration, patterns of courtship, and the experience of working and living within the rapidly changing social welfare provision of mid-eighteenth century London, all areas of recent interest to modern historians, this material provides a new perspective. (fn. 4)

The legal context

To use these examinations effectively we need to understand the legal context within which they were created. The precept that each person had a place of settlement, or home parish, was not new to the eighteenth century. It had been implicit in the series of vagrancy laws passed between the late fourteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and was likewise implicit in the Elizabethan Poor Law itself, 43 Elizabeth c.2. (fn. 5) But, it was with the passage of the Act of Settlement in 1662 (13 & 14 Car. II c. 12.) that the legal requirements for gaining a settlement were explicitly defined. The 1662 Act was principally concerned with restricting migration, and providing the basis for the exclusion of outsiders from a given parish. Those immigrants thought 'likely to be chargeable' to a parish could be removed under the Act's auspices by order of two justices of the peace, if a complaint was brought against them within 40 days of their arrival, and always providing that they had not married someone with a settlement, rented a house or land worth £10 per year or more, or provided a certificate from their parish of previous legal settlement accepting responsibility for the relief of the individual and his or her dependants. (fn. 6)

In the period following the passage of the Act of Settlement, its provisions were adapted and modified. In addition to the £10 property qualification, later legislation ensured that settlement could be earned through the payment of local rates, serving as an unpaid parish officer, by being bound an apprentice or hired as a servant for a year. Acts were passed ensuring that those with 'certificates' could only be removed if they became chargeable to the parish of residence. And finally, if no other settlement could be determined, or if the individual was illegitimate, the settlement would be established in the place of birth. (fn. 7)

During the same period case law came to modify significantly the workings of the settlement system. Of particular importance was the development of the idea of derivative settlements, established by lawyers at the Courts of King's Bench during the eighteenth century, which ensured that if a person did not form a new settlement for themselves they would then derive their settlement from that of their parents, or even their grandparents. (fn. 8)

All of these aspects of the system of legal settlement can be seen reflected in the examinations reproduced here. It is these provisions which explain the inclusion of the formulaic statement found in many of the examinations, that an individual 'never has rented a house of £10 a year, or paid any parochial taxes' (e.g. 261). These provisions also explain the large amounts of information elicited about marriage, place of birth (particularly in relation to illegitimate children), parentage, apprenticeship and employment in service for longer than a year. They likewise explain the detailed information provided in some examinations about the location where individuals spent their last 40 days in service (93, 104, 397).

The legal context in which bastardy examinations were conducted was, of course, somewhat different. Illegitimate children gained their settlement from their parish of birth. To protect the ratepayers the law allowed the parish officers either to persuade the putative father to marry the mother of the illegitimate child, this being especially attractive if the father was from somewhere else, or to force the father to indemnify the parish against any expenses incurred for the delivery and later maintenance of the child (29, 425, 433). (fn. 9) Because, in this instance, it was place of birth and paternity which were at issue, it is information relating to these points which were recorded.

Inevitably, these examinations were conducted to the specific end of determining either the settlement or paternity of an individual. As a result, they represent the outcome of a single-minded pursuit of the answers to just a few questions which revolve around the limited concerns of the poor relief system as to the birth, family, marriage, and employment of each pauper as far as they affected the place of settlement of the pauper concerned. Similarly, the sexual history of the mother of an illegitimate child and the putative father was only of interest in as far as it shed light on who would be answerable for the maintenance of that child.


While there was a well-established set of legal requirements which an examination needed to satisfy if it was to be used to remove an individual – it had, for example, to be given under oath before two justices – the actual circumstances under which settlement and bastardy examinations were recorded could vary greatly from one part of the country to another, and even from one month to the next. (fn. 10) In Chelsea there is substantial evidence that normal practice varied widely depending on factors such as the character of the presiding magistrate, the type of examination being transcribed, and the experience of the clerk.

In the majority of cases, settlement examinations were heard at petty sessions – the regular meetings held by the magistrates of each division within a county. (fn. 11) At the same time, however, the Chelsea examinations reflect a wide variety of practice. (fn. 12) For instance, although statute law suggested that examinations had to be heard before two justices of the peace, a substantial minority of the examinations reproduced were heard by a single justice, even though any removal orders which resulted from such examinations would, under a strict construction of the law, be legally void. (fn. 13) The volumes themselves suggest that the examinations were conducted under relatively formal conditions. They are clearly and expertly drafted, suggesting that they were written up by the parish clerk from notes. At the same time they are invariably marked or signed by the pauper and the examining magistrates, suggesting in turn that the process of entering the text in the volume was undertaken while the examinee and justices waited. The poor condition of the bindings imply that the examinations were consulted regularly, while the marginal notes on the outcome of particular cases reflect the use of these documents as a part of a larger legal system. Chelsea frequently appealed against the removal of paupers from other parishes, and was itself frequently the object of an appeal. Many of the individuals whose examinations are recorded here also turn up in the petitions and orders contained in Middlesex county session papers, as various parishes used the courts to dispute their responsibility. (fn. 14)

Indeed the timing, location, and administrative props employed by the Middlesex magistrates who sat in Chelsea reflected and encouraged a combination of both inflexible propriety and sloppy disregard for the requirements of the law. In part, this variety of practice resulted from the workaday necessities involved in the operation of parish poor-law administration. These examinations contain numerous instances where the logical legal outcome of a given examination is eschewed in favour of more humane treatment of the pauper involved, or occasionally a result significantly advantageous to the parish of Chelsea. (fn. 15)

This variety of practice is also tied to the circumstances in which the examinations were taken. The size of the two bound volumes involved would seem to suggest that they were intended to remain in one location, while their inclusion in the archive associated with the parish workhouse would at least imply that the meeting room integral to the design of the house built in 1737 was used both to hear the examinations and to stockpile the resulting manuscripts. Because the workhouse was in most respects the centre of parochial administration in eighteenth-century Chelsea, a wide variety of personnel, both parish officers and magistrates, inevitably had access to these volumes, and would have expected to contribute to them.

An analysis of the timing of the petty sessions would further suggest that pauper examination by the local Chelsea magistrates was inextricably bound up with the rhythms of parish administration. The practice of holding petty sessions in order to hear examinations once a month was the norm, but this was regularly varied when the numbers of pregnant women and paupers demanded it. (fn. 16) Indeed, an analysis of the numbers of examinations recorded and the number of times petty sessions met (occasionally three times a month: 9, 10, 11), provides evidence to suggest a seasonal pattern which matches voluntary entry into the workhouse – a dramatic leap in the numbers of examinations in October followed by a further peak in January and a gradual subsidence in business during early April. In part this pattern must be ascribed to changing cyclical unemployment patterns of the sort examined by K.D.M. Snell, but it must likewise result from the self-conscious policy decisions of parish officers. And as Norma Landau has suggested, it must reflect an active process of parochial and magisterial surveillance of both indigent and non-indigent migration. (fn. 17) The balance between these two factors, unemployment and surveillance, is almost impossible to determine with any certainty, but it is clear that both the economic choices of the poor, i.e. their decision to apply to enter the workhouse, and the policy decisions of parish and magistracy, contributed to the seasonal patterns of examinations found in these volumes.

The Middlesex Bench

Besides the poor themselves, the people most intimately concerned with the creation of these examinations were the magistrates of the Middlesex Bench. Derided in the eighteenth century for their low social status, mercenary approach to the law, and corruption, the magistrates whose signatures appear in these volumes seem to belie this reputation. (fn. 18) Certainly, these examinations contain little evidence of gross or extreme cruelty beyond what one would expect in the normal run of eighteenth-century poor law administration. Similarly, these manuscripts provide no evidence of peculation or corruption. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that many of the people who heard the examinations recorded here were possessed of somewhat unsavoury reputations. For example, Thomas Cotton, a relatively active Chelsea magistrate, was among the 75 justices removed from the Middlesex Bench by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke in 1738 in response to various charges of corruption, gross misconduct, and abuse of office (2, 37, 47). (fn. 19)

If there is some evidence to justify the low esteem in which the justices of Middlesex were held, we must likewise be careful not to allow eighteenth-century snobbery to colour our perceptions. The Middlesex Bench was synonymous with the character of the 'trading justice', (fn. 20) the tradesmen, manufacturers, merchants, retailers, and professionals whom contemporaries believed to be colonising the role of magistrate, traditionally reserved to the supposedly more virtuous and independent members of the gentry. Contemporary contempt for the low social status of Middlesex justices was based on the belief that people of this modest status would necessarily be open to bribery and corruption. And although these expectations were not necessarily fulfilled, many observers, both amongst their contemporaries and historians, have viewed the members of the Middlesex Bench with a jaundiced and disapproving eye. (fn. 21) Edmund Burke's characterisation of 1780 will suffice to record the vitriol occasionally thrown in their direction: 'The justices of Middlesex were generally the scum of the earth – carpenters, brickmakers, and shoemakers; some of whom were notoriously men of such infamous characters that they were unworthy of any employ whatever, and others so ignorant that they could scarcely write their own names'. (fn. 22)

It is very difficult to know the extent to which these stereotypes can be applied to the magistrates active in Chelsea. It is certainly true that the genus 'trading justice' can be easily found operating in these two volumes. Sir Thomas de Veil, the most famous of all trading justices, periodically attended the Chelsea petty sessions. Other famous names such as Henry Fielding, and his half-brother Sir John Fielding, both of whom have ambiguous reputations which include a propensity to bribery, are also to be found managing the business of poor relief in Chelsea. (fn. 23) However, the bulk of parochial business was undertaken by more obscure personalities. Perhaps the most active justice whose name is recorded in these volumes is Peter Elers. He was the 'quorum' or lead justice at almost all of the petty sessions recorded from 1736 to 1752, (fn. 24) and appears to be closely related to a family of Dutch merchants whose fortune was based on the pottery industry in Staffordshire with a related retail outlet in London. In the early eighteenth century the family became involved in the manufacture of glass and porcelain in Chelsea. Peter Elers appears to have been the son of merchants, rather than a merchant himself. (fn. 25) Trained in the law, he adopted a punctilious and responsive approach to petty session business, and, at least in relation to the financially non-remunerative business of settlement, seems to have behaved in an exemplary manner. The same could be said of the majority of the justices who sat at petty sessions in Chelsea. Indeed, what is remarkable about the administration of parishes like Chelsea is precisely the care and apparent honesty with which it was conducted. Neither magistrates nor parish officers were paid for their troubles, and yet they were expected both to give up a substantial proportion of their time to the business of the parish, and to handle large sums of money, in a variety of contexts, on the parish's behalf.

The parish

While the peculiarities of the Middlesex Bench provide one factor contributing to the creation of the records reproduced here, the parish of Chelsea – its economic and social makeup, its location and the nature of its population – provide an equally significant variable in the process. Chelsea in the eighteenth century had perhaps as diverse a population as any parish in the country. While still predominantly agricultural, the parish had already acquired its modern reputation as a resort for the well-heeled and socially advantaged. It was also one of the many rapidly urbanising parishes which circled the metropolis. By the start of the nineteenth century Chelsea had a population of twelve thousand people, its housing stock having mushroomed from a mere 350 buildings in 1717 to 2,300 in 1809. (fn. 26)

Despite its growing urban character, the economy of the parish continued to be dominated by agriculture, and in particular market gardening. Even in the early nineteenth century, Chelsea was one of four districts which supplied half the produce sold in Covent Garden. At the same time, however, the parish was becoming a significant site of manufacture. The Chelsea Porcelain Works opened in 1745, and gained substantial success in the decades of mid-century, employing one hundred workers and one hundred charity trainees. By 1810 Chelsea had two large brewhouses, a stained paper factory, a floor cloth manufacture, and a melting pot and crucible factory. It also played a significant role in the transport industries to be found along the Thames. (fn. 27) And if this kaleidoscope of activity was not enough, the parish was also home to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, opened in 1692. With its 476 pensioned soldiers, or 'in pensioners', and perhaps one thousand 'out pensioners', who took up temporary residence half yearly as they converged on the area to receive their allowances and medical attention, the Hospital ensured that elderly soldiers and their families would be heavily represented among the examinees. (fn. 28) The combination of a wealthy population employing large numbers of servants, the demand for labour in agriculture, manufacturing and transport, along with the impact of the Royal Hospital ensured the objects of these examinations was a peculiar and unique sample of the eighteenth-century poor – made up of the urban, and the rural; including but not dominated by those employed in service, agriculture, manufacture and transport, and some military men and their families.

While its economy and the make-up of its population set Chelsea apart, it shared many characteristics with other eighteenth-century parishes. Its administration and governance, while rather more complex and sophisticated than most, was conducted within the same legal framework, and provided the same services as the other 15,000 or so parishes up and down the country. The legal duties of the parish towards the relief of the poor were based on the statute 43 Elizabeth, c.2. Under its auspices the parish was responsible for the provision of work for the unemployed, the apprenticeship of pauper children, and the relief of the 'lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them being poor and not able to work'. (fn. 29) By the eighteenth century, through their own extra-legal decisions and actions, successive parish administrations had greatly extended their obligations to the pauper population, so that by the 1730s, when this series of examinations begins, the parish had come to resemble what might, without hyperbole, be described as a welfare state in miniature. Maintenance of and free medical attention for the ill; the payment of funeral expenses; the supply of clothes, fuel, food, furniture, and household equipment, and the payment of rents and the maintenance and supply of 'social housing'; the payment of supplementary allowances to families on low wages; as well as extraordinary payments to the casual poor, and the maintenance of illegitimate children, all came within the ambit of the parish. (fn. 30)

The extreme localism proverbially associated with parochial government ensured that eighteenth-century poor relief would be made up of a patchwork of good and bad practice. In the case of Chelsea, the system was dominated by the parish workhouse which was built as a result of a series of decisions of the vestry made between 1727 and 1733. The actual house was sited on land donated by Sir Hans Sloane and was opened in 1737. The house could accommodate up to seventy people, and like most eighteenth-century institutions it housed predominantly the 'impotent' poor. The population was made up of the sick and disabled, widows and their families, children and spouses deserted by parents and partners; illegitimate children and their mothers, the old and infirm, and deserted or orphaned children. (fn. 31) In a large minority of the examinations included here the workhouse figures as either the site of the birth of an illegitimate child, or the current residence of the examinee (e.g. 45, 440). Indeed, it is clear there is a strong relationship between policies pursued in the governance of the house, and the peculiar mix of individuals brought before the magistrates for examination. And because, in common with all eighteenth-century workhouses, Chelsea's institution served a multitude of purposes – from hostel to infirmary, sheltered housing for the elderly to orphanage – the vast majority of paupers relieved by the parish received that relief in the form of workhouse accommodation. (fn. 32)

While eighteenth-century social policy is frequently seen as oppressive and controlling, it is clear that the workhouse at Chelsea was relatively well run. Its accounts suggest a good diet was provided, while the mortality rate among inmates was certainly lower than most London workhouses in the same period. (fn. 33) Indeed, Chelsea produced one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated archives of parochial administration of any parish in the country. The volumes reproduced here are part of a complex set of records that encompass the whole range of interactions between the parish and the individual pauper. Account books, vestry minutes, workhouse committee minutes, outdoor relief accounts, pauper apprenticeship records, a substantial workhouse register, along with a plethora of miscellaneous documents survive for Chelsea for the mid-eighteenth century, making it the best parochial archive of materials relating to poor relief in the broader metropolitan area. This level of survival also suggests, at the very least, that its administration was relatively professional, and, more generously, that it was relatively efficient.

The poor

While the magistrates may have provided the theatrical focus of the process of examination, and the parish its stage set, the leading role in the drama which produced these documents was taken by the examinee. The process whereby they ended up swearing to the father of their child, or to their place of settlement, was a complex one, which necessarily resulted in the creation of an awkward text. Having said this, it is possible to generalise from these examinations about the lives of the poor in eighteenth-century Chelsea, and in the process to comment on the extent to which their analysis can contribute to modern debates surrounding a variety of elements of eighteenth-century society, and in particular those relating to migration, employment, gender and sexuality.

By their very nature, settlement examinations shed a remarkable light on the migratory history of those whose lives are recorded. They reveal a highly mobile population, with a variety of migratory patterns. Many came from areas in the south and east of England. Counties such as Surrey (6, 117), Kent (92), and Hampshire (158, 173, 210) feature strongly in these pages. This pattern seems to reinforce K.D.M. Snell's suggestion that changing agricultural employment in these areas resulted in the increasing casualisation of waged male labour, and the gradual elimination of yearly farm service and substantive female employment in agriculture, and that this in turn resulted in a growing stream of migrants to the capital and its environs. (fn. 34)

What is more surprising is the significant numbers who travelled longer distances. Particularly prominent are those who migrated from the counties of the south-west, from Dorset (21, 195), Devon (213), and Somerset (127), and from the Midlands (201, 207). These examinations also confirm the presence in London of large numbers of Irish (27, 127, 144, 164, 192, 205), Scots (19, 141), and Welsh (139) migrants. Of the Scottish and Irish samples almost all had been soldiers who ended up in Chelsea because of their association with the Royal Hospital. A typical example of these was Hugh Wise who was born in Scotland and became first a soldier in the Horse Guards for 28 years, and later an in-pensioner of the Hospital. His death in the hospital ensured that his wife and three children would become, in the first instance at least, the responsibility of the parish, and that his migratory and employment history would be recorded in this volume (19).

But the migratory patterns evident in this material are not restricted to those travelling to London. Within the metropolis itself there appears to have been a significant internal movement within and on the periphery of the capital westwards to its outer fringes. For example, Penelope and John Otway were born in Southwark and Wapping respectively and lived with their children in Chelsea until John's death. At this point Penelope Otway was forced to apply for relief, and consequently she and her daughter were passed on to her husband's parish of birth in Wapping (10).

The sexuality and sexual behaviour of the poor of Chelsea is also illuminated by these records. As would be expected, they reveal much about the relationships which led to illegitimate pregnancies and births. For the most part these relationships were conducted between men and women who lived and worked in close proximity to each other. Fellow servants, master-servant, servant-lodger, servant and member of the family of the employer; these were the relationships from which the majority of illegitimate births recorded here resulted. (fn. 35)

The women who bore illegitimate children in Chelsea were mainly young, unmarried, migrant servants. While the majority of the fathers came from the large proportion of the population employed as male servants and household workers. In addition, roughly a quarter of the fathers were skilled artisans and construction workers, including apprentices, young journeymen and older master tradesmen. A significant further minority, approximately ten per cent of the total, could be classified as coming from the middling sort, most of these being employers, or their friends, who fathered bastard children on their servants.

While birth outside of marriage could cause social and financial difficulty for the parents, marriage itself was not always as secure as it might have been. Desertion by one or other spouse, but usually the husband, was frequent. Mary Andrews was deserted by her husband James after eight years of marriage, even though she was ill at the time and there were two young children from the marriage still living (269). Bigamy was likewise a serious possible danger for married couples. Isabella Askin alias Willett was a 34-year-old widow from Herefordshire when her examination was heard in August 1737. Thirteen years earlier she had married a saddler named Henry Askin in the liberty of the Fleet in London. Two years later Isabella gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth, and it was only then that she seems to have discovered that her marriage was invalid. Henry Askin was already legally married with one child. After her discovery Elizabeth was declared a bastard, and Isabella was forced back into service in order to maintain herself and her daughter (50). (fn. 36)

If desertion and bigamy reflected the insecurity of plebeian marriage, the clandestine nature of the majority of the unions recorded here is also significant. Of the 190 marriages cited in the examinations where the place of marriage is specified, just over fifty per cent were conducted in 'the liberty of the Fleet'. These were, at least technically, 'clandestine', and as such, although binding in canon law, took place in circumstances which placed them largely outside the oversight of parents and friends. Some occurred without banns being read, others were conducted without a licence being obtained, or were staged in a location other than a church, or outside canonical hours, or in a forbidden season of the year, or outside the diocese of the couple concerned. One major reason why pauper couples took advantage of such marriages was the relative cheapness of the fees attached to such a ceremony. But the impact of clandestine and 'Fleet' marriages was to undermine peer and family oversight of the process of family formation. The high percentage of such marriages recorded here suggest that couples married in this way were particularly susceptible to the poverty and insecurity of metropolitan life. (fn. 37)

Sexual violence also figures in the lives of the poor as they are captured in these documents. One case of violent rape, and one of possible rape come to light in these pages. The common factor in both of these episodes is that the perpetrator was the male master of the household in which the victims lived. Sarah Powell was the victim of the possible rape which was committed by James Silvester at about two o'clock on a June morning in 1754 while her mistress had gone to sell her produce at the local market. It is not clear whether sex was taken by physical force, but it is certain that sex took place under compulsion, as Sarah feared she would lose her place in service if she refused the sexual advances of her master (277). Perhaps the most harrowing account of sexual violence reproduced here is contained in the examination of Elizabeth Bussell. In it, she describes a protracted series of incidents in which she endured extensive sexual abuse, under the threat of death, at the hands of her employer Samuel Firmin. She also recounts how the father-in-law of her employer, a Mr Stammers, also subjected her to sexual harassment and rape whilst she lay drugged by a sleeping potion he had surreptitiously administered. As a result of this succession of events Elizabeth suffered serious eye injury, a miscarriage, and psychological breakdown (224). (fn. 38)

Even a cursory glance at these examinations will reveal the powerful interaction of the life-cycles experienced by plebeian women, and the poor law. Widows and their families, single mothers and deserted wives comprised some of the most economically vulnerable sections of eighteenth-century English society, and were among the main recipients of parish welfare resources. Thus, while these groups were perhaps more likely than many others to apply to the parish for relief, it was also these groups whom parish officers were most anxious to have examined, particularly if their place of settlement was not in Chelsea. (fn. 39) In a very real way, therefore, the system of relief and settlement which ensured the creation of these records affected and was largely directed at women. (fn. 40)

The image that emerges from these documents in many ways supports the model of metropolitan society found in the historiography of eighteenth-century London. The occupations and characters who emerge from these pages are familiar from the works of M. Dorothy George and Peter Earle, and reinforce the sense of change and excitement which characterise the period. (fn. 41) But, overall, what this source reflects is that complex conflict between the poor majority of the population and the local political nation, encompassing justices and parish officers. It exemplifies the relationships between power and poverty; between the need for order, felt by local elites, and the possibility for violence and disorder, represented by unwed mothers, abandoned children, and the unemployed.

Note on editorial method and acknowledgements

The originals of both volumes reproduced here are held at the London Metropolitan Archive. The first volume is catalogued as MS. P74/LUK 121, and the second as MS. P74/LUK 122. Both are unavailable for consultation owing to their poor condition and can only be used on microfilm. The text reproduced here is taken from the microfilm copies held at the LMA. These materials form part of the extensive collection of St Luke, Chelsea parish records, and can be cross-referenced to vestry and workhouse committee minutes, a very complete workhouse register, and a volume of apprenticeship records, all covering much of the period between 1733 and 1766 and currently held at the LMA.

Spelling and punctuation, capitalisation, place names (parishes, towns and counties) have been modernised. Personal and street names have been left in their original form, although they have been standardised to conform with the most frequent usage, and signatures, where available, have determined the reading of personal names. Where possible eighteenth-century usage has been allowed to stand without comment, even when it is ungrammatical in modern English. Abbreviations have been expanded, except in the cases where this would inhibit readability, as in 'vizt' (the preferred form in the original). Dates have also been modernised and made consistent in the form '25 Dec. 1997'. Up to the end of 1751, when New Style was introduced, all dates between 1 January and 24 March have been updated to the form '1745/6'. Monetary sums have been expressed in the form £6 13s. 4d, although where the original expresses a large amount in shillings, as in 50s., this usage has been retained. This edition is essentially a transcript, but occasionally additions and elisions of not more than a few words have been made in order to clarify the original text. These have been indicated by the use of square brackets for additions and ellipses for elisions. Round brackets, { }, have been used to indicate marginal comments which have been interpolated into the text at their referenced location. One repetitive formulation has been replaced throughout: the expression 'one of his majesty's justices of the peace of and for the county of Middlesex', which normally follows the names of the justices in bastardy examinations, has been eliminated whenever it appears. Scribal errors corrected in the original manuscript have been amended without comment. Each successive entry has been given a separate number, in bold, and the indexing of this volume is to those numbers. The layout has been modified to eliminate unnecessary 'white space', but the material has been ordered to conform with the original as closely as can conveniently be done. Page numbers in the original volumes are inconsistent and erratic, but have been put in square brackets where appropriate. Where signatures are taken from the original, they are reproduced without comment. Where the examinee marked rather than signed the deposition, this has been indicated by the reproduction of the statement from the original, in the form, 'Joan Lester, her mark'.

We would like to thank the Revd. Derek Watson, the incumbent at Chelsea, for permission to reproduce this material. We would also like to thank the staff at the London Metropolitan Archive for their help and support.


  • 1. Perhaps the best known eighteenth-century critic of the law of settlement is Adam Smith who claimed 'There is scarce a poor man in England of forty years of age ...who has not in some part of his life felt himself most cruelly oppressed by this ill-contrived law of settlements.' Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Everyman Edition, 1926), I, p. 128. For an analysis of development of idea of a 'right' to relief see T.Hitchcock, P.King and P.Sharpe, eds., Chronicling Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 1–18.
  • 2. For an example of the ill-treatment that could be meted out to bastard-bearers, and their lovers, see the bastardy examination of Ann Spond, whose child died as a result of the criminal negligence of the parish officers of Fulham, London Metropolitan Archive (henceforth LMA), Chelsea, P74/LUK/15 May 1794. For a general discussion of this and other such cases see J. S. Taylor, 'The impact of pauper settlement 1691–1834', Past and Present 73 (1964), pp. 61–2.
  • 3. For a discussion of the roles of parish relief in the lives of poor women and 'bastard bearers' see Tim Hitchcock, '"Unlawfully begotten on her body": illegitimacy and the parish poor in St Luke's Chelsea' in T.Hitchcock et al., eds., Chronicling Poverty, pp. 70– 86. See also Nicholas Rogers, 'Carnal knowledge: illegitimacy in eighteenth-century Westminster', Journal of Social History, XXIII, 2 (1989) pp. 355–75; A. Wilson, 'Illegitimacy and its implications in mid-eighteenth-century London: the evidence of the Foundling Hospital', Continuity and Change 4 (1989) pp. 103–64.
  • 4. For the best overview of the changing pattern of voluntary and charitable provisions for the poor in mid-eighteenth century London, see Donna Andrew, Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton NJ, 1989).
  • 5. For a complete list of poor law statutes up to and including this period see Paul Slack, The English Poor Law, 1531–1782 (Basingstoke, 1990), pp. 59–64. See also J.S. Taylor, Poverty, Migration, and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution (Berkeley CA. 1989), p. 19; Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: English Poor Law History: Part 1 : The Old Poor Law (1927), pp. 315–6.
  • 6. See Slack, English Poor Law, pp. 35–7; Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988), pp. 194–5; Taylor, Poverty, Migration, and Settlement, pp. 9–10, 19; Webb, Old Poor Law, pp. 314–43.
  • 7. Legislation significantly modifying the 1662 Act of Settlement includes: 3 William & Mary c. 11, and 8 & 9 William III c.30. See Slack, English Poor Law, p. 62; Taylor. Poverty, Migration, and Settlement, pp. 19–22; Webb, Old Poor Law, pp. 327–9.
  • 8. See Slack, English Poor Law, pp. 36–8; Taylor, Poverty, Migration, and Settlement, p. 20; Webb, Old Poor Law, p. 334.
  • 9. See Taylor. 'Pauper Settlement', pp. 43–66.
  • 10. There is in fact some debate between K.D.M. Snell and Norma Landau as to where, when by whom, and in the presence of which county officials settlement and bastardy examinations were recorded. For details of this debate see K.D.M. Snell, The Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900 (Cambridge, 1985); K.D.M. Snell, 'Pauper Settlement and the right to poor relief in England and Wales', Continuity and Change 6 (1991) pp. 375–415 and Norma Landau's reply in the same volume, pp. 417–39; Norma Landau, 'The Laws of Settlement and the surveillance of immigration in eighteenth century Kent', Continuity and Change 3 (1988) pp. 391–420; Norma Landau, 'The regulation of immigration, economic structures and definitions of the poor in eighteenth-century England', Historical Journal 33 (1990) pp. 541–72. For a more accessible discussion of the role of justices at this period see Ruth Paley, ed., Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney: The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book (London Record Society, 28, 1991), 'Introduction'.
  • 11. For a discussion of general practice see Norma Landau, 'Immigration in eighteenth-century Kent'.
  • 12. Landau herself freely acknowledges the wide variety of practice found in collections of examinations. See Norma Landau, 'The eighteenth-century context of the Laws of Settlement', n.40, pp. 436–7.
  • 13. Ibid, n. 15, pp. 433–4.
  • 14. John Tallent was examined in 17 August 1751 (238) and passed to the parish of St Martin in the Fields. St Martin appealed against the pass warrant, and the October Sessions ordered that Chelsea undertake the support of John and his wife. LMA MJ/SP/1751/10/ 58–59. Information from the examination reproduced here was used as part of the case. Other examinees who were the subject of appeals which can be traced through the Quarter Sessions records include Ephraim Hilary (227), LMA MJ/SP/1751/01/31; Ann Williamson (378) LMA MJ/SP/1758/12/31; Sarah Baldwin (418), LMA MJ/SP/1762/09/55–56; and Ann Whitesides (413), LMA MJ/SP/1762/04/24–25.
  • 15. For an example of more benign treatment of paupers by Chelsea parish officers see Taylor, 'Pauper Settlement', p. 61.
  • 16. For a discussion of the timing and administration of petty sessions in relation to hearing examinations see Landau, 'Immigration in eighteenth-century Kent', p. 393.
  • 17. See Snell, The Annals of the Labouring Poor; Norma Landau, 'The eighteenth-century context of the laws of settlement'. The pressures on the system in Chelsea can be traced by analysing the contemporaneous workhouse register which is available as a database on CD-ROM. See Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, Economic Growth and Social Change in the Eighteenth-Century English Town (Glasgow, Core Resources for Historians. 1998).
  • 18. Modern scholars have viewed the Middlesex Bench in a much more positive light. See Robert B. Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex, c. 1660–1725 (Cambridge, 1991); Norma Landau, The Justices of the Peace, 1679–1760 (Berkeley CA, 1984). The only comprehensive overview of the Middlesex Bench is still E.G. Dowdell, A Hundred Years of Quarter Sessions: The Government of Middlesex from 1660–1760 (Cambridge, 1932).
  • 19. Landau, Justices of the Peace, pp. 126–7.
  • 20. See Landau, Justices of the Peace, pp. 143.316–7; S. and B. Webb, English Local Government Part 1: The Parish And The County (1906), pp. 327, 330, 332–5, 337–8, 553; Ruth Paley, Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney (London Record Society, 28, 1991), pp. xii-xiv.
  • 21. See Landau, Justices of the Peace, pp. 126–7, 162, 184–8, 190, 202–5: and Webb, Parish and the County, pp. 326–47. 558–61.
  • 22. Quoted in Webb. Parish and the County, p. 325.
  • 23. For De Veil see Landau, Justices of the Peace, pp. 185–7; and Webb, Parish and the County. pp. 326–8, 338–41. For Thomas Cotton see Webb, ibid., p. 560n. For Henry and Sir John Fielding see Webb, ibid.. pp. 32, 326n, 329, 333n, 336, 341, 342, 344, 345, 349, 360, 378, 448n, 556n, 574, 579.
  • 24. For a justice to be described as 'of the quorum' meant they had a working knowledge of the law. This was an assumption contained in many of the statutes which referred to the powers and duties of the members of the bench from 13 Richard II st. l c.7 (1389) until 1689. By this time it had become a formality as all justices were referred to as quorum justices. For a fuller discussion of the quorum justice, see Webb. Parish And The County. pp. 302–3.
  • 25. See Dictionary of National Biography, 'Elers, John Phillip'.
  • 26. William Gaunt, Chelsea (London, 1954), pp. 37–61; Thomas Faulkner, A Historical & Topographical Description of Chelsea and its Environs (London, 1810), p. 11; R.G. Clark, Chelsea Today (London, 1991), pp. 37–41.
  • 27. Faulkner, Description of Chelsea, pp. 13–15, 34–8.
  • 28. For a fuller account of the history of Chelsea in this period see Gaunt, Chelsea, pp. 39, 49, 53, 59, 85, 178–80; Faulkner, Description of Chelsea, pp. 11, 14, 36, 37; Clark, Chelsea, pp. 37–41; C.G.T. Dean, The Royal Chelsea Hospital (London, 1950), pp. 216, 228; Thea Holmes, Chelsea (London. 1972), pp. 61–74.
  • 29. Dorothy Marshall, The English Poor in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Social and Administrative History (London, 1926), p. 2.
  • 30. Hitchcock et al., eds., Chronicling Poverty; G. Boyer, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 1990); Taylor. Poverty, Migration, and Settlement, pp. 116–167; G. Oxley, Poor Relief in England and Wales, 1601–1834 (Newton Abbot. 1974); Marshall, English Poor in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 3–4.
  • 31. For a general discussion of the early eighteenth-century parochial workhouse movement see Tim Hitchcock, 'Paupers and preachers: the SPCK and the parochial workhouse movement' in L. Davison et al., eds., Stilling the Grumbling Hive: The Response to Social and Economic Problems in England, 1689–1750 (Stroud. Gloucestershire, 1992), pp. 145– 66. For detailed information on the paupers of this particular parish see the workhouse registry reproduced as a database and included in Hitchcock and Shoemaker. Economic Growth and Social Change. For a near contemporary description of the workhouse and its inmates see Faulkner, Description of Chelsea, II, pp. 24–5.
  • 32. The balance within the system of relief in Chelsea changed several times over the course of the period covered by these examinations. Obviously the opening of the workhouse in 1737 had a significant impact, but there was also a substantive change in policy in 1749, when demand for ongoing residential relief outstripped the accommodation available in the workhouse. From this date onwards the parish granted outdoor relief to between ten and thirty paupers per month.
  • 33. For statistics on infant mortality in London workhouses at this period see Jonas Hanway's figures reproduced in M. Dorothy George. London Life in the Eighteenth Century (2nd edn, Harmondsworth Middx. 1965). p. 401. Hanway suggests that 46 per cent of workhouse children who entered a house before the age of four, or were born there, died in the house. The equivalent figure for a sample of 558 children who entered the workhouse at Chelsea between 1743–69 and 1782–99, was 23.3 per cent. For the workhouse at Chelsea see Hitchcock and Shoemaker. Economic Growth and Social Change.
  • 34. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor.
  • 35. For a discussion of these issues based on an analysis of a set of examinations for the parishes of Westminster see Rogers, 'Carnal knowledge'
  • 36. For material on plebeian marriage and its breakdown see John Gillis, 'Married but not churched: plebeian sexual relations and marital nonconformity in eighteenth-century Britain' in R.P. Maccubbin. ed., 'Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality During the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1987) and D.A. Kent. ' "Gone for a Soldier": family breakdown and the demography of desertion in a London parish, 1750–91'. Local Population Studies, 45 (1990) pp. 27–42.
  • 37. Hardwicke's Marriage Act (26 George II c.32) of 1753 tightened the legal definition of marriage and closed down such extra-parochial marriage sites as the liberty of the Fleet. The closure of the Fleet half-way through the period covered by these examinations makes the high proportion of Fleet marriages recorded in this volume all the more spectacular. The literature on clandestine and 'Fleet' marriages has grown tremendously in recent years. For the most recent and comprehensive work on the subject see R.B. Outhwaite. Clandestine Marriage in England, 1500–1850 (London, 1995). See also Jeremy Boulton, 'Clandestine marriages in London: an examination of a neglected urban variable', Urban History, XX, 2 (1993); John Gillis. For Better, For Worse: British Marriages 1600 to the Present (Oxford, 1985), pp. 95–8; R.L. Brown, 'The rise and fall of Fleet Marriages' in R.B. Outhwaite, ed., Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage (London, 1981).
  • 38. For discussions of sexual aggression and rape in this period see Tim Meldrum, 'London domestic servants from depositional evidence, 1660–1750: servant-employer sexuality in the patriarchal household' in Hitchcock et al., eds., Chronicling Poverty, pp. 47–69; and for a more general view A. Clark, Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770–1845 (London, 1987).
  • 39. For the interrelationship between life-cycle and the working of the poor law see B. Stapleton, 'Inherited poverty and life-cycle poverty: Odiham, Hampshire, 1650–1850'. Social History 18 (1993) pp. 339–55; T. Sokoll, Household and Family among the Poor (Bochum, 1993); and Tim Wales, 'Poverty, poor relief and life-cycle: some evidence from seventeenth-century Norfolk' in R. Smith, ed.. Land, Kinship and Life-cycle (Cambridge, 1984).
  • 40. The population of the Chelsea workhouse between 1743 and 1766 was composed of 50 per cent adult women; 31 per cent children and 19 per cent adult men. See Hitchcock, ' "Unlawfully begotten on her body" ', p. 84, n.12.
  • 41. George. London Life: Peter Earle. A City Full of People: Men and Women of London, 1650–1750 (London. 1994).