In the glory days of Monasteries like Buckland Abbey, poor people knew that they could always depend on the monks for help in hard times. They would provide medical care and medicines, food and a roof to stay under and, more to the point, local people knew that the religious orders prided themselves on performing charitable deeds unobtrusively and with regard to the feelings of the recipients so they could take assistance but retain dignity.
Then Henry VIII closed down the monasteries and with them, the monastic system of care for the poor, sick and needy. Something that ordinary people had depended upon for centuries disappeared overnight, leaving a great trail of misery and human suffering. It was not until the middle of the 1570s, during the reign of Henry's daughter Elizabeth, that any steps were taken to formalise care for the sick, the elderly, the impoverished and those who were simply unfortunate.
The solution was framed within the first of England's Poor Laws of 1575. The responsibility for overseeing the care of people in need was placed firmly on the new Church which Henry VIII had founded - not the Church in the widest sense but down at local level so that everyone could relate to it. Each parish was made individually responsible for administering care and, furthermore, each Parish was made responsible for raising the cash to do the job.
This first set of Poor Laws, with a few amendments along the way, lasted for nearly 300 years. Almost everyone agreed that they were a very flawed way of dealing with the relevant social problems, but successive governments were reluctant to do anything other than tinker with the Act because the funding required to make changes would require additional taxation.
Various social issues were covered, from illegitimacy to vagrancy but the key plank of the system was the link to the Parish of Birth - you were born there, you were their problem - no matter where you went subsequently. Inhabitants were acknowledged through their entry in the Baptismal Register - non-residents were marked out by the use of the description "sojourner" - a person staying in the place.
But how to keep tabs on everyone? By now it was the custom for people to go to Hiring Fairs and find short-term employment as the seasons changed; men and women were constantly moving around the countryside. Instead of the fairly stable population the monks had known, almost everyone was on the move at some time or other in their lives and villages were full of sojourners.
The Act of Settlement of 1662 recognised this problem for the first time. From that time on, strangers were allowed to settle in a new Parish subject to certain conditions, the chief of which was that after 40 days, they might claim settlement and become a charge on the Poor Rate. From 1697, a Settlement Certificate was issued after due examination of the individual, with the proviso that that person always retained a claim on their Parish of Birth. It will no doubt surprise many to learn that these Settlement Laws, and the practices which went with them, remained in force in England and Wales until 1875.