Poor Law Unions
The structure of English Poor Law administration before 1834 was still mainly that set up during the reign of Elizabeth I by An Acte for the Releife of the Poore (1601).
This made the parish the unit of relief and overseers from each parish responsible for its administration.
However various factors, including an increase in the population, meant that by the early 19th century parishes were struggling under the burden of providing for the destitute.
Select committees started looking into the issue from 1817 and a Royal Commission was set up to examine the question of poor relief and make proposals.
The result was the Act for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws Relating to the Poor in England and Wales (1834).
In Norfolk the act led to poor relief becoming the responsibility of 22 unions, including Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
New workhouses were built or older houses of industry enlarged in rural areas to serve these unions, which were administered by boards of guardians.
Copies of the orders establishing the unions in Norfolk can be found among the county records.
In addition, White's Directory of Norfolk (1845) contains details of the unions and the workhouses on which the introductory notes to each list are based.
As the 19th century wore on, boards of guardians gained additional duties.
Civil registration, rating assessment, school attendances and vaccination became their responsibility and an act of 1875 transformed some boards into rural sanitary authorities.
These were responsible for public health services.
In cases where the union covered the same area as that of a highway district, the guardians might also become the highway authority.
They were the forerunners of the rural district councils who took over their functions following the act of 1894.
The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished the boards of guardians and placed the powers, duties, assets and liabilities of the unions with the county councils and county boroughs.
Norfolk County Council set up 13 guardians committees and the boroughs of Norwich and Great Yarmouth formed public assistance committees in response to this transfer of responsibilities.
The Poor Law system was finally abolished in 1948 with the passing of the National Assistance Act.
The most comprehensive account of the development of the English poor law system is to be found in Sidney and Beatrice Webb's English Poor Law History.
Details of writings on the poor law in Norfolk can be found in Norfolk Bibliography (pp65-68).