Moving house in the eighteenth century

CCA U3-274/A/9
(sold by Robert Vincent, London, c. 1705)

Thinking of moving to a different town? No problem if you were well off. If you were down on your luck, the Poor Relief Act of 1662 specified that the parish where you lived would have to support you out of the rates, so the place you were trying to move to might not want you. A further Act of 1692 introduced a system of Settlement Certificates. If you wanted to leave your parish, the church wardens could issue a Settlement Certificate recognising you as a settled inhabitant. The certificate was authenticated by two Justices of the Peace and then handed over to your new parish to notify it that if you fell on hard times there, your original settled parish accepted a liability to support you.

This represented lots of form-filling. The earliest examples are handwritten documents, but it was not long before the stationers in London started selling standard blank forms to be filled in for this purpose. Conscientious parish officers (the church wardens and the overseers of the poor) carefully stored the incoming Settlement Certificates to enable them to make claims against the original parish in case of need. There was also another set of forms called Removal Certificates for the purpose of returning paupers back to their original parish for support.

A number of Kentish parishes have deposited sets of these certificates at Canterbury Cathedral Archives. I have been investigating the printed Settlement Certificates retained by the parish of St Nicholas at Ash (a large box full of them). These represent the movements of individuals and families to Ash from a wide range of places in Kent and beyond, though mainly from the immediate surrounding places in East Kent.

The parish officers would probably have obtained their stocks of the relevant certificates from one or other of a group of stationers in the Fleet Street area of the City of London. The example above has the imprint of Robert Vincent of Clifford’s Inn Lane, Fleet Street, [c. 1705], though many forms were anonymously produced. Vincent was apprenticed by the Stationers’ Company in 1680 and had his own shop on Fleet Street from about 1690; his son, also called Robert Vincent, worked in partnership with him and then continued the business from 1734 to 1763. A dozen or so pieces of printing are recorded for them in the British Library’s English Short-Title Catalogue (http://estc.bl.uk/) but it has no examples of this Settlement Certificate from Ash or a later one c. 1720 or another sold jointly with his son c. 1725.

It seems that the ESTC database has very few examples of this sort of printed administrative document, though there must have been a considerable number produced over the course of the century. One reason is that the certificates are just single-sided half-sheet pieces of paper, rather than whole books, and also that they are to be found in archives rather than in libraries which have been much more likely to contribute records to ESTC.

CCA U3-274/A/101
(John Coles, London, c. 1755)

One firm which seems to have made a special feature of selling administrative forms is that of John Coles (and successors) at work from the mid-century. There are very few entries in ESTC for the firm, yet they seem to have had a substantial business in supplying blank forms for the needs of parish administrators. John Coles himself was an important member of the Stationers Company in the City, becoming Master in 1762.

The forms produced by Coles have an order number printed at the top. Their Settlement Certificate is form no. 18 (image 2 is an example from 1756). Form no. 21 (ESTC http://estc.bl.uk/N38467) is A table of all the stamps now in use in Great-Britain, with an account of the several particulars for which each stamp is used, taken from the Stamp-Office list of August, 1783. ESTC lists a form for ordering the sale of goods of those who have refused to pay tithes; this is catalogued with the note ‘Numbered at head: (No. 60).’ (http://estc.bl.uk/T223403). This gives an indication of the range of several dozen forms which the firm could supply, hardly any of which have yet to find their way on to the ESTC database. The numbering system used by Coles must have made it much easier for parish officers outside London to re-order the forms they needed.

When the Covid19 emergency is over and I am able to return to the British Library, I shall start to add records for these printed forms to the database for the ESTC project where I have been a Voluntary Assistant for several years up to March 2020.

A fuller account of the parish settlement system can be found on the web site of GENUKI, UK & Ireland Genealogy, at https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/LIN/poorsettlement and https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/LIN/poorsettlement_cole.

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