Craig and Parish Matters

Under the system of provision for the poor then prevailing, nineteenth-century lawyers across Scotland could make a major difference to the quality of life for those living in poverty. George Craig was no exception. One of his most important roles was as legal adviser to the heritors of the parish of Stow. The clerk to the meeting of heritors was the local schoolteacher, James Jackson, and the letter which is the focus of this blog is a letter which Craig wrote to Jackson in 1838.

This is one of many letters which Craig wrote on the subject of the parish poor and how to spend, or in some cases how to avoid spending, funds set aside to support them. Sometimes people were in such need that helping them could make the difference between life and death. Due to his understanding of the poor law, it was Craig’s job to advise the heritors on the cases that arose within their parish.

If an individual had resided within the parish, and had done so for three consecutive years, then they were entitled to be supported from parish funds in case of necessity. Those who had moved to the parish, but did not qualify for support, would be required to seek support from their parish of origin. This was a system with the potential to set parish against parish and legal adviser against legal adviser. Paupers were to be supported not where they happened to be, but by the parish which had the obligation to support them in law. It was up to a parish seeking to absolve itself of the obligation to find the evidence necessary that another parish was liable.

This was a difficult ethical area because the abstract rules could not hide the desperate need in which some individuals found themselves. There might have been good reason to move from one parish to another and, given the scarcity and pattern of work opportunities, labour at the period was increasingly mobile. The inability to work for a prolonged period might form the basis of claim upon the parish. On the other hand, a parish that did not observe the rules, and made payments where they were not due, might find itself short of funds to support its own poor. This made the task of the legal adviser one that was distasteful but, they would no doubt argue, necessary. Such was the system in which they had to work, one that provided meagre but life-sustaining benefits not universally but under certain legal conditions. The expectation was that people, even elderly people, should be working to support themselves.

Support was generally not withheld while questions were being asked about who held the liability for providing it. The argument might rage, but the parish where the claimant was currently located would lend interim assistance in the hope that they might be moved on to another parish and that the expense would be recovered. The urgency can be seen in the case of the Bee family (this was a fairly common surname in Dalkeith in the early nineteenth century and, as will be seen, there is a Dalkeith connection in the letter).

Craig to James Jackson, Stow, 10 August 1838

The case of the Bees; which will not afford delay, and Mr Bathgate who looks after them threatens to send the whole Family to Stow consisting of the Mother and three children: the Mother has a Cancer in her Breast, and her eldest Daughter who is in service at Dalkeith wishes her to be sent in there, in that case the three children would require a person to look after them and live with them so that the whole threatens to be a very heavy case for your Parish. If you cannot afford [it] out of the ordinary assessments until a meeting of Heritors, you can take from the ordinary collectors or Session fund in the meantime and repay the whole or part from the assessment afterwards for something considerable must be done instantly, or some of them will positively die of want.

Yours &c