Social conscience, Charity and the Poor Law


The Elizabethan Poor Law remained on the Statute Book until 1834. It was administered by the parish and the income for its work was raised from a tax on property. In 1711 the proceeds from the Cardiff Poor Law Rate came to £35 and, apart from a few special payments, this money was distributed to the needy in amounts of twelve to thirteen shillings a week. All burgesses were obliged to pay the levy but inevitably some were reluctant to do so. In such cases it was the duty of the Constable to bring offenders to court, and legal proceedings were threatened against 17 citizens in 1729, many of them quite wealthy, for failing to pay the Poor Law Rate.

The Overseers of the Poor Law were the Church Wardens and up to four "other substantial householders', all of whom were responsible to the Town Bailiffs. Periodically the Overseers were ordered to present newly arrived poor families who might be a charge on the parish. At the Town hall a decision was taken, which either allowed them to remain in Cardiff or returned them to their parish of origin.

The bills for repatriating them could be staggering. The expenses for sending David Morgan, his wife and three children back to Neath in 1730 amounted to £5, a sum sufficient to maintain the family for more than six months. In 1718 the Overseers charged 5/- towards the cost of hiring horses to find the mother and father of an abandoned child. Again, when they were found, all three were removed from the town.

Children could be sent to work or bound to an apprenticeship if their parents were unable to provide for them. The Overseers' accounts for 1714 testify to the expense of apprenticing a girl as a housemaid in Gloucester. A charge of 8/6d was made for her indentures of apprenticeship, while the cost of clothing her amounted to a further £1. She was then bound to her master until she was 21 and, while he was obliged to give the girl adequate food and shelter, it is unlikely that anyone ever checked on her circumstances.

The Poor Law accounts indicate payments for a variety of purposes. Paupers were compelled to wear badges as a mark of their dependence on parish relief. Funeral expenses included not only the cost of a grave but also a charge for ringing the church bell. In times of sickness, extra help might be forthcoming to pay for coal, clothing and shoes. Occasionally the accounts show a refreshing touch of generosity, and in 1730 the expenses of 15/-, arising from the pregnancy of Elizabeth Morgan,  included 1/- towards the  purchasing of ale to celebrate the christening of her child.

It was incumbent upon parishes to provide a house where paupers could be set to work, and shelter could be offered to the destitute or incapable members of society. The "Poores' Releife', as Speed terms it, was sited near the West Gate, but the mediaeval hermitage near the bridge also served as an alms house in the eighteenth century. In 1724 repairs were made to the building and nine years later it is recorded that 9da week was being paid to "the poor in the Alms-house'.

Adverse weather conditions affected the precarious existence of the poor. The snow was so deep in January 1777 that roads were impassable, rivers were frozen, and water mills were unable to grind corn. As the price of barley and wheat soared in Glamorgan, famine stalked the land and people began to die.

The Napoleonic Wars proved to be another period of great distress. The price of corn rose dramatically but no appreciable relief was given to the poor until 1801, when grain was purchased through public subscription and distributed to the needy. This charitable response appears to have been short-lived, and at Swansea a desperate mob in an ugly mood tried to storm the corn warehouse.  Appeals to the Marquess of Bute and other gentry in the county, to take the lead in stemming the tide of misery, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.


The Poor Law alone was never an adequate barrier against poverty, but there were kind-hearted men and women who displayed benevolence towards their less fortunate brethren. At St.  John's Church, a fascinating charity board illustrates the purpose of the bequests donated by generous benefactors to the people most likely to face hardship in Cardiff.

In 1734 John Price, a sea captain from New York, made an endowment of £100, the interest from which was to be spent on bread for the poor of the town. He donated a similar sum to provide apprenticeships for boys in need of help. Other benefactors gave money which could either be spent on the distribution of bread to the needy, or for the maintenance of the almshouse. The most favoured form of charity, however, made funds available for education and apprenticeships, in the hope that  children could be given a good start in life.

In 1707 Jane Herbert of the Friars left £30 in her will for the relief of poverty. Even more generous was her gift of £600 to purchase land, the income from which provided a school and a teacher for 15 poor boys. The bequest of Cradock Wells, a senior alderman of Cardiff, yielded a large enough income from property in High Street and Canton to support a school. When it opened in 1719, the aldermen of the town were nominated as trustees. Their duties involved the selection of children from a poor background, "to read, write and cypher, each of the boys to wear a blue bonnet and each of the girls a badge, to distinguish them'.

The British Schools System, founded by the Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, found favour with the Harford family, owners of the Melingriffiths Tinplate Works, since they too were members of the Society of Friends. The British school they opened in Whitchurch was attended by 62 pupils in 1809, and in addition the Harfords founded a library for local people.

A spirit of self-help was beginning to emerge among working people in the eighteenth century. The Melingriffiths Benefit Club, formed in 1786, levied contributions at the rate of 1/- a month and paid benefits, ranging from five to seven shillings a week, in periods of hardship. The club also made arrangements to visit sick members and offer support to families during bereavement.

The Sympathetic Club of Cardiff was a more exclusive body which had 104 members in 1797, each of them paying 28/- annually. Its purpose was to provide an income for widows, following the loss of their husbands. Societies of this nature were the predecessors of the Oddfellows, the Hibernians and the Foresters. All of these were established by the mid-nineteenth century, rendering welcome assistance in times of sickness and old age.