Wills   Roads   Poverty   Beer   Voting   Census 

 1529   The Private Act c.5 of Henry VIII laid down fees payable to the church courts for the administration of estates; those valued at less than £5 were charged only a fee of 6d. for registration, estates valued up to £40 paid 3s. and over £40 paid 5s. Church Courts encouraged the drawing up of a probate inventories of a person’s goods and chattels for all estates worth over £5. Probate would only be granted if an inventory was taken and the appropriate fee paid. An inventory was not a legal requirement after 1782 and gradually ceased to be taken.

 1555   The Highways Act 1555, sometimes called the First Statute of Highways, placed the burden of upkeep of the highways on individual parishes. Each year, in Easter week, every parish was to elect “two honest persons” of the parish to serve as the Surveyor of Highways who would be responsible for the upkeep of those highways within the parish boundaries which ran to market towns.

The Surveyors would announce, on the first Sunday after Easter, four days before June 24 on which the maintenance work was to be carried out, and for these four days the whole parish was to work on the highways.

Every person, for every plough team they held in the parish, and every other person keeping a draught or plough there, was to provide a cart or wain equipped for the work, and two able-bodied men, on a penalty of 10s. per draught; the Surveyors could, at their discretion, require a further two men instead of the cart. Every other householder, as well as every other cottager and labourer free to labour (not a servant), was to send themselves or a substitute able-bodied labourer to work for the four days, on a penalty of 12d. per day apiece. All labourers were to provide their own equipment, and bound to work for eight hours each day upon the roads.

 1562   The Highways Act 1562, sometimes called the Second Statute of Highways, extended the provisions of the Highways Act 1555 for a further twenty years, and made the requirement six days labour rather than four. Supervisors of highway work were empowered to take debris from quarries and dig for gravel without permission of the landowners. The Act also empowered Justices of the Peace at Quarter Sessions to investigate and punish supervisors in cases where they were in dereliction of their duties, imposing “such fines ... as shall be thought meet”

 1662   The Poor Relief Act 1662, aimed to establish the parish to which a person belonged (i.e. his/her place of “settlement”), and hence clarify which parish was responsible for the person should they become in need of Poor Relief paid for from the Parish poor rates. This was the first time that a document proving domicile became statutory: these were called “settlement certificates”.

 1782   The Relief of the Poor Act 1782, also known as Gilbert’s Act, was a poor relief law proposed by Thomas Gilbert which aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, counties being organised into parishes which could set up workhouses between them. However, these workhouses were intended to help only the elderly, sick and orphaned, not the able-bodied poor who were provided with poor relief in their own homes. Gilbert’s Act aimed to be more humane than the previous modification to the Poor Law, the Workhouse Test Act. During the 1780s, there was an increase in unemployment and underemployment due to high food prices, low wages and the effects of enclosing land. This caused poor rates to increase rapidly, which wealthy landowners found unacceptable.

The Act was repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1871.

 1800   The Census Act 1800 also known as the Population Act 1800 enabled the first Census of England, Scotland and Wales to be undertaken. The census was carried out in 1801 and every ten years thereafter. The need for a census was first identified in the latter part of the eighteenth century and several proposals for a Census Bill following a growing concern about the population of Britain and its demand for food. The first census was held on Tuesday 10 March 1801.

 1828   The Alehouse Act 1828 which established a General Annual Licensing Meeting to be held in every city, town, division, county and riding, for the purposes of granting licences to inns, alehouses and victualling houses to sell exciseable liquors to be drunk on the premises.

 1830   The Beerhouse Act 1830 enabled anyone to brew and sell beer on payment of a licence costing two guineas. The intention was to increase competition between brewers and it resulted in the opening of hundreds of new beerhouses, public houses and breweries throughout the country, particularly in the rapidly expanding industrial centres of the north of England. According to the Act itself, Parliament considered it was “expedient for the better supplying the public with Beer in England, to give greater facilities for the sale thereof, than was then afforded by licences to keepers of Inns, Alehouses, and Victualling Houses.”

The Act’s supporters hoped that by increasing competition in the brewing and sale of beer, and thus lowering its price, the population might be weaned off more alcoholic drinks such as gin. But it proved to be controversial, removing as it did the monopoly of local magistrates to lucratively regulate local trade in alcohol, and not applying retrospectively to those who already ran public houses. It was also denounced as promoting drunkenness.

By 1841 licences under the new law had been issued to 45,500 commercial brewers.

 1832   The Representation of the People Act 1832 changed voting rights in the countryside. Before this date, voters had to be 40-shilling-freeholders, basically yeoman farmers, (and men by the way). Owning at least 40 shillings worth of freehold land, gave them a stake in the prosperity of the country and so a vote in selecting their representative members of Parliament. Now also copyholders and long-term leaseholders (over 60 years) of land worth at least £10 as well as tenants and short-term leaseholders (over 20 years) of land worth £50 or more could vote. Also beneficed clergy and parish clerks had a vote aa well as the more well-off property owners of the expanding urban population.

 1834   The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, known widely as the New Poor Law, set up a three-man Poor Law Commission which was was given powers to order the formation of Poor Law Unions (confederations of parishes) large enough to support a workhouse. The Commission was empowered to overturn any Unions previously established under Gilbert’s Act, but only if at least two-thirds of the Union’s Guardians supported this. Each Union was to have a Board of Guardians elected by rate-payers and property owners; those with higher rateable-value property were to have multiple votes. The Commission was explicitly given powers to specify the number and salaries of Poor Law Board employees and to order their dismissal if judged necessary. It was in force until 1948.

 1857   The Court of Probate Act 1857, transferred responsibility for the granting of probate, and letters of administration, from the ecclesiastical courts of England and Wales to a new civil Court of Probate. It set up the Principal Probate Registry which opened on 12 January 1858 to hold a copy of every will proved in England or Wales after that date, as well as copies of letters of administration.

 1872   The Ballot Act 1872 introduced the requirement that parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom be held by secret ballot. Employers and land owners had been able to use their sway over employees and tenants to influence the vote, either by being present themselves or by sending representatives to check on the votes as they were being cast. Radicals, such as the Chartists, had long campaigned for this system to end with the introduction of a secret ballot.

Election spending was, at the time, unlimited and many voters would take bribes from both sides. The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 helped stamp out this practice.

 1928   The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 expanded on the Representation of the People Act 1918 which had given some women the vote in Parliamentary elections for the first time after World War I. The 1928 Act widened suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men. It gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Prior to this act only women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications could vote.

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