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Object Insight - Seal of the Guardians of the Poor of Coventry

This seal is from 1801 and shows a scene of giving to the poor with the words The Seal of the Guardians of the Poor of Coventry around the edge. The seal would most likely have been used for sealing letters and important documents with wax.

1801 was a significant year for poor relief in Coventry. During this year a local act was passed called An Act for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor in the several Parishes of Saint Michael and the Holy Trinity… The Guardians of the Poor of Coventry were appointed according to the value of their property. This meant that about 200 people became guardians in Coventry. The guardians had the power to choose eighteen Directors of the Poor who were responsible for giving out poor relief. Poor relief was the benefits system of its day. Coventry was one of the earliest towns in the country to set up a board of directors. 

The new directors sold all the existing workhouses and bought the old Whitefriars house, which they converted into a workhouse. Workhouses were places where the poorest people were offered accommodation and employment. In 1812 a silk mill was installed in the Coventry workhouse. This created employment for the inmates who were also given a small wage. The Poor Law Commissioners later criticised this set-up, arguing that it encouraged the poor to stay in the workhouse.
Poor Laws were introduced nationally in 1834 and the Poor Law Commission was set up. Coventry’s local act of 1801 meant that the Commission had limited powers when it came to controlling poor relief in Coventry. This caused some friction between the Directors of the Poor in Coventry and the Poor Law Commissioners. For example, the Commissioners thought that the daily beer allowance which was given to inmates of the Coventry workhouse was too generous!

By 1874 poor relief in Coventry had become part of the national poor law scheme. The Coventry Board of Guardians remained in place until 1930 after the Local Government Act of 1929 was passed.

You can see the seal on display in the History Gallery at the museum, where you can find out more about the history of Coventry.

Charlene Price
Social History Curatorial Trainee