ET Genealogi - Poor People in the Bad Old Days “The poor you always have with you”

The rules and laws about the poor people in Sweden

By Elisabeth Thorsell

During the Middle ages the taking care of poor people was handled by the Catholic Church. It was organized in each parish by the minister, and the people of the parish had to pay tithes to the church, of which a certain percentage was reserved for the poor-care.

After the Reformation in 1527 the state took over the poor-care, but only in a limited way, the state-financed hospitals, of which there were only a few, scattered around the country. Ordinary poor people had to go out on the roads and beg. Other poor-care, like caring for old folks, not able to go on the roads, depended on the charity of local people.

In 1624 the King, Gustaf II Adolf, mandated the first Hospital Ordinance, which stated that all people unable to work, should be given a place in a hospital, or if a minor, in an orphanage. The government quickly found out that this was too expensive and no benefit was, in fact, realized. In 1642 another ordinance stated that each parish should care for its own paupers. Begging was repeatedly forbidden, but it did not stop people from taking to the roads. In 1718 it was declared that the county government should send out-of-work-people to the factories, where manpower was wanted.

The 1686 Church Law stated that every parish should build a poor-house, where the local poor people could find shelter, and this was again stated in the 1734 Common Law, but the work with this went very slowly, mostly because even ordinary people had a tough time to survive. In a parish in Dalsland they did build a poor-house, but decided it was too nice for the poor people, so they rented it to somebody else.

In 1788 the King, Gustaf III, declared that if anybody needed to be taken to a hospital, his home parish should pay for this care.You can sometimes see little notes in the remarks column of the clerical survey, that “so and so got a permit to go to the hospital in Vadstena” or to the spa at Loka. If you are lucky, there might be minutes for the discussions in the local Parish Board (sockenstämma) and you can see what ailments your ancestor had and what the board expected the cost to be.

The Parish Board made a list of all the paupers (fattighjon) in the parish, and the list could include old people as well as orphans and the unmarried mother with a baby. Then the parish was divided into sections (fattigrotar), which each had to care for a number of paupers. The pauper was given a special piece of wood, incised with the marks of the various farms. These marks showed in which order the farms should be visited and the number of days they had to provide food and shelter for the pauper.

The people, who were the providers in this system, kept close track of the as­sig­­ned number of days, and if a pauper was ill and could not walk to the next place, they took them there in some way, not letting them stay an extra day or two. Clothes were given when it was necessary, and the money for that came from gifts to the poor-fund (fattigkassa).

It was the custom to give money to the parish poor on the occasion of a wife’s happy delivery of a child; money was also collected from the guests at weddings and at burials. If you were a soldier, you could give money to the poor when you went to war, and also as a token of gratitude, when you returned home in good shape. The fines for having had a baby out-of-wedlock also ended up in the poor-fund. These gifts were well recorded, and the accounts (kyrkoräkenskaper) are so detailed, that you can often see who gave what amount. This can be helpful if, for instance, the Death records seems to miss out on somebody, but you can see in the account book that a sum was given at this person’s funeral on a certain date.

The probates (bouppteckning) often carries a little note at the end, which says “the poor percentage is paid” (fattigprocenten betald). According to the law, 1/8 % of the value of an estate should be paid to the local poor-fund.

In 1847 the special Poor Laws were instituted, with the help of which the same systems and rules were to be applied in the whole country. In every parish there was to be a Poor Board (fattigvårdsstyrelse), of which the elected chairman had to implement the decisions. Only people unable to work were entitled to poor relief, and before asking the parish for help, relatives had to do their best. You had to have domestic right (hemortsrätt) in the parish where you lived, to be entitled to poor relief. If you moved to another parish, you did not get this right until after having lived there for three years. If you did need poor relief earlier, then your old parish would have to pay, which gave the incentive for many disputes in the local courts. In the clerical surveys you sometimes see remarks that a certain family “nekades mantalsskrivning”, which means that the parish authorities feared that the family would soon need poor relief, so they were not to be allowed to settle in this parish, unless an employer posted bail for them.

In 1871 there were new Poor Laws, much less generous than the older ones, as there had been the general famine in the later 1860s, and the country was short of money. Now the poor relief was very restricted, absolutely only for people unable to work, and it was no longer possible for the pauper to appeal the decisions of the Poor Board.

It was now in the middle 1800s that the infamous pauper auctions (fattigauktioner) started, where the paupers, or rather the chore of caring for one during the next year, were auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Several authors, who survived this ordeal in their childhood, have written about this bitter experience. Well-known author Astrid Lindgren, who came from a wealthy farmer’s family, still had close contacts with the local poor-house (fattigstuga) in the Vimmerby area, and has several references in the books about Emil to the hard life there.

The Anders Gustaf Johansson family (father, mother and four children) from Edsvära in Västergötland emigrated in 1885 to North Dakota. The oldest son, Frans Albin Gideon, age 16, was already out working in a nearby parish and he stayed in Sweden for another two years. The next-oldest son, Carl Jacob, was 13 years old, when the family left, and he had to live in the parish workhouse until he could emigrate in 1887 in the company of his brother Gideon.The reason he had to live in the poor-house is not known, but possibly he was too old to travel on the less expensive children’s ticket.

In the “Brålandaboken” (published in 1975) there are several examples of the Poor Board paying the whole ticket or part of the ticket for someone, who wanted to emigrate. One girl, Anna Cajsa Andreasdotter, got a sum of money to emigrate to her siblings in the U.S. and in the minutes of the Poor Board it is hoped that she would afterwards be able send money home to her elderly father, who was now getting poor relief.

Sources: Nordisk Familjebok, Nationalencyklopedien, Brålandaboken.

This article was first published in the Swedish American Genealogist, June 2003, vol.XXIII:2.

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Uppdaterad 18 August 2005
© Elisabeth Thorsell