Assistant Overseers

Late 19th, early 20th century

Francis Alfred Giffen, St Albans

March, 2014

As part of a longer message Denis King of St Albans wrote: I discovered at the weekend that the land on which 24 Alban Avenue was built was conveyed from Francis Alfred Giffen to the St Albans local authority on 23 November 1920. This was part of the Townsend estate, the post-war council estate, and my grandparents were (I am almost certain) the first occupants of No 24, which is where my father's brother was born in April 1923.

Also, I wonder if you know what Giffen's census-enumerated occupation of Assistant Overseer actually meant? I am assuming that this related to a Poor Law civic position of Overseer (of the Poor), and that he was therefore involved in this administration - and perhaps this was connected with the Union Workhouse that was sited near to Townsend Farm?

On realising I did not know what the assistant overseer job involved in 1900 I decided to start by investigating the matter in some detail.

Before the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act the "Overseers of the Poor" in each parish were elected to be responsible for the poor law provision, and the overseers (who sometimes might not have been able to read and write) would have an assistant to help with the paperwork - including the collection of poor rates. After the Act overseers were still elected but the administration of poor relief passed to the new Poor Law Unions, but the collection of the poor rate within each parish remained with the individual parish, who still needed someone to to do the work. The "Assistant Overseer" became the local poor law rate collector and carried out other administrative duties relating to poor relief, education and health. In some cases they would have other duties such as compiling lists of those eligible for jury service, ensuring the maintenance of graveyards and even providing a fire engine!

The civil functions of a parish were transferred to the newly created parish councils under the Local Government Act of 1894, but the assistant overseer continued as a rate collector and in some cases also acted as Clerk to the Council. This role continued until 1925 when a unified system of rating was introduced.

The 1894 Kelly's Directory for Hertfordshire has been digitised and I did a search for "Overseer" and came up with the following

In some cases the entry showed that the assistant overseer was responsible for several parishes, while in other cases in was clearly a part time job. It is also likely that where the occupation is only stated as assistant overseer other activities were involved. However, overall the nlist give some idea of of the other duties of some of the assistant overseers in Hertfordshire.


In the  1912 Directory the "Public Officers" for St Albans were:

In 1925 the rating system was unified and role of the assistant overseer as a rate collector vanished - and there is no assistant overseer listed for St Albans in the 1929 directory.


So to return to the question ...  The first reference I have found to F. A. Giffen is in the 1878 Post Office Directory for Hertfordshire where he is listed as assistant overseer for St Peter's parish under the "St Albans Union" heading and also as the collector for the St Albans Urban Sanitary Authority. In 1882 he is listed as an assistant overseer under the "Public Official" heading and he was still listed as assistant overseer for St Peter Rural in 1922, but in 1926 the assistant overseer and rate collector for St Peter Rural was T. W. Service, of Tyttenhanger Green.


I also checked my Newspaper index and found a number of entries for F. A. Giffen (although there must have been very many more references in the paper itself).

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

Jamuary 2014   Page created