History of the Chester County Poorhouse

17th Century
Initially, there was an Overseer of the Poor to support and care for the poor within each township. The 1st law noting the existence of Overseers of the Poor is in the Laws for Raising County Levies (1696).[i] This law states that fines for the relief of the poor were paid to Overseers of the Poor and the Justices of the Peace. Prior to that, a law in 1682 states the poor were to complain to Justices of the Peace in each county for relief. This law also notes that to prevent poor children from becoming poor adults they were to learn a trade and to read and write by the age of 12, unless physically or mentally handicapped. By 1692 the prison population included the poor, insane, children, and loose and abusive persons in addition to felons, thieves, and vagrants.

18th Century
In 1705, the 1st general poor law was passed and it provided for the appointment of 1, 2, or more Overseers of the Poor by 3 or more Justices of the Peace.[ii] The Overseers were to levy a tax for the care of the poor, apprentice poor children, and get family support for poor children, if possible. By 1735/1736, 2 Overseers were to receive, employ, and direct the poor. In the event of death or need, a new Overseer was to be appointed by 2 Justices. Overseers, even if they had not yet taken an oath of allegiance to the United States of America, were elected by voters by 1779.

One of the most important duties of the Overseers was to assess a tax on the real and personal property of county residents to cover the expenses of caring for the poor.[iii] Later expenses included housing, finding employment and paying burial expenses in the event the pauper died. They also recovered the transportation costs for poor who were not legally settled in the county and were removed to their county of legal residence. Legal settlement meant a person could prove she or he had lived in a county or poor district for a year through affidavits of landlords, neighbors, or employers. If not, the person was transported to the last place she or he had been legally settled. Local Overseers accepted this situation and cared for their poor or were fined or their goods were sold by the local Constable to cover the costs accrued with a warrant from the 1st Overseers.

As early as 1705 Overseers were empowered to care for poor children whose parents could not support them. At this time people were required to care for the poor members of their families and by 1735/1736 failure to do so resulted in fines. Beginning in 1761 Overseers could apprentice or bind out freed negroes under 21 years of age and children of freed negroes (girls until age 21 and boys until age 24), and negro or mulatto children born of slaves when abandoned by whomever was entitled to them by 1780. Apprenticing or binding out was a legal agreement between the county and an individual, through the Overseers. Children as young as a few months old were bound out. They were cared for until old enough to learn a trade and given a basic education for a few years, specified in the agreement between the care takers and the Overseers. The time spent in service to the care takers was to cover the costs of caring, feeding, clothing, and educating the child. The logic behind this method was to prevent poor children from becoming dependent upon the community.

Directors of the Poor & the Chester County Poor House, 1798
In 1798, the Chester County Poor House was erected in West Bradford for the employment and support of the poor in the county (under the same law the Lancaster County Poor House was also erected for the care of its poor).[iv] With this act the Overseers were replaced with the Directors of the Poor. Like the Overseers of the Poor, the Directors were responsible for providing for the lodging, maintenance, and employment of the poor. As soon as the building was able to accommodate the legally settled poor they were moved into it. When the transfer was complete the office of Overseers of the Poor ceased.

The 1798 law enabled Directors of the Poor to estimate expenses for the upkeep, erection, and maintenance of buildings for a year and increase county taxes accordingly. It also specified that annual accounts were to be submitted to the Auditors. The accounts included a list of Poor House inhabitants, their ages, sexes, those financially assisted while living outside of the county, bound children, rents, sales, donations, and any other income. The law incorporated the Directors of the Poor, 4 being declared a majority (in 1810 this changed to 2), and gave them the right to create all rules necessary for support and care of the poor.

In time, the Poorhouse in West Bradford would expand from 1 building in 1800, to include a 3 story brick house, barns, 2 infirmaries, an insane hospital, school, limestone quarry, graveyard, smoke and bake houses, oven, wagon house, hog and slaughter house, corn crib, library, tramp house, boiler house, bakery, ice house, sheep house, power house, reservoir, lake, contagious ward, stables, a 2-story ward for the violently insane, calf barn, separate wings for black and white men, women, and children, and many garden and farm acres and cattle.

19th Century
According to law the total number of Directors of the Poor was 3 in 1810, and by 1855 their term of office was set at 3 years. In reality the number of Directors equaled 6 until 1810, 5 in 1811, 4 in 1812, and 3 from 1813 on. Prior to January 1, 1912 when a 4 year term was established, the Directors served terms of 1, 2, 3, or more years, often being reelected. If a vacancy occurred the Directors elected someone to fill the vacancy for the unexpired term.

Beginning in 1810 the Directors were to publish Poor House accounts annually in newspapers. This law was amended in 1821 to include the number of poor, profits from the Poor House farm, all rents, property of the poor, and balance given to heirs being published each March in 2 or more county newspapers. Another amendment in 1836 added the sex and age of the poor to the accounts. These accounts were published with those of Commissioners beginning in 1873.

By 1819 the Directors could deputize a constable or other person to sue for, recover, and collect money and/or property of the poor on behalf of the Directors to defray the costs of care and burial in the event of death, with the balance going to the heirs upon demand. Legal settlement of the poor became an even more important issue with the Poor House in existence. To determine residency Directors examined the poor and other witnesses under oath, beginning in 1831 they had the ability to withhold aid in the event of noncompliance.

Directors continued to apprentice, or bind out, children with the consent of 2 or more Justices of the Peace in 1803. By 1884 Directors were not to keep children between the ages of 2 and 16 in the Alms or Poor House over 60 days unless they were physically or mentally handicapped and instead were to place them in homes (institutional or family) and check on them at least once every 6 months as to their care and treatment.[v] By the same law Chester and Lancaster counties were empowered to erect an industrial home, separate from the Poor House, for the care and training of children. This caused tremendous public outrage in Chester County resulting in the Children's Aid Society placing the children in foster homes.

Directors continued to be responsible for the provision, admittance, and discharge of the poor. Settlement and vagrancy were defined at length.[vi] Directors were charged with the care, maintenance, and burial expenses of county insane residents sent to the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital following its erection.[vii] Few county paupers were sent to the state institution due to the high costs of keeping them there. If a pauper in a county hospital had legal settlement in another county, the Directors holding the pauper were to notify the Directors or Overseers where the pauper held residence within 30 days of determining the pauper's residency or be liable themselves for the costs.[viii] Another law of note provided all female insane paupers to have a woman attendant while being moved unless her family accompanied her.[ix] A supplement to this law fined any officer, Director, Poor House superintendent, or steward $250 each time this law was ignored.[x]

20th Century
In the 20th century there was an abundance of legislation concerning the care of the insane by the Directors. The major change of the 1900s was the opening in February 1900 of the County Asylum for the Insane, also called the Insane Asylum, near the Poor House. This allowed for the care of the insane separate from other inmates, but kept them within the county and near their families. The Directors were to give quarterly reports under oath to the Auditor-General concerning their care of the indigent insane or lose their quarterly appropriations (1901). By 1913 if the insane grew produce or made items that could be sold the money could go to the inmate or his or her family at the family's request. To protect the indigent insane, feebleminded, or epileptic anyone could petition for the appointment of a guardian in the Court of Common Pleas.[xi] The Mental Health Law of 1923 prohibited any "mental patient" from being admitted to any poor or alms house or prison not licensed by the Department of Public Welfare.[xii] This was the 1st use of the term "mental patient" instead of "insane" or "idiot".

Beginning in 1921 the State Department and Commissioner of Public Welfare were to supervise each Poor House maintained by a county, borough, township, or poor district with inspections and enforcement of rules. If the Directors failed to respond their state allowance was denied and they were fined and imprisoned (for 2nd offenses).[xiii]

County Institutional District
The act of June 24, 1937, effective January 1, 1938, began the County Institutional District (CID) and abolished the office of Directors of the Poor in favor of CID Officers, who were the Commissioners and the Treasurer.

The duties of the CID were mostly the same as those of the Directors of the Poor. CID Officers prepared a budget and kept accounts which were audited by the Controller and open to the public. For mismanagement of funds, such as purchasing supplies for over $500 without a written contract, CID Officers were fined an equal sum and imprisoned for 6 months. CID Officers could levy and collect taxes on real estate, trades, occupations, and professions annually and special taxes as needed or borrow money.

CID Officers authorized the burial of unclaimed bodies of the indigent. As necessary they gave rabies inoculations. Following the rules of the State Department of Welfare, CID Officers placed children in foster homes and institutions, unless they were under 16 years of age or mentally or physically handicapped in which case they provided medical care.

Settlement was again defined and the expenses accrued by CID Officers in caring for people not settled in their county could be forced to be paid by the proper county under orders of the Court of Quarter Sessions.

Lastly, under this law, CID Officers were allowed to take land by eminent domain, erect, equip, maintain, and repair any buildings needed for the care of the poor, and sell and lease real property.

The state of Pennsylvania took over the mental hospital and property in 1941. In 1946 the Poor House was acquired by the state. The County Institutional District was abolished in 1962 at which point the new Pocopson Nursing Home came under the control of the Commissioners who acted as Executive and Administrative officers.
  • [i]. Statutes at Large, vol. I, Laws passed by the Assembly in 1696.
  • [ii]. Statutes at Large, vol. II, chap. CLIV.
  • [iii]. Ibid.
  • [iv]. Statutes at Large, vol. XVI, chap. MCMLXXI.
  • [v]. Act of June 13, 1883, P.L. 111, effective January 1, 1884.
  • [vi]. Act of June 13, 1836, P.L. 539.
  • [vii]. Act of April 15, 1845, P.L. 445.
  • [viii]. Act of May 21, 1874, P.L. 220.
  • [ix]. Act of April 14, 1893, P.L. 20.
  • [x]. Act of May 27, 1897, P.L. 110.
  • [xi]. Act of May 28, 1907, P.L. 292.
  • [xii]. Act of June 11, 1923, P.L. 998.
  • [xiii]. Act of May 25, 1921, P.L. 1144.