Social commentators in the early decades of the nineteenth century considered the ‘poor classes’ to be a homogenous sub-group of society dependent on parish poor relief. Whilst in recent decades studies of the Old Poor Law have added much to our understandings of the complexity of poor relief practices, the concept of dependency has proved remarkably durable. This article challenges this central assumption by focusing upon the very individuals who constituted this supposedly homogenous dependent group. The relief histories of eight individuals from two cohorts who resided in the Dorset parish of Motcombe are (re)constructed and linked to demographic data to produce detailed biographies. On the basis of these biographies it is argued that even in north Dorset, where opportunities for employment and alternative forms of subsistence were few, ‘the poor’ experienced complex fluctuations of dependence on, and independence from, poor relief. It is also shown that traditional assumptions about the factors prompting relief, including the expansion of the family, did not have a uniform impact on all individuals. Such a methodology also makes it possible to explore how the parish managed to respond to the differing and similar needs of individuals. It is thus stressed that instead of following one policy for all, parish officials applied and tailored relief to suit each individual.