The Poor Law

Historic Background to 1834

The Poor Law was initiated by the Tudor acts of 1597 to 1601 and the Poor Law Act of 1603. These acts set the tone for all future legislation for the provision of assistance to the poor up to 1834 and the Poor Law Amendment Act. It was to be at local, parish level as a charge to the ratepayers and was to benefit the resident and settled “impotent poor”. The Elizabethan view of “sturdy beggars” was distinguished from the “impotent poor ” in the legislation. What was considered residency and settlement was a source of continual problems that persisted in one form or another until the Poor Law was abolished in 1929 and remnants of it finally removed in 1948 with the introduction of the Welfare State.

As said, provision for the poor was a parish responsibility chargeable to the rates. The able poor were to be set to work doing fairly menial duties such as hemp picking or could be hired out. The sick or disabled unable to work would be provided for. Strangers to the parish were not encouraged if without work or means of support, being considered vagrants or worse. In “tough” parishes, they were sometimes whipped out. Various directives came from the Privy Council or even the Court of Star Chamber.

The person responsible for the Poor was called the Overseer or Overseer of the Poor. He was elected. If he refused to take the office, he would have to find a substitute. The stipend was under £10 per annum.

After the demise of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, there was no central control. Areas dealt with the poor on a Justice of the Peace, local town or parochial level. The systems that developed were complex and the officers carried out their duties as best they could. The costs were financed from the rates. Rates were set pre-annually based on what people could afford to pay. This was deemed an ethical and moral basis for demanding money from members of the parish. Rates were usually levied four times a year: Michaelmas (March), Midsummer Day (June), Lady Day (October) and Christmas (January). The Christmas charge was often based on harvest results. If the parish ran out of funds, the rates would be levied more often.

Attitudes to the poor changed variously over the years, sometimes a hard attitude and sometimes a soft attitude. For example, at the start of the 17th Century, the poor should be “driven to work” or “starved into it”. Putting the poor to work was an inevitable attitude since it was a source of cheap labour. But like the workshops in the Prison systems today, this cheap labour producing cheap produce normally ran at a loss. Henry Fielding, the magistrate and novelist, considered that workhouses and prisons should be attached and run together. This was never adopted but does illustrate a hard attitude. Later in the century, there was more acceptance that poverty was not a crime but could be caused by trade changes, bad harvests, lay-offs or an inability to move from parish to parish looking for work. In line with this hardening and softening of attitude was the provision or not of outdoor relief as opposed to indoor relief within the workhouse. It varied from place to place and time to time as circumstances and expediency dictated.

In 1723, the workhouse could be privatised (obviously, it was considered that workhouses could be run at a profit). Persons could tender to run the workhouse at a price, the funds coming from the rates, with any shortfall being paid by the tenderer. This state of affairs was legalised.

In 1782, the Gilbert Act allowed parishes to form Unions and thereby have a bigger single workhouse which could be run more efficiently. It should be understood, however, that, at that time, outside relief was far more common than placing the poor into the workhouse.

The most important change of the late 18th Century was adoption by most parishes of the Speenhamland System. This was an attempt to provide a minimum standard to both assess poverty and to provide a standard level of relief. For instance, the wages of a poor man could be made up to a minimum of 4s.6d (22.5p)according to the price of bread and the amount of bread that sum would buy. This caused a poverty trap. Employers would be reluctant to pay a living wage when others did not and when knowing that their employees’ wages would be made up by the parish by way of a general charge on the rates. Therefore, wages stayed unnecessarily low. The slightest problem caused increased poverty. There tended to be differences between town poor and country poor because of the different conditions of work and trade.

The Speenhamland System

Speenhamland System: a practice of economic relief for the poor following a decision by local magistrates at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland, near Newbury, Berkshire, on May 6, 1795. Instead of fixing minimum wages for poor labourers, the practice was to raise working men’s income to an agreed level, the money to come out of the parish rates. This allowance was designated as the price of three gallon loaves a week for each man - a gallon loaf was 8.5lbs, about 4kg, plus the cost of 1.5 loaves each for a wife and every child. The money was to cover all expenses. (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1997)

The Speenhamland system stayed in place until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The standard of relief tended to fluctuate up to this period. Although based on the price of bread, which was difficult to ignore, the amount of bread considered necessary for life was continually being reduced in the assessments. The number of poor was increasing and the burden on the ratepayers was increasing continually. The men paying the piper were trying to call the tune and were generally successful in doing so. By 1834, attitudes towards the poor had hardened very much since the introduction of the Speenhamland System.

Charities for the poor

Together with the Poor Law System grew up a number of individual and idiosyncratic charities. People gave bread money for Christmas. There were general bread funds to provide food for the poor. Similar funds existed to provide clothing. People established almshouses. Some donations were linked to Nonconformist Churches as opposed to the Church of England. Many left money to the poor in their wills. The religious duty of charity was still very strong and monies were granted for a number of personal reasons, not least of which was to be seen to be charitable. Note also that, at this time, criminals in prison would not be provided with food as a general rule. If they had no money to buy their food, they would have to beg for it from charitable passers-by.

The system in decline

In 1786, the parish was obliged to keep proper records of account. Some parishes, such as Cheshunt, had kept proper accounts for some time but this was not universal within Hertfordshire let alone the rest of the country. Proper accounting became more and more necessary. The farming out of the poor did lead to many abuses. While the poor who could work would be put to work and in return be fed and clothed, those who were sick and could not work would be looked after less conscientiously. The workhouse and the poor law system was expected to be run at a profit. Most did the best they could. A farming partnership could last, indeed, for many years.

In 1674, Haines estimated the English poor in need of relief as about 200,000. In 1697, Lock estimated about 100,000. In 1721, the figure for the whole United Kingdom was estimated as about 1,500,000 and, for England, about 300,000. However, guesswork was poor. The level of rates gives a better indication of the burden: 1784 £3 million, in 1805 £4 million, in 1814 £6.5 million, in 1818 £8 million. This cost 13s.3d (56p) per head per annum for the whole United Kingdom. Most of the money went towards providing fuel or rent-free accommodation or paying rents; food was not normally provided.

The system was breaking down. What just about worked in the smaller towns and villages was unworkable in the larger towns where conditions of trade and employment were very different. Increased industrialisation and movements of many from the countryside into urban centres looking for the new, better paid factory work coupled with a general increase in the population meant that a new, more efficient system was required.

By 1834, the feelings of resentment were high amongst the ratepayers. Some felt that the rates were unfair, being based on property, and that there should be a poll tax (a form of National Insurance). The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did not remove or reform the financing of relief but it did implement more stringent rules for relief, the discouragement of the local parish workhouse and the encouragement of large Union workhouses and standards for the appointment of Guardians of the poor. In many respects, poor relief cost more after 1834. In Hertfordshire, the poor rate increased by 11%. For some counties the increase was 20%.

So the new rules were expensive to carry out. Only one workhouse for each Union was allowed but this was not always possible. Although the Gilbert Act of 1782 had encouraged parishes to form larger Unions, not many parishes had participated. Inevitably, parishes had an assortment of buildings scattered about that under the new rules were completely unsuitable for poor relief. This led to massive reorganisations. Some sites were sold off. The site for the single workhouse was either refurbished, extended or totally rebuilt. The action taken varied much between areas and often took many years to complete. The new separation rules, keeping men and women and their children apart in the workhouse, did add markedly to the problems and the expense.

After 1834, the Guardians of the New Poor Law had much difficulty with the Overseers of the Poor in the various parishes and Unions. The Overseers had been used to running their own affairs for the benefit of their own ratepayers. However, the Guardians prevailed eventually. It was recognised that, at local level, there was the organisation to allow poor relief to be carried out effectively (just as this had been recognised in the 16th Century). But, as was increasingly apparent throughout the 19th Century, the complexity of the new industrialised society required not just local, unpaid officials to run things The voluntary or low paid parish official had to make way for officials organising and providing water supplies, health provisions, such as the compulsory inoculation at birth against disease in 1850, and other necessary services targeted at local level.

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