Poverty, Gender, and Life-Cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760-1834

Article excerpt

Poverty, Gender, and Life-Cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760-1834. By Samantha Williams. (Woodbridge, England: Royal Historical Society, 2011, Pp. 190. $90.00.)

Samantha Williams's title is only peripherally connected to her study, for though it promises an analysis of huge swathes of material under the general topic of the English poor laws, the author actually confines herself to the relatively narrow area of poor-law documents in Campton and Shefford. For scholars of poor laws in these two communities, the book will be quite useful as Williams really does go by the numbers, providing lots of charts and graphs of who was given what when. She also has done a useful survey of other scholars' work in these two communities. What is strikingly absent from this study is something to connect the dots. Why should anyone looking at English poor laws be interested in the precise details of these communities in particular? Her conclusions, that poor single women, especially mothers, collected more than men and that the "deserving" elderly consumed a large share of the available charity, are true for every community in England during the years covered by her study (as well as the years on either side of her chosen time period).

Given the decades-long scholarly mantra that women had no place in the working economy, Williams finds that for poor women this assumption simply was not true. Most poor women, and poor female children, worked for money (and not in prostitution, as so many tomes have opined). She finds that in the areas of her study

   [a]lmost half of the women aged fifteen or over were allocated an
   occupation and, as in the 1851 census, it is likely that these were
   only for those women who were regularly employed; many more would
   have been in irregular employment. The straw-plaited trade
   dominated female employment in Campton, with almost 70 percent of
   women with recorded occupations so employed, while in Shefford the
   proportion was smaller, at 26 percent, followed by 33 percent
   employed as domestic servants. …