There is no Nation I ever read of who, by a Compulsory Law, raiseth so much Money for the Poor as England doth; That of Holland is voluntary . . .; but our Charity is become a Nuisance, and may be thought the greatest Mistake of that Blessed Reign, in which that Law passed, which is the Idle and Improvident Man's Charter. 1
Sir Francis Brewster's complaint of 1695 was directed against the poor law legislation of 1598-1601 which came into effect at the end of the 'Blessed Reign' of Elizabeth and survived until the creation of the new poor law of 1834. The Elizabethan legislation made it a mandatory responsibility of each parish to maintain the 'impotent' and to provide work for the able-bodied under the supervision of the overseers of the poor. Finance was raised by the church- wardens, who increasingly relied upon an annual poor rate. England was the only country in Europe with a system of poor relief financed from taxation: Brewster could equally well have drawn a contrast within Britain, for tax-funded poor relief was by no means the norm in Scotland.
How significant were the payments of poor relief in England and Scotland in supporting the income of the poor? Brewster's fear was that relatively generous relief was false charity, which made people feckless, allowing them to live in idleness without regard for the future, secure in the knowledge that the parish would maintain them in old age or sickness. His complaint was repeated a century later by Malthus, who urged the abandonment of the poor law, at least for support of the able-bodied poor. It was, Malthus feared, weakening the prudential restraint on marriages and births by offering support to family income. There was also concern about the effect of poor relief on the pattern of migration. The availability of poor relief in England for the elderly, ill, and unemployed could act in one of two ways. Would it remove the incentive to move in search of opportunities elsewhere and tie people to their parish; or would knowledge that support was available in times of necessity encourage people to leave their family of origin and seek jobs which offered a higher