From Old to New Poor Law

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

From Old to New Poor Law


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


The old system

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the poorest members of English society were the responsibility of the individual parishes in which they lived. This was the underlying principle of the Elizabethan Poor Laws which, with a few modifications, had endured for two centuries. Each parish appointed officials known as overseers, whose task was to collect a poor rate from local householders. This money was allocated on a basis of need to individuals and their families. The emphasis was on `outdoor relief': in other words, the purpose was to assist the able-bodied poor to continue living in their own homes. Subsequent legislation established the principle of `settlement', under which parish authorities were empowered to return travelling paupers to the locality in which they were said to have `settled'. By the eighteenth century, however, these arrangements had been supplemented by the creation of parish workhouses where `indoor relief' was provided. These institutions, run by private contractors, constituted a last resort for the starving, the sick and the elderly poor.

From 1782 Gilbert's Act enabled parishes to share the cost of establishing a workhouse by banding together in groups known as unions. Nonetheless the parochial nature of the Old Poor Law was not fundamentally affected. The standard of provision varied considerably from one area to another. According to the historian Anne Digby, some parishes `approximated to a welfare state in miniature', with the most vulnerable members of the community receiving housing, fuel and clothing allowances and basic medical care.

The Old Poor Law was ill equipped to contend with the far-reaching economic and social changes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the countryside of southern and central England, the enclosure movement was transforming both the landscape and the working practices of the farming community. Although the agricultural revolution generated new employment opportunities, it was unable to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population. Whereas the population of England and Wales had numbered 4 million in 1601, it had increased to 9 million two hundred years later. At the same time rural labourers' wages failed to keep pace with rising prices. In many areas the loss of animal grazing and fuel gathering rights on common land, together with the decline of traditional cottage industries, made the position appreciably worse.

A number of Poor Law authorities responded to the plight of the rural poor by making adaptations to the system of outdoor relief. Some, like the parish of Speenhamland in Berkshire, topped up labourers' wages with allowances, using a scale which varied according to food prices and which also reflected the size of a man's family. The problem was worsened by the onset of agricultural depression after 1815. In response officials devised a variety of work creation schemes. The `labour rate' obliged ratepayers either to employ a certain number of labourers or to pay the parish a sum equal to their wages. Unfortunately, in rural areas the principal ratepayers were the farmers who were themselves suffering from the effects of depression. By compelling them to subsidise labourers' incomes in this way, the system had the effect of driving down wages.

Pressure for change

By the early 1830s a growing number of rural property owners had come to feel that the Old Poor Law imposed an unjust rate burden upon them. The fact that the rating system was based on land and buildings, rather than on personal and moveable wealth, meant that farmers were hit harder than the world of commerce and industry. It has been calculated that overall expenditure on poor relief in the year 1831-32 was 7 million [pounds sterling], which represented almost 80 per cent of the money raised by local rates. Moreover a disproportionate amount of this sum was raised in the mainly agricultural south and east, as opposed to the industrial north and Wales. …

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