The Old Poor Law: 1795 - 1834

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Features of the Old Poor Law

    It relied greatly on the parish as the unit of government, and therefore on unpaid, non-professional administrators. Parishes were small and their finances were feeble so unusually heavy burdens such as those experienced between 1815 and 1821 might seem disastrous at parish level

    Overseers/Justices of the Peace/contractors/Vestrymen might be petty despots. This was removed by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act but the old Poor Law was more humane because those responsible for the administration of relief knew the recipients personally

    Relief may well have been greater, more well-meant and indiscriminate to individuals. Parishes had a more democratic tradition of life but by the 1820s this was breaking down. Since the ratepayers were the ones who provided the money for poor relief, they were able to change the rules

    It had a profound adherence to the principles of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, which has aimed to provide social stability, to alleviate discontent and distress and to prevent riots and disaffection through outdoor relief. Actually, it created a vast and inefficient social welfare system which originally was based on the village/hamlet and was adapted in 1601 and 1750. After 1750 more extensive adjustments were needed because of
      o population increase
      o greater mobility
      o price changes

    It rationalised local practises through, for example, the 1662 Settlement Laws. These laws were based on the recognised practice of returning paupers to the parish of their birth. Subsequent laws were variations on this theme. Residence of a yea and a day was required for a person to qualify for relief.

    There was no consistent body of practice between 1601 and 1834. Application of the old Poor Law was inconsistent, very adaptable and had much geographical variation.

The Working of the Old Poor Law

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law divided the poor into two groups
    a. the impotent poor - the sick, elderly, those unable to work - who were to be helped via outdoor relief or in almshouses. These people were classed as 'would work but couldn't'.

    b. this group were the able-bodied paupers and it was thought that these people 'could work but wouldn't'. They were to be severely beaten until they realised the error of their ways. Relief was given in variety of ways, and not all parishes had a poor-house or house of correction. It soon became obvious that some parishes were more sympathetic towards their poor, and this tended to result in paupers moving into that area from less generous parishes. To prevent this, parliament passed the 1662 Settlement Act which stated that a person had to have a 'settlement' in order to obtain relief from a parish. This could be secured by:
    birth in the parish
    marriage (in the case of a woman)
    working or apprenticeship in the parish for a year and a day
    occupyimg property worth more than Ten Pounds per annum.
After 1697, if a poor person moved away from his parish of origin in search of work the JPs issued him with a Certificate of Settlement saying that if the man fell on hard times his own parish would receive him back and pay for him to be 'removed'. Their Settlement Certificate would be checked if a person/family requested poor relief in a village, to see where their right of settlement lay. If a person did NOT have a Settlement Certificate they were liable to be removed to their original parish.

The Settlement Law caused problems:
it hindered the free movement of labour
it prevented men from leaving overpopulated parishes in search of work on the 'off-chance' of finding employment
it led to short contracts of, for example, 364 days or 51 weeks. A man might live in a parish for 25 years, working on short contracts, and still not be eligible for poor relief later in life.

Many Parishes, or County Record Offices, still retain copies of their Settlement Examinations, which would usually show a person's birthplace and where they had worked, as well as the names and ages of their spouse and dependant children. They are therefore a valuable source of information for genealogists.

1782 Gilbert's Act

Gilbert, an MP, attempted to have this Act passed in 1765 but failed; he then spent the next 17 years attempting to have his Bill passed. He finally succeeded in 1782. The Act allowed parishes to form unions and build joint poor houses for the totally destitute, in order to share the cost.

The Speenhamland System first saw light of day in 1795. It was introduced by the magistrates in the Berkshire village of Speenhamland (or Speen) in an effort to relieve the extreme poverty which existed and was adopted widely. The administration of poor relief was in the hands of about 15,000 parishes and few public men had any precise idea of the true situation. The general feeling was that poor relief was increasing on an unprecedented scale and the reaction to this came after 1815. The Speenhamland system became widespread in southern England and was extensively used in the so-called 'Swing' counties. It offered any one, or several forms of relief:
    a. allowances to supplement earned wages, which was the basis of the Speenhamland and other similar systems. The amount of relief to be given was calculated on the price of a gallon loaf of bread (weighing 8lb. 7oz.) and the number of children a man had. Some areas allowed between 1/6d and 2/6d per child and it was this method which caused Malthus to comment that poor labourers had large families so they could claim on the poor rates although there was no proof of this. The idea of a 'supplementary benefit' of cash or flour was not new and it was intended only as a temporary measure.

    b. the labour rate operated by a price being put on a labourer's work. The rate-payers could choose between paying a labourer or paying the rate. If the wage was less than the fixed rate, the employer had to pay the difference also. Labourers were sent round to ratepayers who employed whoever they wished, paying a set wage per man, the best workers costing more. This was not a common system.

    c. under the roundsman system, the able-bodied unemployed worked in rotation. They were sent in turn to farmers who paid a part of the wages and the parish paid the rest. By 1796 outdoor relief was given without a workhouse test because it was a period of widespread distress and unrest. Also many paupers were not able-bodied and parishes were not big enough to cope with the problems.

Conflicting Views of the Old Poor Law

The allowance system became common during the French Wars and the general adoption of the Speenhamland (type) system met with little opposition. The cost of poor relief reached new peaks even in relation to the increased population.

In 1815 there was much political and social unrest because of the ending of the French Wars, the industrial and agricultural depression and the increase in unemployment. Attitudes towards the poor changed. There was a growing belief in the rural south that charity, over and beyond the relief of dire necessity, led to idleness and vice. There was also a belief that allowances and subsidies created excess rural population and idleness. The problem of poor relief was considered by parliamentary enquiries which led to the Poor Law Commission of 1832-34. Its report was influential and affected poor relief policy into the 20th century.

However, in the industrial north, attitudes towards poor relief were different from those to be found in the south. As industry developed, there was a need for workers and if there was work, then most people were employed. If there was no work, then everyone was unemployed. This was particularly true in the textile districts where the anti-Poor Law campaign was at its strongest. It was generally believed that the existing of poor relief were more than adequate to meet the needs of the unemployed and others in need of relief.

This text from:
My own personal research and reading,
The Peel Web by Marjie Bloy (10 Aug.2002)
See also The Workhouse Site
NOTE: Internet access required to view these resources

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This page was updated on: 26 June 2009