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19th Century Social Reform: Poverty and Poor Relief 1830-1914

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19th Century Social reform: POVERTY AND POOR RELIEF 1830-1914

Definitions: Poverty and Pauperism

One has to remember that the poor were not a new problem in the 19th century. Gregory King had categorised a large proportion of the population as below the poverty line in 1688. It is also important to remember that the problem was not simply linked to urban industrialised areas. Indeed, if the evidence of the Poor rate is anything to go by, the problem was greater in rural areas. Macaulay pointed out that in 1825, the highest rate was in Sussex, at 20s per rate payer, whilst the lowest was in Lancashire at 4s, and the West Riding of Yorkshire at 5s.

One has also to be clear about what one means when one talks of the poor. In the 19th century a distinction was drawn between poverty, which was seen as the lot of most of the people, and pauperism, which was seen as the inability of the individual to support himself. Poverty was not only accepted as inevitable, but it was also thought to have positive benefits - it was what drove people to work, and it was what kept wage rates down! In contemporary eyes, the Poor Law existed to deal with pauperism; to prevent the those without work or unable to work from starving, and to encourage those who were merely poor to stand on their own feet. This has to be remembered when one looks at attempts to reform the Poor Law. The intentions of 19th century reformers were often very different to modern expectations.

The Old Poor Law

NB. The 'Old Poor Law' is the term given to the parish based system of poor relief which operated from Tudor times to 1834:

The main characteristics of the Old Poor Law are straightforward.

a) It relied on the parish as the unit of administration as it was believed that local people were best able to distinguish the lazy (undeserving poor) from the deserving poor, as the small size of the parish meant that they would know the people personally. The small size of the unit also had disadvantages as well, as it meant that finances were invariably limited. In most parishes there was also a lack of skilled personnel and reliance was placed on unskilled, unpaid administrators. Elected for a year, the Overseers of the Poor were usually content to get through the year with as little trouble as possible. Levying high charges on neighbours was not popular. Only in some of the rapidly expanding industrial towns were full time salaried officials employed. What the Poor Law did do was enhance the power of local figures like JPs and magistrates. This led to a growth in the influence of the landed gentry, for if they were not actually JPs and magistrates themselves, they certainly influenced the appointments. The result was that they tended to be more concerned with the interests of the payers of the poor rate rather than the receivers of poor relief.

b) Based originally on the Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 and the later Act of Settlement of 1662, each parish had the duty to relieve (care for ) its own paupers, using funds collected from a local tax, known as the Poor Rate. Overseers of the Poor had to be appointed annually to supervise the administration of poor relief and they had to present reports and accounts to the JPs annually. Most poor relief was in the form of outdoor relief, i.e. any help given to a pauper in his own home as opposed to an institution, such as a workhouse. The impotent or deserving poor (those unable to support themselves) were to be maintained, whilst work had to be undertaken by the able bodied, ( who were regarded as basically undeserving) if they were to receive any form of poor relief. The Act of Settlement made it essential for any pauper to return to his parish of origin (his 'settled' parish) if he were to receive any form of poor relief. This usually meant the one that he was

born in and some historians have suggested that this was a barrier to internal migration in the 18th century. In practice though it seems that few magistrates concerned themselves much with the able bodied travelling in search of work. It was only when the impotent poor became a burden, that there was pressure to return them to their original parish. As long as the population was relatively static, which it was until the mid 18th century, the Acts seem to have been adequate. The rapid economic changes after 1750 meant that adjustments had to be made and several Acts were passed in the late 18th century which amended the existing system and added extra options such as workhouses (1723 and 1782) mostly for the deserving poor. These early workhouses varied considerably in style and were not the punitive institutions of the 19th century.

c) The fact that poor relief was based on local parishes meant that there was great regional variation in the administration of the Poor Law. By the end of the 18th century there were a number of expedients used to deal with pauperism. In some areas a labour rate was adopted whereby each rate payer agreed to employ a certain number of labourers according to his poor rate assessment. If he had no need of labour, he was required to pay the parish a sum equivalent to their wages. Another variant was the roundsman system. Under this unemployed labourers were sent round the parish from one farm to the next, until they found someone willing to employ them at a rate subsidised by the parish. The most widespread method was the sliding scale, the best known example of, which was the Speenhamland system. First instituted by the Berkshire Justices in the village of Speenhamland at a time of rapidly rising bread prices in 1795 it spread rapidly to other areas, particularly in the south and east of England. Concerned at rising prices and rising unrest, and very aware of the revolution across the Channel, the authorities were keen to avoid trouble, but at the same time, to avoid excessive wage increases. The scheme at Speenhamland supplemented low wages on a sliding scale from the poor rates, the amount paid in outdoor relief being linked to the price of bread and the size of the family. The higher the price of bread, and the larger the family, the greater the relief that would be offered. This system was strongly attacked by Thomas Malthus and the Political Economists by 1830, on the basis that it demoralised poorer groups by keeping wages low, made them lazy and reckless in producing too many children, and thus was the main cause of the rapidly expanding population amongst the poorer classes in society.

d) Even under the old system Workhouses existed, though


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