Old Poor Law

This entry is part [part not set] of 7 in the series Poor Law through the Ages

Old Poor Law 1338 to 1834 Summary

Old Poor Law term refers to a body of law which had been codified since the Statute of Cambridge in 1388 which had been the first English legislation to address specifically the legal means of dealing with poverty. It relates to all law between  1552 and the Poor Law Amendment Act of of 1834.

The problems to be addressed were ironically the same as today, population growth in a slow growing economy creates unemployment.  The duty of care of the poor had rested previously with the monastic and ecclesiastical institutions in the medieval period and whilst this had not always been diligently adhered to, post dissolution of the monasteries, matters had certainly worsened.

Social circumstances that drove the need for legislation included the following:

  • Population is believed to have stagnated during the 15th Century giving a temporary easing of the demands for Poor Relief, estimates have the population of England at 2.1m in 1401 and 2m in 1481 (England & Wales only.)
  • 16th Century Population growth is significant 1521 being 2.3m  that had nearly doubled to 3.89m by 1591 which combined with the impact of Dissolution of the Monasteries further compounded the growing need.
  • Growing tide of migration: seeking work and food:  moving from village to town, crowded towns to margins of the heavy woodlands all exacerbated the problem.
  • 1590s brought acute hardship: poor yield from arable farming led to shortages, price increases , social unrest and actual famine. It was the culmination of these circumstances that drove the codification of the ‘Old Poor Law’ in the period 1597-1601

The Old Poor Law included:

  • 1338 Statute of Cambridge established core principles of poor relief in England as early as Richard II’s reign.
    • Distinguished between beggars considered ‘sturdy’ and capable of work and those who were ‘impotent’ infirm old and unemployable for work.
    • Attempt to settle the Poor in a fixed place, nt as wandering nomads.
  • 1351 following plague and pestilence with wages rising the ruling elite started not only suppressing the really poor but the works, see the Statute of Labourers 1351, arguably leads to the Peasants Revolt and the start of a tradition of organised labour. It also mirrors the continuing theme in our history of the balance between people, monarch and parliament.
  • 1381 The people stand up and are counted, not just the workers but the emerging upstanding class were involved, this was truely the People’s Revolt
  • 1494 Vagabonds and Beggars Act: placed in the stocks for three days and nights and if you were ‘lucky’ jus old and infirm you could stay in the vicinity and would be allowed to beg, just how lucky are we?
  • 1531 Concerning Punishment of Beggars and Vagabonds Act Henry VIII 22 c 12. how would the treatment and punishment be modified to minimise the burden on the state, maintain control and minimise the chance of outcries from the people?
  • 1536 Beggars Act: passed during reign of Henry VIII “attributes the then existing distress to the decay of husbandry, i.e., the turning an immense extent of arable land into pasture.” Following Henry VIII declaring his supremacy over the year, in 1636 he executes his wife Anne and commences the dissolution of the monasteries. It doesnt bode well for the poor…
  • 1547 early  Edward VI’s reign a punitive Act which introduced slavery, enforced labour for vagrants was passed.. Fortunately due to public outcry it was soon repealed. It had also required that Collections were ordered to be weekly for the poor.
  • 1550 under Edward VI’s short reign sees the enslavement of 1547 repealed and other legislation just tinkered with
  • 1552 which importantly set-up the basic organisation and systemisation of poor relief around the Parishes.
  • 1563 funding of poor relief, increased state power to coerce those refusing to give to poor relief
  • 1572 under Elizabeth I all prior enactments repealed: between 1572 and 1601 mandatory assessment for the relief of the poor was finally and fully established as a principle of English law.
  • 1576 to encourage the creation and funding of more work for the poor. Larger towns set-up workshops for that specific purpose.
  • 1598-1601 in the climate of social unrest that also led to the Oxfordshire Rising there was further codification of the relevant law. JPs (Justices of the Peace) were charged with responsibility for administration locally of the law.
    • Parish Overseers were appointed to literally oversee the administration of Poor Relief in each Parish.
    • Their responsibility included levying and collecting a local tax.
    • The tax was assessed based on property and used as the fund for providing for the poor.
    • This basic organisation continued right up until the 1834 Amendment Act
  • 1609-1623: due to the poor being seen as the cause of plague and pestilence on London’s streets, the Lord Mayor and various trades in London conceived a plan to ship out the poor to Virginia in USA. Longer term this plan was to fail. One such ship was the Mayflower…
  • 1630 Charles I issued a Commission for the relief of the poor, which published a book of Orders and Directions in the following year. (Nicholls’s ‘History of the English PoorLaw.’)
  • 1662 the Act of Settlement sought to remedy the previous unsuccessful attempts to define where responsibility lay for the poor based upon the Parish in which they were resident.
    • The definition required that the parish be responsible for the poor if they had lived in the parish for 40 days or more.
    • However it also required certain status to be actually eligible  for payment of relief;
      • Proven paternal descent in the parish
      • a £10 holding
      • completed apprenticeship
      • or prior working/ hire for a year
    • If you didn’t qualify within these characteristics, then the responsibility was for nothing more than removing the poor person from the parish back to the parish that was responsible for them.
  • 1696/97 Bristol obtained an Act of Parliament: to sanction the establishment of a large Workhouse. It’s example was followed by numerous other cities. Overseers were given power to allocate tickets to the poor so they could rightfully seek work outside the parish but as registered paupers they had to wear distinctive clear badges, this stigma was of course socially humiliating, if partly well intentioned.
  • 1723 Workhouse Act During the 1720s and 1730’s Parish Workhouses spread, some became Almshouses, examples of which survive in many towns and rural villages in the UK to this day. It was the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) that encouraged their foundation. the Workhouse Act set in law the basis for these institutions. It enabled Overseers to make the giving of relief conditional upon entry into the very inhospitable Workhouses.
  • 1782 Gilbert’s Act Thomas Gilbert campaigned for humanitarian reform of Poor Relief law but in this one minor act  the impact that was positive was minimal.
  • 1776 Returns to Parliament listed a large number of Workhouses: listing some 2,000 workhouses with a capacity for some 90,000 people.
  • 1795 JP’s Meeting at Speen Ham Land Berkshire in a climate of increasing high food costs there was agreement to subsidise workers wages where they were deemed too low to cope with the rising prices.

Whilst you would expect that English law and society would progress the amendment to this body of codified law sadly that was not to be.  In 1834 following the review commissioned in 1832 sadly nothing was done  to improve the plight of the poor. It was more draconian and harshly administered. Relief would be limited to the aged sick and orphaned, with no provision for the unemployed. For what happened as a result of the 1834 Amendment Act click here.

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