Henley Archaeological & Historical Group – The Poor Law in the 18th Century – the Crisis in the Parishes

HartStreetChurchaThe June meeting of the Archaeological and Historical Group saw members and visitors gathering to listen to Deborah Hayter, a tutor at Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, talk about the Poor Law and its impact on the parishes and the crisis of the 18th Century.

The poor were not considered interesting by painters and writers, until we saw the exaggerated decadence shown in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’; but this is the city, so what was happening in the countryside? Since the time of Domesday Book, Britain has been a very bureaucratic country where everything is written down and it is these records that give us an insight into the lives of the poor throughout the land.

To get a better understanding, we examined first the situation by 1600. The feudal system had broken down; Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries in 1536 and had made the Church responsible for law and order, the highways and the poor. Two overseers looked after the poor in the parish, besides rooks and vermin! Church wardens took it in turns to be overseers and the upper classes took on their Christian duty to provide for the poor.

The Poor Law of 1601 replaced this voluntary system with a compulsory law:

1 Beggars, vagrants and sturdy beggars were to be punished, set to gainful work and sent back to the place where they were born
2 The labouring poor were to do productive work.
3 The elderly, sick and impotent were to be maintained by the Community.

This gave towns the incentive to set up town workhouses, but had the effect of taking work away from the local people and lowering wages.

Overseers’ accounts show weekly payments, with some widows supported for as long as 25 years. People had to care for their own aged parents and children; this system seemed to work because people knew each other and could appeal to the local JP who could order the overseers to provide money. Settlement Acts set out the right to relief under the Law for those who had been resident in the parish for 40 days, paid an annual rent of £10, or were apprenticed for 7 years. Pregnant women could stay until the baby was ‘dropped’ and then had to move on, but bastardy orders meant a child could stay provided two people promised to pay to keep the child in the parish. Any ‘foreigner’ (from outside the parish) could stay provided they fulfilled the criteria.

Under the Settlement Laws, people who asked for help had to produce a signed certificate from their home parish stating they would be taken back and it is these that give us the clue to the mobility of people at this time as they had to be signed by every parish visited. This free movement of people facilitated the Industrial Revolution in Britain more than in any other country.

During the second half of the 18th century, population increases created a growing problem for parishes because Parliament did not enforce the law and lords of the manor guarded their autonomy.

Agricultural depression, high food prices and the end of the wars with France, when servicemen were thrown back into society without any recompense, meant a huge rise in unemployment. In the Home Counties, the situation was especially serious with the loss of traditional occupations, such as spinning and weaving and lace making, and the introduction of threshing machines meant no winter work for agricultural workers. People now crowded into cities, the factories of the industrial north of England and the mining areas looking for work.

The Speenhamland System of 1795 attempted to solve the problems by linking wages to the price of bread. Every time the price of bread increased, a subsidy was given to a man with two children, more children meant more money. As a result farmers kept wages low and there were complaints that this encouraged large families.

Between 1790–1820 the poor rate had quadrupled to 20% of all national expenditure and attitudes towards the poor began to change. The problems were immense, how to restrict aid only to the deserving poor, how to deal with over generous or inefficient overseers and, above all, the resentment of the upper and middle classes who objected to higher taxation and who now saw the poor had become a problem to be solved. Gone was the Christian belief that the poor are always with us. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act with its workhouses, where relief was only given if asked for in exchange for manual labour, meant the poor were responsible for their own situation and, as Arthur Young said, “Everybody but an idiot knows the poor must be kept poor”.

We were left with the realization that nothing really has changed, the benefits system is still trying to cope with the same problems and attitudes and solutions seem to go round and round. We really live in very interesting times! Our thanks go to Deborah Hayter for a brilliant and thought provoking lecture.