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The Old Poor Law

How early societies looked after their frail or sick members is poorly documented although senicide was said to be practised in several cultures. From the earliest times the Christian faithful [2] were urged to give alms to the poor; St Barnabas had preached, “Hesitate not to give and give without grudging but consider who will be the good Repayer of the reward.”

Beatrice and Sydney Webb [3], who wrote extensively on the Poor Law noted a raft of other means of raising money that were used from the 16th century. Some parishes maintained a small flock of sheep or a few cattle which yielded a small revenue paid into the “Parish Stock” a sort of reserve fund and examination of the tithe apportionments for any number of parishes reveals fields labelled, ‘Poor ground’, ‘Poor Close’ or something similar. Such land was rarely farmed by the poor but rented to tenant farmers with the rent going to the church for the provision of alms.

One way of raising money which sounds particularly jolly were Church Ales. The term has a double meaning; it not only meant ‘ale’ the drink, but also the meetings at which the ale was drunk. “Church Ales were convivial social gatherings towards which gifts of corn were given to be brewed into ale; and at which each guest paid for what he consumed the resulting profit being kept for the Parish Stock.”4 Usually held at Whitsuntide these ales saw communal feasting, music making and dancing. With the rise of puritanism came their demise. In addition the pewter used at such ales were often hired out for other events and some parishes even had stocks of jewellery which could be hired for weddings and the like. Finally even before the most famous Poor Law act of 1601 many parishes were taxing their inhabitants to obtain the necessary funds.

Prior to the reformation, it is generally held that alms were distributed by the monks and nuns of the eight hundred or so monastic institutions or convents. The evidence for this appears to be the sudden increase in the number of poor beggars that roamed the streets following their dissolution. Most sources are remarkably vague as to how the distribution of alms was actually done. Monastic institution’s were [in theory at least] closed orders, the monks rarely if ever left their monasteries and the distribution of alms can only have been carried out at the Abbey gate, an inefficient way of distributing alms if ever there was.

In theory a third part of the tithe was intended to be used as alms but the Webb’s believed that this ceased in the 14th century and the responsibility for raising and distributing alms had passed to the parishes. The matter is not entirely clear since it is not known how or when parishes were first established but almost certainly by this time. However, as they wrote, one “distinguishing feature of the English parish is its assumption, apparently in or before the 14th century of some functions of government” and the creation of a local governing body consisting of the “whole of the householders periodically meeting in the parish church, “in vestry assembled””. If this is the case then it was at least a practical way of delivering poor relief locally, as the parson and Churchwardens were able, without any central direction, to make their own “autonomous arrangements for providing a local revenue out of which it not only maintained the parish church but also contrived to give alms and succour to poor travellers or sick folk..”

The principal reason for a donor to give alms was the heavenly reward that would eventually follow. Seemingly there was little concern for the effect that alms had on the recipient and “Still less consideration as to whom to give and do good to.” The indiscriminate distribution of alms was recognised as a problem and occasionally, “one of the Fathers of the Church would instruct the faithful that they should not encourage idleness and fraud by their gifts”. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries financial and social conditions were such that the basis of giving alms was questioned.

In modern times the economist Thomas Sowell posed the following question,“Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ what is your ‘fair share of what someone else has worked for?” In one form or another this is a question that has transcended the centuries and was felt more sharply in earlier times. When back breaking work resulted in little more than grinding poverty there was little tolerance for those who could, by begging, achieve the same level of grinding poverty but without the work.

It is little wonder then that beggars were the first targets of the laws and statutes back to 1349 forbade giving alms to those who could work. During the 16th century several statutes covering the relief of the poor were passed in parliament and attempted to answer three core questions. The first may be formulated thus; ‘If a part of my work is to be done, not to benefit me, but for the benefit of another then how can I be sure it is going to people who deserve it?’Following this comes ‘On what basis and in what manner should the money to help the poor be assessed and raised’; finally ‘how can we discourage people asking for alms who are not entitled to them?’

In answering these questions the Tudors formulated policies that were the basis of the famous Poor Law passed in the reign of Elizabeth I.

The ‘Old’ Poor Law 1601.

Two hundred and twenty years after it was passed John Martin was appointed Overseer of the Poor under the terms of the Poor Law of 1601. This act has had a bad press. This is unfair. By our standards the terms of the act appear harsh and punitive but in the context of their times they were an improvement on what had gone before. They attempted to correct abuses that arose in the giving of alms and to help those who could not help themselves.

Under the Tudors, in what was a time of considerable financial stringency, there was to emerge a new attitude, one that persists to this day, for if a man is to relinquish part of the income, for which he has had to work, he wishes to ensure that the recipient is in some way deserving of the fruits of his labour.

This is the reason that the Beggars Act of 1531 is important, for it was the first act to make a legal distinction between two classes of the poor. Even in the more brutal times of the past it was recognised that some people could not work due to circumstances beyond their control. The first class of person therefore were those we might call the ‘deserving’ poor; the ‘aged, poor, and impotent persons.’

The second group were what we might call the ‘indigent’ poor. These were people who were, ‘whole and mighty in body and able to labour’; they just didn’t want to. When the income from arduous toil in the fields was little more than could be obtained by begging, it could be difficult to decide which course to follow. Since there was little that society could offer by way of a carrot to entice the poor to work it appeared that application of the stick was the only way forward and with this in mind it was decided that those who were unwilling to work were to suffer punishment in houses of correction- the precursor to the workhouse. In Dorset the most famous of these was in Sherborne and was known as the Bridewell.

This simple division was spoilt by an important ‘elephant in the room’ for it was base on the assumption that work was always available and this was not the case. For this the Tudors had no answer, although in fairness to him, Henry VII did try to limit inclosure, a major cause of poverty.

On the positive side the Act removed the haphazard dependence on alms giving and placed responsibility on the secular authorities. The moral obligation was still Christian in origin but henceforth the poor were to be actively sought out by the Justices of the Peace who then granted them a licence to beg for alms. It might be wondered how effective begging was in helping the ‘aged, poor and impotent’ and the obvious deficiencies in the method may explain why further Beggars Acts were passed in 1536,1576 and 1598.

The 1536 act placed the responsibility for caring for the poor closer to home devolving it firmly and squarely in the parishes. The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor remained but the system was made more effective, for alms were to be provided actively, by the parish, the poor no longer had to beg. The churchwardens and two others, not at this time known by any particular name, were ordered to gather “such charitable and voluntary alms of the good Christian people…every Sunday, Holy Day and other Festival Day…in such good and discreet wise as the poor, impotent, lame, feeble, sick, and diseased people, being not able to work… may be provided, helpen, and relieved, so that in no wise they nor none of them be suffered to go openly in begging.”

In it’s way this was a clever act for by charging the Churchwardens with helping the poor it also helped distinguish the two classes for the “poor, impotent, lame, feeble, sick, and diseased people” now had no need to “go openly in begging.” It followed that those who did go begging were not the deserving poor but indigents.

In 1598 a further act created the post of Overseers of the Poor and is interesting for a seemingly minor but important change; for the title of this act is “An Act for the Relief of the Poor”. The focus is now on how to help the poor rather than how to punish undeserving beggars.

Finally in 1601 the most well known of all the Poor Laws was passed and so successful was it that no substantial revisions were required for the next two hundred and thirty three years. It was in effect a consolidation of all preceding legislation. Henceforth Churchwardens, together with a variable number [between two and four were allowed], of “substantial householders” were to be appointed and called “Overseers of the Poor”.

The Overseers were required by law to raise “competent Sums of Money” from the parish with which to support the “Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind” poor. For the first time the financial support of the poor was placed on a firm base, for those people who would not contribute to poor relief could be punished either by seizure and confiscation of some of their goods or if needs be by imprisonment. To ensure that the indigent poor did not obtain parish relief they were to be found work by the parish and if they refused to do so would be confined to a house of correction where they would work and if they still refused they would be imprisoned. We will look at the duties of the Overseers in the next section.

In 1662 another Poor Relief Act [also known as the Settlement Act] was passed which had the direct effect of restricting the movement of the poor. Poor relief was supposed to be provided by the parish in which the pauper had legal ‘settlement’; in 1662 this was the place where they had been born or had lived for three years continuously. The practice however was different to the theory and it was found that, “by reason of some defects in the law, poor people are not restrained from going from one parish to another, and therefore do endeavour to settle themselves in those parishes where there is the best stock, the largest commons or wastes to build cottages, and the most woods for them to burn and destroy..”[5]

This act allowed a newcomer to a parish to acquire settlement rights in the parish if they were resident for forty days. However if any complaint was received by the Justices of the Peace within those forty days the person could be removed to their place of legal settlement, which in those days, was the place they were born or had lived for three years continuously. If they managed to stay forty days they gained settlement and could then receive poor relief in the new parish, something that the rate payers in the new parish usually wished to prevent.

So often were attempts made to avoid these rules that in the next fifty years various modifications were made making it increasingly difficult to acquire settlement. By 1697 it became almost impossible for a poor person to move to another parish. The newcomer had first to present himself to the overseer immediately on entering the parish and his name had to be announced from the pulpit on the first Sunday after arrival. Only then would the forty days commence. Movement was not altogether impossible, for if a man had a contract for employment for over a year or took on one of the offices of the parish or was able to afford the rent on a property worth £10 a year or more they could be admitted to the parish. Even then however they had to have a crucial certificate issued by their home parish promising that the home parish would take them back if they ever became in need of poor relief. The Hammonds noted that “None of these concessions affected the normal labourer, and down to 1795 a labourer could only make his way to a new village if his own village would give him a certificate, or if the other village invited him. His liberty was entirely controlled by the parish officers.”[6] Since the man’s home parish was responsible for the costs of returning a man to the parish, certificates were very rare to the extent that many parishes refused to issue them at all.

The year 1795 brings us to discuss the Speenhamland system. The 1531 act envisaged just two types of poor; those that were incapable of work through age, illness or disability and those that did not want to work. The economic circumstances of virtually every era created a third group that were not immediately catered for – those who were in work but whose wages were insufficient to provide adequate nutrition for them or their families. This problem came to a head in the late 18th century.

So often a road paved by good intentions leads to hell and this particular road stretched back to 1563 when the Statute of Labour was passed. The preamble to this act noted that numerous earlier acts and laws had been passed to regulate the wages of the poor but that “the wages and allowances limited and rated in many of the said Statutes are in divers places too small and not answerable to this time, respecting the advancement of prices of all things belonging to the said servants and labourers”. In other words wages had not kept step with inflation and if the laws as they stood had been complied with the effect on the “poor labourer” would be “great grief and burden”.

The Statute of Labour therefore ordered Justices of the Peace to meet annually and allowed them to set, what was in effect, a minimum wage. Unfortunately it also stipulated a maximum wage, which if exceeded, would result in punishment of those who paid the wage as well as those who received it.

In the event the Statute was a failure for the landowners interpreted it only as a means of setting a maximum wage, even when James I strengthened the act, by setting fines for those who failed to pay a minimum wage, it was ignored. An attempt by Samuel Whitbread, MP for Bedford, to introduce a bill to enforce payment of a minimum wage failed in 1795, just at a time when there was widespread destitution and hunger amongst agricultural labourers. The authorities were not entirely unconcerned about the plight of the poor, doubtless mindful of the recent events in France, they made some efforts to avoid unrest. At Newbury, in Berkshire, MP Henry Dundas raised the problem at the local quarter sessions and in a speech urged the raising of wages to a subsistence level. In response to this on the 6th May 1795 the local Justices of the Peace met at the Pelican Inn in Speenhamland [near Newbury] specifically to consider a proposal to link the level of wages to the price of wheat, an option allowed to them under the 1563 act. No records of the meeting have survived so we have no idea of their thinking but the Justices chose not to exercise their right to set a minimum wage but chose instead to subsidise the wage the farmers paid, from the poor rates.

A sliding scale was introduced linked to the price of bread. The justices ordered that “when the gallon loaf of second flour, weighing 8 lbs. 11 oz. shall cost one shilling, then every poor and industrious man shall have for his own support 3s. weekly, either produced by his own or his family’s labour or an allowance from the poor rates, and for the support of his wife and every other of his family Is. 6d. When the gallon loaf shall cost Is. 4d., then every poor and industrious man shall have 4s. weekly for his own, and Is. 10d. for the support of every other of his family.”[7]

The resolution was in the to prove disastrous. It defined, it is true, a minimum nutritional standard for on these figures a man would have three, gallon loaves, a week, and his wife and each child one and a half. In today’s terms with a large white loaf weighing about 800 g this amounts to about fifteen loaves for a man and half as much for his wife and each child. Note however the bread was made from “second flour” containing a lot of bran. Sir F M Eden a commentator on the poor complained at their extravagance because “they buy the finest wheaten bread, and declare (what I much doubt), that brown bread disorders their bowels.[8] Of course he never had to spend a day working in the fields away from any convenience and knew nothing of the biological effects of bran.

Note too that the man would “have for his own support 3s. weekly, either produced by his own or his family’s labour or an allowance from the poor rates”. This occasioned two problems. Firstly it gave no incentive for farmers to pay any kind of living wage as whatever they paid would be topped up by the parish and secondly skilled labourers found themselves turned out of their jobs or had their wages reduced. The results in hindsight were inevitable and disastrous for the poor, indigent and deserving alike. In the words of the poor law commission report, “While the weekly wages of an agricultural labourer were still kept so very low that an industrious man could not subsist himself upon his earnings, this allowance of bread-money adapted itself to the circumstances of each particular family, without any reference at all to their moral qualities. The consequence was, that all distinction between the frugal and the prodigal, the industrious and the idle, the prudent and the thoughtless, was destroyed at once. All were paupers alike. The most worthless were sure of something, while the prudent, the industrious, and the sober, with all their care and pains, obtained only something”. [9]

Ultimately the Speenhamland system was unsustainable, rates bills rocketed and by the 1830’s appeared to be out of control. This above all was the driving force for reform. As is well known the Commission established to review the old poor law proposed the abolition of outdoor relief ; in future all relief was to be within the workhouse system and the responsibility for providing poor relief passed from the parishes to groups of parishes known collectively as Unions. This introduced a form of financial risk management and also allowed for the construction of workhouses.

The act passed to implement the changes, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, assumed that the poor rate would continue to be raised in the way it had been previously but it was soon found that there was great diversity in the method of assessment and as a consequence “An Act to regulate Parochial Assessments” was passed in 1836 to standardise the process.

Martin worked as an Overseer of the Poor under the old poor law and worked as a valuer under the new. In 1855 he was elected to the Beaminster Union as Evershot’s Guardian of the Poor. There are no accounts anywhere of the role he played at this time.

The diaries contain only one reference to his role as an Overseer but fortunately the Poor law records for Dorset have been made available by Ancestry and my account of his year as Overseer [1821] is taken from them, a complete transcription of his year is found in the next section. His work in assessing the rateable value of properties under the Parochial Assessment act of 1836 does appear in the diaries, albeit obliquely.

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1 Deuteronomy 15:11

2 This survey is necessarily restricted to Western European societies.

3 English Poor Law History Part 1 The Old Poor Law S & B Webb 1922

4 ibid

5 13 14 Charles II c 12

6 This did not mean that the laws were inoperative after 1795 merely that they did not change. It is not clear when the Settlement Acts were abolished. The PLAA modified the laws on settlement but did not abolish them. A question was asked in the House of Commons in 1855 about when they would be repealed, indicating they were still active in some areas. They probably disappeared in 1929 when the Poor Law as in large part abolished.

7  The Village Labourer ibid

8 The State of the Poor F M Eden 1797

9 Poor Law Commissioners report 1834