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Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7


The English Poor Laws - A Social Contrast - The Poor Law Commission of Inquiry - Demoralisation of the Working Classes - The Elizabethan Poor Law - Limitations of the Right to Relief - Workhouses - The Law of Settlement - Duties of an Overseer under the Old System - Efforts to keep down the Population - War against Cottages - "Nests of Beggar's Brats" - Depopulation of the Country - The Allowance System - Its Disorganising Effects - Increase of Population and of Cottages - Able-bodied Paupers - The Poor Law Amendment Act - Board of Commissioners - Formation of Unions - Boards of Guardians - Salutary Effects of the New Act.
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If any one doubts the effect of economic laws and political enactments upon the social and moral condition of a people, he has only to study the history of the English poor laws, in which he will find them powerfully and palpably exhibited. In the winter of 1831-2, a very startling state of things was presented. In a period of great general prosperity, that portion of England in which the poor laws had their most extensive operation, and in which by much the largest expenditure of poor-rates had been made, was the scene of daily riot and nightly incendiarism. There were ninety-three parishes in four counties, of which the population was 113,147, and the poor-law expenditure 81,978, or fourteen shillings and fivepence per head; and there were eighty parishes in three other counties, the population of which was 105,728, and the poor- law expenditure 30,820, or five shillings and ninepence a head. In the counties in which the poor-law expenditure was large, the industry and skill of the labourers were passing away, the connection between the master and servant had become precarious, the unmarried were defrauded of their fair earnings, and riots and incendiarism prevailed. In the counties where the expenditure was comparatively small, there was scarcely any instance of disorder; mutual attachment existed between the workman and his employer; the intelligence, skill, and good conduct of the labourers were unimpaired, or increased. This striking social contrast was only a specimen of what prevailed throughout large districts, and generally throughout the south and north of England, and it proved that either through the inherent vice of the system, or gross maladministration in the southern counties, the poor law had a most demoralising effect upon the working classes, while it was rapidly eating up the capital upon which the employment of labour depended. This fact was placed beyond question by a commission of inquiry, which was composed of individuals distinguished by their interest in the subject, and their intimate knowledge of its principles and details. Its labours were continued incessantly for two years. Witnesses most competent to give information were summoned from different parts of the country. The commissioners had before them documentary evidence of every kind calculated to throw light on the subject. They personally visited localities, and examined the actual operation of the system on the spot; and when they could not go themselves, they called to their aid assistant commissioners, some of whom extended their inquiries into Scotland, Guernsey, France, and Flanders; while they also collected a vast mass of interesting evidence from our ambassadors and diplomatic agents in different countries of Europe and America. It was upon the report of this commission of inquiry that the Act was founded for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales (4 and 5 William IV., cap. 76). A more solid foundation for a legislative enactment could scarcely be found. The importance of the subject fully warranted all the expense and labour by which it was obtained.

One of the most astounding facts established by the inquiry was, the wide-spread demoralisation which had developed itself in certain districts. Home had lost its sanctity. The ties that bind parents and children were loosened, and natural affection gave place to intense selfishness, which often manifested itself in the most brutal manner. Workmen grew lazy and dishonest. Young women lost the virtue, which is not only the point of honour with their sex, but the chief support of all other virtues. Not only women of the working classes, but, in some cases, even substantial farmers' daughters, and sometimes those who were themselves the actual owners of property, had their illegitimate children as charges on the parish, regularly deducting the cost of their maintenance from their poor- rate, neither they nor their relatives feeling that to do so was any disgrace. The system must have been fearfully vicious that produced such depravation of moral feeling, and such a shocking want of self-respect. The history of our poor-law system, therefore, is full of interest and instruction, and a rapid review of it will fitly precede an account of the Amendment Act, which has already done away with most of its evils, and restored the poorer classes of society to the social and moral status from which they had been degraded by pernicious legislation.

The statutory provision for all who cannot support themselves had now existed for upwards of 250 years. There was no considerable increase of population in England from the period when the poor laws were first established up to the middle of the last century. Its people have been always distinguished for their industry, thrift, and forethought. No other nation has furnished such unquestionable proofs of the prevalence of a provident and independent spirit. From the year 1601, when the Act 43 Elizabeth, the foundation of the old code of poor laws, was put in force, to the commencement of the late war, there had been scarcely any increase of pauperism. In 1815, there were 925,439 individuals in England and Wales, being about one-eleventh of the then existing population, members of friendly societies, formed for the express purpose of affording protection to the members in sickness and old age, and enabling them to subsist without resorting to the parish fund. It may be asked, How was this state of things compatible with the right which the law gave to the destitute for support at the expense of the parish? The answer is, that the exercise of that right was subjected to the most powerful checks, and restricted in every possible way. In the first place, the poor could not obtain relief at the public expense, could not abandon the struggle for self-support, and cast themselves as a burden upon their neighbours without making sacrifices. Had they been relieved in their own homes, they could enjoy all their former comforts and pleasant associations as well in idleness as they did when they worked hard; and thus the great motive for exertion would be withdrawn, and others would follow the bad example, and learn to eat the bread that others earned, without shame or remorse. The demoralising effect of this mode of relief was pointed out by Sir Matthew Hale, in the middle of the seventeenth century, and to obviate the evil workhouses were erected in some of the large towns. In 1723, an act was passed to make them general, authorising the churchwardens and overseers, with the consent of the parishioners, to establish a workhouse in each parish; and it was at the same time enacted that the overseers should be entitled to refuse relief to all who did not choose to accept it in the workhouse, and to submit to all its regulations. In consequence of this act, workhouses were erected in many parishes, and they had an immediate and striking effect in reducing the number of paupers. Many who had previously received pensions from the parish, preferred depending on their own exertions rather than take up their abode in the Workhouse. According to official accounts, the total sum raised by assessment under the name of poor's rate in England and Wales, during the three years ending with 1750, amounted at an average to 730,135 a year, of which 689,971 was expended on the poor, being a mere trifle more than the sum expended on them at the Revolution, and about 300,000 less than the sum supposed to have been expended at the commencement of the century. Then, as now, the lazy, profligate, and disorderly part of the community had the greatest possible aversion to the discipline, regularity, early rising, cleanliness, and labour of a well managed workhouse; while the honest and respectable portion of the working classes, who prized the comforts of home, would struggle on to the last, rather than relinquish them in order to seek food in the receptacle of poverty and vice. Every possible precaution should be adopted to preserve the health and improve the morals of paupers; but the able-bodied tenant of a workhouse should be made to feel that his situation is decidedly less comfortable than that of the industrious labourer who supports himself; and there should be the strongest inducements for him to quit the house, and regain his former position as soon as possible.

The workhouse test, then, operated powerfully in keeping down pauperism; but another cause came into operation still more influential, namely, the law of settlement. By the act 13 and 14 Chas. II., a legal settlement in a parish was declared to be gained by birth, or by inhabitancy, apprenticeship, or service for forty days; but within that period, any two justices were authorised, upon complaint being made to them by the churchwardens or overseers, if they thought a new entrant likely to become chargeable, to remove him, unless he either occupied a tenement of the annual value of ten pounds, or gave sufficient security that he would indemnify the parish for whatever loss it might incur on his account. And by a subsequent act, 3 William III., every new comer was obliged to give notice to the churchwarden of his arrival. This notice should be read in church after divine service, and then commenced the forty days during which objection might be made to his settlement. In case of objection, if he remained it was by sufferance, and he could be removed the moment, he married, or was likely to become chargeable. A settlement might also be obtained by being hired for a year when unmarried or childless, and remaining the whole of that time in the service of one master; or being bound an apprentice to a person who had obtained a settlement. Dr. Burn has given the following graphic sketch of the duties of an overseer under these laws: - " The office of an overseer of the poor seems to be understood to be this: to keep an extraordinary watch to prevent persons coming to inhabit without certificates, and to fly to the justices to remove them; and if a man brings a certificate, then to caution the inhabitants not to let him a farm of ten pounds a-year, and to take care to keep him out of all parish offices; to warn them, if they will hire servants, to hire them by the month, the week, or the day, rather than by any way that can give them a settlement; or if they do hire them for a year, then to endeavour to pick a quarrel with them before the year's end, and so to get rid of them. To maintain their poor as cheaply as they possibly can, and not to lay out twopence in prospect of any future good, but only to serve the present necessity. To bargain with some sturdy person to take them by the lump, who yet is not intended to take them, but to hang over them in terror em, if they shall complain to the justices for want of maintenance. To send them out into the country a begging. To bind out poor children apprentices, no matter to whom, or to what trade; but to take special care that the master live in another parish. To move heaven and earth if any dispute happen about a settlement j and, in that particular, to invert the general rule, and stick at no expense. To pull down cottages; to drive out as many inhabitants and admit as few as they possibly can; that is, to depopulate the parish in order to lessen the poor's rate. To be generous, indeed, sometimes, in giving a portion with the mother of a bastard child to the reputed father, on condition that he will marry her, or with a poor widow, always provided that the husband be settled elsewhere; or if a poor man with a large family happen to be industrious, they will charitably assist him in taking a farm in some neighbouring parish, and give him ten pounds to pay his first year's rent with, that they may thus for ever get rid of him and his progeny."

The effect of this system was actually to depopulate many parishes. The author of a valuable pamphlet on the subject, Mr. Alcock, stated, that the gentlemen were led by this system to adopt all sorts of expedients to hinder the poor from marrying, to discharge servants in their last quarter, to evict small tenants, and pull down cottages; so that several parishes were in a manner depopulated, while England complained of a want of useful hands for agriculture, manufactories, for the land and sea service. " When the minister marries a couple," he said, " he rightly prays that they may be fruitful in the procreation of children; but most of the parishioners pray for the very contrary, and perhaps complain of him for marrying persons that, should they have a family of children, might likewise become chargeable." Arthur Young also described the operation of the law in his time, in clearing off the people, and causing universally u an open war against cottages." Gentlemen bought them up whenever they had an opportunity, and immediately levelled them with the ground, lest they should become "nests of beggar's brats." The removal of a cottage often drove the industrious labourer from a parish where he could earn fifteen shillings a week, to one where he could earn but ten. As many as thirty or forty families were sent off by removals in one day. Thus, as among the Scotch labourers of the present day, marriage was discouraged; the peasantry were cleared off the land, and increasing immorality was the necessary consequence.

But we come now to a new phase in the poor-law system, rather a complete revolution, by which the flood-gates of pauperism were opened, and all those barriers that had restrained the increase of population were swept away. The old system had been somewhat relaxed in 1782 by Mr. Gilbert's act, which, by incorporating parishes into unions, prevented grasping landlords and tenants from feeling that intense interest in the extinction of population and pauperism which they did when the sphere was limited to a single parish. But in the year 1795 the price of corn rose from 54s. to 74s., the wages continuing stationary, the distress of the poor was very great, and many of the able-bodied were obliged to become claimants for parish relief. But instead of meeting this emergency by temporary expedients and extra grants suited to the occasion, the magistrates of Berks, and some other southern counties, issued tables, showing the wages which they affirmed every labouring man ought to receive, not according to the value of his labour to his employer, but according to the variations in the number of his family and the price of bread; and they accompanied these tables with an order, directing the parish officers to make up the deficit to the labourer, in the event of the wages paid him by his employer falling short of the tabular allowance. This was the small beginning of a gigantic evil. The practice originating in a passing emergency grew into a custom, and ultimately assumed the force of an established right, which prevailed almost universally, and was productive of an amount of evil beyond anything that could have been conceived possible. The allowance scales issued from time to time were framed on the principle that every labourer should have a gallon loaf of standard wheaten bread weekly for every member of his family, and one over. The effect of this was, that a man with six children, who got 9s. a-week wages, required nine gallon loaves, or 13s. 6d. a-week, so that he had a pension of 4s. 6d. over his wages. Another man with a wife and five children, so idle and disorderly that no one would employ him, was entitled to eight gallon loaves for their maintenance, so that he had 12s. a week to support him. The increase of allowance according to the number of children acted as a direct bounty upon marriage. The report of the committee of the house of commons on labourers' wages, printed 1824, describes the effect of this allowance system in paralysing the industry of the poor. " It is obvious," remarked the committee, " that a disinclination to work must be the consequence of so vicious a system. He whose subsistence is secure without work, and who cannot obtain more than a mere sufficiency by the hardest work, will naturally be an idle and careless labourer. Frequently the work done by four or five such labourers does not amount to what might easily be performed by a single labourer at task work. A surplus population is encouraged: men who receive but a small pittance know that they have only to marry and that pittance will be increased proportionally to the number of their children. When complaining of their allowance, they frequently say, ' We will marry, and then you must maintain us.' This system secures subsistence to all; to the idle as well as the industrious; to the profligate as well as the sober; and as far as human interests are concerned, all inducements to obtain a good character are taken away. The effects have corresponded with the cause - able-bodied men are found slovenly at their work, and dissolute in their hours of relaxation - a father is negligent of his children, the children do not think it necessary to contribute to the support of their parents - the employers and employed are engaged in personal quarrels - and the pauper always relieved is always discontented. Crime advances with increasing boldness; and the parts of the country where this system prevails are, in spite of our gaols and our laws, filled with poachers and thieves." Mr. Hodges, chairman of the West Kent quarter sessions, in his evidence before the emigration committee, said, " Formerly, working people usually stayed in service till they were twenty-five, thirty, and thirty-five years of age before they married; whereas they now married frequently under age. Formerly, these persons had saved 40 and 50 before they married, and they were never burdensome to the parish; now, they have not saved a shilling before their marriage, and become immediately burdensome."

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Pictures for Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7

Sir Robert Peel
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