OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

Pages: 1 <2>

The farmers were not so discontented with this allowance system as might be supposed, because a great part of the burden was cast upon other shoulders. The tax was aid indiscriminately upon all fixed property; so that the occupiers of villas, shopkeepers, merchants, and others who did not employ labourers, had to pay a portion of the wages for those that did. The farmers were in this way led to encourage a system which fraudulently imposed a heavy burden upon others, and which, by degrading the labourers, and multiplying their numbers beyond the real demand for them, must, if allowed to run its full course, have ultimately overspread the whole country with the most abject poverty and wretchedness.

There was another interest created which tended to increase the evil. In the counties of Suffolk, Sussex, Kent, and generally through all the south of England, relief was given in the shape of house accommodation, or free dwellings for the poor. The parish officers were in the habit of paying the rent of the cottages; the rent was therefore high and sure, and consequently persons who had small pieces of ground were induced to cover them with those buildings. On this subject Mr. Hodges, the gentleman already referred to, remarks: - " I cannot forbear urging again that any measure having for its object the relief of the parishes from their over population, must of necessity become perfectly useless, unless the act of parliament contains some regulations with respect to the erecting and maintaining of cottages. I am quite satisfied that the erecting of cottages has been a most serious evil throughout the country. The getting of the cottage tempts young people of seventeen and eighteen years of age, and even younger, to marry. It is notorious that almost numberless cottages have been built by persons speculating on the parish rates for their rents."

The evils of this system had reached their height in the years 1831-2. That was a time when the public mind was bent upon reforms of all sorts, without waiting for the admission from the tories that the grievances of which the nation complained were " proved abuses." The reformers were determined no longer to tolerate the state of things, in which the discontent of the labouring classes was proportioned to the money disbursed in poor rates, or in voluntary charities; in which the young were trained in idleness, ignorance, and vice - the able-bodied maintained in sluggish and sensual indolence - the aged and more respectable exposed to all the misery incident to dwelling in such a society as that of a large workhouse, without discipline or classification, the whole body of inmates subsisting on food far exceeding, both in kind and in amount, not merely the diet of the independent labourer, but that of the majority of the persons who contributed to their support; in which a farmer paid ten shillings a-year in poor rate, and was in addition compelled to employ supernumerary labourers, not required on his farm, at a cost of from £100 to £250 a-year; in which the labourer had no need to bestir himself to seek work or to please his master, or to put a restraint upon his temper, having all a slave's security for subsistence, without the slave's liability to punishment; in which the parish paid parents for nursing their little children, and children for supporting their aged parents, thereby destroying in both parties all feelings of natural affection, and all sense of Christian duty. The government, therefore, resolved to apply a remedy. The following is a brief outline of the main features of the measure they proposed, and which was adopted by the legislature. They found the greatest evils of the old system were connected with the relief of the able-bodied; and in connection with that lay the chief difficulty of administering relief. It was, above all things, an essential condition that the situation of the pauper should not be made - really or apparently - so desirable as that of independent labourers of the lowest class; if it were, the majority of that class would have the strongest inducements to quit it, and get into the more eligible class of paupers. It was necessary, therefore, that an appeal to the parish should be a last resource - that it should be regarded as the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster. This principle was embodied in the Poor Law Amendment Act; and the effects which quickly folio wed on its operation were most marked and salutary. Able-bodied paupers were extensively converted into independent labourers, for whose employment a large fund was created by the reduction of parochial expenditure; next followed a rise in wages; then a diminution, not only of pauper marriages, but of early and imprudent marriages of all sorts; and lastly, there was a diminution of crime, with contentment among the labourers, increasing with their industry: relief of a child was made relief to the parent, and relief of a wife relief to the husband.

The commissioners recommended the appointment of a central board to control the administration of the poor laws, with such, assistant commissioners as might be found requisite, the commissioners being empowered and directed to frame and enforce regulations for the government of workhouses, and as to the nature and amount of the relief to be given and the labour to be exacted; the regulations to be uniform throughout the country. The necessity of a living, central, permanent authority had been rendered obvious by the disastrous working of the old system, arising partly from the absence of such control - an authority accumulating experience in itself, independent of local control, uninterested in favour of local abuse, and responsible to the government. A board of three commissioners was therefore appointed under the act, themselves appointing assistant commissioners, capable of receiving the powers of the commission by delegation. The anomalous state of things with regard to districts was removed by the formation of unions.

In 1831 there were in England and Wales 56 parishes containing less than 10 persons; 14 parishes containing but from 10 to 20 persons, the largest of these, on the average, containing 5 adult males; and there were 533 parishes, containing from 20 to 50 persons, the largest of which would give 12 adult males per parish. It was absurd to expect that such parishes could supply proper machinery for the levying and collecting of rates, or for the distribution of relief. It was found that a large number of overseers could only certify their accounts by signing with a mark, attested by the justice's clerk. The size of the parishes influenced materially the amount of the poor-rate - the smallest giving the greatest cost per head. For example, the hundred absolutely largest parishes, containing a population of 3,196,064, gave 6s. 7d. per head; the hundred intermediate parishes, containing a population of 19,841, gave 15s. per head; while the hundred least parishes from which poor-rate returns were made, with a population of 1,708, £1 12s. a head. The moral effects were still more remarkable. In the large parishes, 1 in 13 was relieved; in the intermediate, 1 in 12£; and in the smallest, 1 in 4, or 25 per cent, of the population, were paupers. Hence the necessity of a union of parishes with a common workhouse and a common machinery, and with paid permanent officers for the administration of relief.

The most important change in the settlement law was the repeal of the settlement by hiring and service, which prevented the free circulation of -labour, interfered with the liberty of the subject, and fixed an intolerable burden upon the parish. This law was repealed by the 64th and 65th sections of the act; the settlement by occupation of a tenement, without payment of rates, by the 66th; while other sections effected various improvements in the law of removal. The old law made it more prudent for a woman to have a number of children without a husband than with a husband, as she could throw the burden of their support upon the parish, or through the parish force the putative father to support them; and if he could not give security to pay, he was liable to imprisonment. By this means marriages were often forced - a power of which the women availed themselves to a large extent. These evils were remedied in the new act by rendering the unmarried mother liable for the maintenance of her children, by rendering it unlawful to pay to her any sums which the putative father might be compelled to contribute for the reimbursement of the parish, and by rendering it necessary that evidence additional to that of the mother should be required to corroborate her charge against the person accused of being the father.

Each union of parishes, or each parish, if large and populous enough, was placed under the management of a board of guardians, elected annually by the ratepayers; but where, under previous acts, an organisation existed similar to that of unions or boards of guardians, under the Poor Law Amendment Act these have been retained« The following table exhibits the local divisions of England and Wales made under that Act.

Of these unions and parishes 111 were declared and organised in the first year, 252 in the second, 205 in the third, and 17 in the fourth. The unions have since become districts for the administration of the act for the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. Each union is administered by a board of guardians, representing the several parishes or townlands, and meeting once a week or once a fortnight for the transaction of business. Within the four years succeeding 1834 as many as 328 unions had workhouses completed and in operation, and 141 had workhouses building or in course of alteration. The work went on slowly till the whole country was supplied with workhouse accommodation. The amount expended in providing new workhouses up to 1858 was £4,168,759, and in altering and enlarging old workhouses, £792,772; the total amount thus expended was upwards of five millions sterling. Each union is provided with the following officers: a clerk, an auditor, a chaplain, medical officer, relieving officers, master and matron of the workhouse, schoolmaster and schoolmistress. These arrangements involved a large expenditure, but it was indispensable, in order to secure an effective administration, and also economical, in view of the waste and demoralisation of the old system. The most demoralising and dangerous of all abuses, the creation and maintenance of a great mass of able-bodied pauperism, received at once a check, which has remained in full force, and is still reducing the amount of old pauperism of this kind, and preventing a new growth, which would otherwise have surely succeeded to the old. The system which demoralised employers as well as labourers, the payment of wages in whole or in part by the relief of people while in employment, was immediately stopped by the introduction of the new law. On the other hand, the converse abuse, which, in proportion as able-bodied pauperism was encouraged in any parish, caused the really impotent and destitute to be neglected, is in nearly as great a degree corrected. The improved conduct of the labourers was in the first years very striking, and the improved morality of the women, by the alteration of the bastardy law, was in the same period equally remarkable. The testimony and instances are fully displayed in the earlier reports of the commissioners, especially in their second report, and in the reports of two committees of the house of commons, in the years 1837 and 1838. Costs of litigation, and the expenditure in the removal of paupers, were gradually reduced. In 1833-4, these were £258,604; in 1834-5, £202,527; in 1835-6, £172,482; in 1836-7, £126,951; in 1837-8, £93,982; in the years 1856-7, it was returned as £59,163 14s.

The act of 1834 was not passed without encountering a formidable opposition. The carrying of the act into execution necessarily involved a most extensive interference with old habit§ both in the poor and rich, with private interests most widely diffused in the perpetuation of old abuses. It was never established that any one case of real hardship was encountered through the operation of the law; but, necessarily, many partial mistakes were made, and instances were not unfrequent of injudicious zeal. Cases, however, were innumerable in which loud complaints were made, and those were used successfully to influence the public mind, which had never been generally well informed on the subject. About the time when the act had got into full operation, and when it might have been expected that its full effects in the extirpation of dishonest pauperism and vagrancy, and in confining relief to its proper purposes would soon be realised, the opposition was successful in checking, and almost entirely arresting, the further progress of the measure. Still, the main provisions of the act had been brought into action: unions were formed; boards of guardians, and paid officers and auditors appointed; and all had been abundantly instructed, by the great mass of information diffused, in the dangers to be avoided and the principles to be kept in view. The result has been thus far favourable, that what was already secured in good administration has been retained, the dangers of increasing pauperism kept well at bay, and the diminution by natural causes in the numbers of paupers has not been allowed to be quite filled up by a new growth. On the whole, it may be safely concluded that pauperism is on the decrease; while, on occasions of general distress, the relief is adequately increased and adapted to circumstances, without the danger of the occasional relaxation becoming the permanent rule; and that a very intelligent body of administrators has been created, of which the community has found the benefit, in the introduction of many measures of general utility.

<<< Previous page <<<
Pages: 1 <2>

Pictures for Chapter XXIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About