Discuss The Factors Which Worked For And Against Changes In The Way Society Dealt With The Poor After 1700

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In the 1700’s the economic system that was in place in Britain was failing badly, this was due to a hefty rise in population. Agriculture was the main source of income in the country at this time, and a parish would have only been responsible for providing enough food for villagers and nearby town dwellers.
Parishes at this time had a communal approach to farming, and all families would work in conjunction with each other, sharing machinery, and all working at the same rate, the downside to this type of farming was that if one plant of crops got diseased, it could spread throughout. The land was divided into strips, but as a family strips may be very well spread out, which meant it was impossible to farm them effectively. What this did create though was land called common land, basically wasted land which. the poorest people would be allowed to set up homes on and grow enough produce to keep themselves fed.
As the population continued to rise it became harder and harder for parishes to produce enough food for everyone, so they changed the system of farming with what became known as the enclosed field system being brought in.
This system meant that a family could buy or rent strips of land grouped together, enabling the family to form a smallholding. This eliminated land being wasted as before in the old system. Unfortunately, it also meant for the poor that there was no more common land available to them. Which would actually mean that if they had built themselves a small house or hut on this land, then they would not only not be able to provide themselves with food anymore, but would also be homeless increasing their need for help from society.
It also meant that the prosperous were able to buy new machinery to cultivate their holdings, so did not need as many people for labour, which forced more of the poor people away from the countryside, into the nearby towns.
Population at this time was seriously increasing in 1696 Gregory King estimated that out of a population of five and a half million people two point eight million were unable to sustain life, and therefore were reliant upon handouts from the poor relief.
Prior to 1834, the relief of poverty was left in the hands of individual parishes but this system was deemed to be badly organized and it was thought that it led to idleness among the poor. So changes were needed.
The Tudor poor law Act of 1601 determined that the “deserving or impotent” – the handicapped, elderly, sick or orphaned should be given relief, to be paid out of the poor rates. The administration of this was to be organised at parish level and unpaid overseers of the poor were to be appointed by the local Justices of the Peace. This was followed by the Act of Settlement in 1662 which made the parish responsible for only those paupers “settled” there, and outsiders were to be sent back to their own parish to receive relief there. Settlement would be granted if the person owned, or rented a property and earned ten pounds or more a year, through marriage or birth, or could secure employment for a year. The problems of this act were that it hindered free movement, people wanted to stay close to their parish in case they fell on bad times, and needed the poor relief. Many workers were given short contracts by their employers.It was usual to be given a contract that was one day short of a year, restricting the right to settle. This was followed by Gilberts Act 1782. This legislation made provision for groups of parishes to form unions so that they could share the cost of poor relief through ‘poor houses’ which were established for looking after only the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers explicitly were excluded from these poor-houses. Instead, either they were to be provided with outdoor relief or employment near their own homes.
Land-owners, farmers and other employers were to receive allowances from the parish rates so they could bring wages up to subsistence levels.
Then in 1795 the Speenhamland system was introduced.
The Speenhamland System was a method of giving relief to the poor, based on the price of bread and the number of children a man had. It further complicated the 1601 Poor Law because it allowed the able-bodied – those who were able to work – to draw on the poor rates. It was set up in the Berkshire village of Speen by local magistrates, the magistrates decided to bring in an allowance scale. The idea was that a labourer would have his income supplemented to subsistence level by the parish, a type of ‘top-up’ on very low wages.
One of the effects of the Speenhamland System was that ratepayers often found themselves subsidising the owners of large estates who paid poor wages. It was not unknown for landowners to demolish empty houses in order to reduce the population on their lands and also to prevent the return of those who had left. At the same time, they would employ labourers from neighbouring parishes, these people could be laid off without warning but would not increase the rates in the parish where they worked. Farmers often were the same men who paid low wages and laid off workers; consequently, subsidising wages through poor relief drove wages down even further. What was intended as a safety net ended up causing many more problems.
The poor law system certainly prevented many families from starving in times of poor harvests, and outdoor relief was well suited to the industrial regions of the north, where unemployment fluctuated according to the trade cycle, and an economic depression might throw a large number of people out of work for a short time. However, the system was very expensive, especially in times of economic depression when ratepayers had least money. A Royal Commission, set up in 1832 to investigate the poor law, also reported that it encouraged labourers to be lazy, since their wages were made up to a fixed level however hard they worked; that it encouraged them to have more children than they could afford, since the system gave them an amount per child; and that it allowed farmers to pay low wages, which they knew would be made up from the parish rates.
Thomas Malthus was by far the most influential critic of the Poor Law. Malthus stated that, by guaranteeing parish assistance to able-bodied labourers, the Poor Laws “diminish both the power and the will to save among the common people, and thus… weaken one of the strongest incentives to sobriety and industry, and consequently to happiness.” The payment of child allowances offered “a direct, constant, and systematical encouragement to marriage by removing from each individual that heavy responsibility, which he would incur by the laws of nature, for bringing beings into the world which he could not support.” In the long run, the Poor Laws “create the poor which they maintain.” Malthus proposed a plan to gradually abolish the Poor Law, so that no child born after a certain date would ever be able to obtain parish relief. ( Malthus 1826)
David Ricardo was also extremely critical of the system of outdoor relief he stated “The clear and direct tendency of the poor laws, is not, as the legislature benevolently intended, to amend the condition of the poor, but to deteriorate the condition of both poor and rich. If by law every human being wanting support could be sure to obtain it, and obtain it in such a degree as to make life tolerably comfortable, theory would lead us to expect that all other taxes together would be light compared with the single one of poor rates.” (Ricardo 1817)
Thomas Malthus, said that the system tended to increase the population because it encouraged labourers to marry earlier than they might have done, it was also believed that it encouraged couples to have more children so the family could claim on the poor rates. Thomas Malthus believed that the population would control itself by means of certain checks. He thought that war, disease, and starvation should be natural causes and that the people should die as a result of this. He believed in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and “survival of the fittest”. Briefly, he thought that if people were ill then they should be left to die. This was his way of solving the problem of the growing population and overcrowding. Malthus too had a very low opinion of the working class, and this was why he wanted to put an end to certain systems of relief, so that only the ‘best’ people would survive.
Then in 1834 The New Poor Law was introduced, this had a big impact on the poor as it stated that No outdoor relief was to be given to the able-bodied poor. All Speenhamlad systems were to be abolished. The only relief to be given, was to be given in the workhouses, so that those able to work would be obliged to do so, or go into the workhouse. No distinctions were to be made between the deserving and undeserving poor. Conditions in the workhouses were to be made worse than those endured by the lowliest independent labourer. It was hoped that by doing this a person would choose to go to work wherever possible as the workhouse was to be seen as the last option. In essence the Act wished to make being a pauper the lowest and most degrading condition possible. The workhouses were to be segregated, therefore families were separated upon entry. The new poor law was to be administrated centrally rather than by the local parish.

Picking Oakum in the Workhouse

Oakum is loose fibres obtained by unpicking old ropes which were then sold to the navy or other ship-builders – it was mixed with [pine] tar and used for caulking (sealing the lining) of wooden ships. Picking oakum was done without tools of any sort and was very hard on the fingers.

The New Poor Law was based on utilitarian principles and was, in the spirit of the times. The idea behind the Law was that by doing away with outdoor relief and substituting the ‘workhouse test’, people would be much less willing to throw themselves on the mercy of the parish because to do so would involve ‘less eligible’ conditions than normal work. The principles of the Poor Law were never fully enforced. Old people in many areas did continue to receive relief outside the workhouse. Workhouses could be appalling: in 1845, there was a scandal at Andover Workhouse, where straving paupers were found to be chewing the gristle of bones they were supposed to be crushing. However, although it was not for want of trying, there was no way that the conditions of many people inside the workhouses – sometimes called ‘pauper palaces’ – could be much worse than conditions outside. If paupers were fed a basic diet, they were often in a better position than others outside.
The workhouses came increasingly to rest on a fearsome reputation – the “stigma” of pauperism – rather than bad conditions. When the middle classes began to use the Poor Law hospitals, it was directed that they should be brought into the hospital through the workhouse yard, so that they would know where they were.
Because conditions in the workhouses were so bad, It was found that there was again an increase in the number of people requiring help from the poor rate. Labourers within the workhouses would not be able to work due to poor health, and if the said labourer died, than his widow and her children would then need poor relief.
Edwin Chadwick was one of the great influences regarding public health and the effect that it had on the poor rate. In 1842 his personal report ‘A report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring poor of Great Britain’ was published by the government.
The report showed that disease was preventable if the towns were improved. That bad living conditions encouraged immorality, Reforms must be legislated, ie the attitudes of the government at the time tended to be Laissez Faire, which basically meant that the government would be very reluctant to make changes, due to the costs that it would incur, they preferred to leave things alone, with the attitude of ‘If it is not broken, then do not fix it’.
Edwin Chadwick showed that it was necessary to incur these costs short term in order to improve standards of living, which in the future would save money been drawn from the poor rate. He recommended that there should be a central body that would be responsible for ensuring that the following conditions were adhered to.
Removal of all refuse. To ensure a good supply of water and sewers to all homes. To create parks and open spaces, and medical officers were to be appointed.
In short, he was a supporter of the poor. He did not see them as a waste of resources as did Thomas Malthus, but believed that if you gave a person basic rights and dignity, then that person would achieve social standing and therefore the need for poor rates would eventually decrease.

The first Factory Act ever passed by the British Parliament was called “The Factory Health and Morals Act, 1802” and applied principally, though not exclusively, to apprentices in cotton and woollen mills. The preamble runs as follows:
“Whereas it hath of late become a practice in cotton and woollen mills, and in cotton and woollen factories, to employ a great number of male and female apprentices, and other persons, in the same building, in consequence of which certain regulations are now necessary to preserve the health and morals of such apprentices.”

The regulations, briefly stated, were the following:

(1) The master or mistress of the factory must observe the law.

(2) All rooms in a factory are to be lime-washed twice a year and duly ventilated.

(3) Every apprentice is to be supplied with two complete suits of clothing with suitable linen, stockings, hats and shoes.

(4) The hours of work of apprentices are not to exceed twelve a day, nor commence before six in the morning, nor conclude before nine at night.

(5) They are to be instructed every working day during the first four years of apprenticeship in reading, writing and arithmetic.

(6) Male and female apprentices are to be provided with separate sleeping apartments, and not more than two to sleep in one bed.

(7) On Sunday they are to be instructed in the principles of the Christian religion.

(Malthus 1826) Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1826, Book IV, Chapter 8.
(Ricardo 1817) David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, third edition, 1817, Chapter 5, paragraphs 35, 40.

Further reading

(Chadwick 1842) Extract from the Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the
Labouring Population of Great Britain, London, 1842, pp. 369-372.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Lpoor1834.htm http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poorlawov.html

“Picking Oakum in the Workhouse”
http://www2.rgu.ac.uk/publicpolicy/introduction/historyf.htm accessed 13/12/2007

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