Poor Peasants and Laws

It was before The Golden Age in the rule of the young Elizabeth’s younger brother Edward VI in 1552 that the idea for all that would follow in aid of the poor was set in place. It was under the Boy King’s rule that it became easier for whomever would be to follow in his steps to see who lied within the category of being poor, as Parish registers of them arose marking an official record including that of their birth, marriage and death certificates. .

.. A five years after Elizabeth came to power, in 1558, she had set about to distinguish her brother’s law to a much clearer refined concept. She did this by sliding every poor peasant citizen into four separate though closely related classifications. Watched over by her new Justices’ of the Peace (JP’s); people who were granted with the authority to raise the funds imperative for the relief of their poor.

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These classifications were as follows: “The Impotent Poor” (the children, elderly, disabled and sick); “The Able Bodied Poor” (those that could and wanted to work); “The Idle Poor” (those who were of able body but remained unwilling); And “The Rogues and Vagabonds” (this summed up all thieves, con artists, and similar other criminals as well as a vagrants who were merely passing travellers preferring of the road ahead of them than to settle down, trying not to just survive in times so brutal but to live in them. Yet, unfortunately for them, in the days of the past, and even in areas now, these people were to be untrusted by near all). These people, by jurisdiction of the law, were under the care of their parish, a small unit within the Church organisation, containing it’s very own church and clergyman. There were 15,000 parishes at the time of the Elizabethan Era in the whole of England and Wales, and every Parish had to comply fully with the requirements of every classifications, as shown below. In “The Impotent Poor” children from poor families and orphans were ensured to be granted apprenticeships, paid for by their Parish.

Boys would go to a master for 24 years and girls would go to a mistress for 21 – if the girls could be found one. Investing in them the trade knowledge of the day so as to reap what they had sowed in the later years to come when they became their own trades people. Orphans would also be sent to orphanages where they were expected a safe place of living – taking the place of a family home. The elderly and sick, on the other hand, would be given a specific sum of money and maybe food. If unable to collect either both would be delivered to them.

The glowing gift of hospitals was another good thing to come out of this enactment. As were almshouses. For both the sick, disabled and the elderly went to be treated and looked after there if they had nothing and no one to do so for them. For “The Able Bodied Poor” work- and poorhouses were supposed to be built by their Parish in order for them to make items useful for it and they would be paid out of “The Poor Rate”; this would continue until they found a proper job. Otherwise they would be given “Outdoor Relief”. “The Idle Poor” were given none of these amenities and just like “The Rogues and Vagabonds” they were flogged via public whipping through the streets until they had reached the point of learning the ‘error of their ways’.

As for “The Rogues and Vagabonds” like the above mentioned they were given nothing but floggings if caught begging, as it was made illegal because of the huge influx of those peasants turning to that and stealing in the Tudor Era. People who were caught stealing anything over 5p were hung and those that were found continuously begging were either imprisoned or hung the same. However, in the reign of Edward VI vagabonds who were caught had a high chance of having branded tongues and the ‘opportunity’ to become slaves for two years. So pretty much no say in that job offer then, hey! It was then in 1572 that the very first mandatory local poor law tax was enforced, creating the alleviation of poverty a much more local responsibility. Then just four years later an idea for a deterrent workhouse was first talked of, but nothing of the sort came about until the New Poor Law was passed in 1834. Creating the picture of ghastliness we know of today from the Victorian era, including starvation beyond any acceptable level, segregation and other inhuman tortures.

Later in 1597 the JP’s were once more gathered together with a new slice of poor law legislation (for both England and Wales), called “Act for the Relief of the Poor”, to watch carefully over the new posts of “Overseers of the Poor” – a position which, begrudgingly of the Overseers, carried forth after even the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, otherwise more widely known as the New Poor Law! The Overseers of the Poor worked for each Parish. And would be elected each Easter as a pair. Always unpaid and nearly always unwilling to work (because they weren’t being paid for a job forced onto them) – so their actions were seen over by the Justice of the Peaces’. Their jobs would be to supervise the Parish-Poorhouse; figure out how much money would be needed for the poor relief, which they would then commence to collect from property owners – raising and lowering the Poor Rate according to how much was needed; as well as to distribute money and/or food to those in need. This was the beginning of a new age for poorer peasants as it gave us the very first complete structure for the relief of our poor.

Later, once again, looked over and edited by the sovereign Queen of the Age, Good Queen Bess, with the “43rd Elizabeth”. The “43rd Elizabeth” In 1601 a new Poor Law was introduced, now termed as the “Old Poor Law” after the “Poor Law Amendment Act” was passed in 1834. The Poor Law in 1601 often went under the guise of the “43rd Elizabeth” commemorating Queen Elizabeth I as she had enacted this new law in her 43rd year of ruling. The “43rd Elizabeth” was established to deal with the dilemma of imposing and collecting monetary and other relief for the poor. Which had risen in bearing through many reasons, two of the hugest being the soar in fertility rates and decrease in death rates, creating a larger population from three million to four.

And the other being a frightening level of terrible harvests particularly spread throughout the 1590’s; nearer to the point the law was passed. It was because of these factors that Elizabeth had to commence an act of finality. This law would change the course of the final two years of the Elizabethan Era and give a lasting shape to similar systems for the poor in England and America for 300 years to come, continuing forth after as a great inspiration. It worked simply by improving on the Parish system already in place and formalising it as an officially recognised law and concept. The “43rd Elizabeth” also provided people with two different types of poor relief, the ‘Indoor’ and ‘Outdoor’ relief. The Outdoor relief was basically the same as it had always been with those in need and eligible receiving a specific sum of money, or instead food or clothing, etc.

The Indoor relief, however, was different. Now, instead of simply getting paid, those that were sick would be taken to specific hospitals to be treated. And the ‘good’ poor would be taken into the almshouses – places funded on charity to provide good and safe accommodation to those who need it. Idle poor though would not be given this luxury, or any of the others, instead they would be taken to the poor or workhouse to be instilled with the set morality of a work ethic!