The aim of this assignment is to analyse how the poor people were treated in British society between the years of 1601 and 1834
First we must establish what being poor actually means.
Many of the world’s poorest people are caught up in a cycle of deprivation. Poverty is usually associated with the lack of resources needed to obtain a certain standard of living. However there are two clearly defined categories that poverty falls into and the distinction between the two can be calculated by whether or not a persons needs are biological necessities or social desires. The two defining categories are relative and absolute poverty.Relative poverty exists in our society today, and relates to a general standard of living that is acceptable to our social and cultural needs. This definition of poverty exceeds basic biological need and is quite hard to measure.
The reason for this immeasurability is that people move forward with technology at different stages and times, therefore there is no particular point that conclusions can be drawn from. However a plus point regarding relative poverty is that it exceeds basic biological needs and therefore starvation and desperation are not usual consequences.Absolute poverty however relates to standards of living that are below the subsistence level. This poverty level can be easily assessed. Have people enough to eat? Have they access to clean water? These areas of poverty can be highlighted and targeted.
Although society as we know it tends to live in relative poverty there are some cases such as the homeless that live in absolute poverty. Third world countries are another example of absolute poverty, lacking the minimum necessary for a biological standard of living but even though this has been realised, sometimes solving the problems proves to be difficult especially on large scales.Social changes have a dramatic effect on poverty and the varying levels of subsistence, the growth of industry and technology whilst affect the everyday wants and desires of living in relative poverty do not change the standard biological needs we have such as food, water and shelter.Britain has not always been able to sustain a uniformed biological subsistence and for many years standards of living were way below the minimum threshold.In the early 1600’s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, societies operated around a feudalistic basis, whereby families worked and survived off the land. Britain, at this time was primarily made up of agricultural land and most lived in rural areas operating this domestic system.
People worked together in their homes producing goods and cultivating crops on their own farmland or common land. This was to their advantage as the families were free to work at their own pace and control their own working conditions.In these times provision was made for the poor, however the provision relied largely around Christian charity. During the reign of King Henry VIII, in order for him to divorce, he changed the somewhat rigid catholic religion into a more lenient protestant faith. However this did not happen overnight and the people of Britain still practised a charitable ‘love thy neighbour’ attitude, and believed in helping those around them in need as well as themselves.In earlier years legislation regarding provision for the poor had been somewhat vague in detail, but the acts enforced in 1601 provided a firmly rooted scheme.
The Justices Of The Peace headed these acts. Parish officers, appointed by the JP’s were to administer their own poor relief via overseers. The poor relief was money claimed through taxes from every householder in the parish. No set amounts of relief were made payable therefore some parishes with fewer paupers were more generous than others.Essentially Elizabethan poor law identified three main groups to be dealt with; the impotent poor (the aged, sick, blind and lunatic), who were accommodated in ‘almshouses’, the able-bodied poor, who were set to work in houses of correction, which in hindsight were workhouses, and the rogues and vagabonds who were unwilling to work were sent to be punished in the houses of correction.These methods of relief were categorised in two ways: Indoor relief and outdoor relief.
The impotent poor not only being institutionalised if necessary, benefited from outdoor relief whereby bread, clothing, fuel or money was distributed in the community, and the rogues and vagabonds and able-bodied that would not or could not find work were subject to indoor relief in some sort of institution. www.users.ox.ac.
uk. (Accessed on 27.09.2005)With some poor moving to parishes with fewer paupers to receive more relief, the location of pauper’s rightful parish was becoming harder to determine. Since each parish was required to look after it’s own poor a pattern emerged with large amounts of dispute and litigation over where responsibility lay for the pauper in question.
In fact often more money was spent on the litigation surrounding a paupers residence than sustenance of the pauper would have involved.In order to try and correct this problem the ‘Settlements Act’ of 1662 was established. Within this act a person’s place of settlement was determined by birth, marriage (if female) and apprenticeship. This threw up even more problems as apprenticeships carried with them a twelve-month clause, and many workers were sacked after 364 days of labour resulting in them having to return to their parish of birth. The operation of the settlements act proved tiresome and complex and litigation remained a dominant feature.
(Accessed on 29.09.2005.)Over the course of the 18th century however changes were being brought about which threatened feudalism and in turn would greatly affect the poor. Charles Townsend invented the four-field crop rotation system, and Jethro Tull invented a seed planting drill.
These inventions revolutionised the speed and scale of production that were the beginnings of the agricultural revolution. (Blakemore Ken. 1998).For the remaining farmers in order for them to make use of these agricultural innovations they needed to combine their small but many plots of land often scattered around the country, into large workable areas. British parliament began to implement the ‘Acts of Enclosure’. These acts divided up common land which the community had traditionally grazed cattle on and cultivate crops and fenced of hedged them off.
These acts whilst seemingly beneficial in the production of mass crops, was not so to the poor who had relied on the land for survival. This stripping of self-sufficiency would without doubt increase the number of poor in the community, and force them to seek work elsewhere.During this transitionary period from feudalism to capitalism the market began to experience booms and slumps in trade, therefore although workers appeared to be financially more stable the slumps created unemployment thus poverty. Overseers then began to struggle with the justification of expanding poor rates.The able-bodied poor that found themselves in the ‘Bastilles’ as they were beginning to be known began to be exploited as Sir Edward Knatchbull’s act of 1722 encouraged workhouses to be both a form of deterrent and the means of production to make profit.
The smaller parishes found the increase in unemployed at difficult economic times financially impossible therefore unions of parishes became common. Thomas Gilberts act of 1782 made these unions possible without formal legislation, however this encouraged the use of outdoor relief as a method of sustaining paupers as it was easier to administer.The scheme never really took off and it was recorded that only 67 unions existed out of 924 parishes.In the latter years of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the population had doubled due to improving living standards, which in turn increased fertility, therefore the parish system on which the poor relied was stretched to the limit. This was due to the fact that the system had been drafted to meet social needs in a pre-agricultural and pre-industrial economy. (Walsh et al.
2000)From 1795, severe loss of harvest and the ending of war were all factors in the failure of the poor law. An allowance system was developed called ‘The Speenhamland System’ to cope with acute economic crisis and low subsistence levels. This system was designed to supplement low wages on a scale that varied with the cost of bread and the number in family. ‘If the price of bread rose to 1s.3d., a married man with two children would be guaranteed a wage of 3s.
9d for himself plus three times 1s9d., giving a total of 9 shillings a week’. www.users.ox.ac.
uk. (27.09.2005)This practice although never formerly sanctioned became widespread, but it was believed that this system led able-bodied labourers to thinking that they were entitled to parish relief when unemployed and lacked motivation and respect for employers when in work. Rev Thomas Malthus greatly opposed this system, as he believed that it encouraged large families by rewarding them with bonuses.
He also believed that the population growth would outstrip the means of subsistence, in other words the best growth in output of food could not keep pace with this population increase. Taylor.D (2002).Between 1817-1819 expenditure on poor relief was at an all time high and the pressure for the abolition of the poor laws reached it’s pinnacle, but still no practical alternative existed. This became evident as despite the speenhamland system there were two main groups that were experiencing poverty and uncertainty and fuelled with fire as a result.
These groups were made up of agricultural workers and tradesmen. The agricultural workers revolted against agricultural machinery, which was in effect putting them out of business, and this revolt became known as the swing riots.The tradesmen also known as the luddites who felt their trades were being demoralised by innovative machinery took their revenge by torching mills, and wrecking machines, clearly society was in a state of disarray. Added to this, pressure with the news of a social revolution in France and America prompted the government to conduct a full-scale enquiry into the old poor laws.The prime minister of that time Earl Grey led the enquiry, closely followed by Edwin Chadwick who was appointed the Assistant Commissioner. Edwin Chadwick who was an enlightenment thinker drew his opinions of the poor law failings from Jeremy Benthem’s ideology.
He believed strongly in the laissez-faire concept, which stated ‘leave well alone’. Edwin Chadwick reported was that the allowance system was the main problem due to its demoralisation of able-bodied rural labours that worked hard and received the same as those receiving poor relief. Backing up Benthem’s ideology that charitable relief was a sham and that society should decide their own destiny based around their own rational thinking was the fact that traditional religious belief systems by which society had operated were being secularised, and the once charitable catholic society was now made up of a more self-satisfying protestant population.The investigation lasted two years then finally recommendations were put forward which formed the basis of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, otherwise known as the new poor law.The poor law amendment act was based round two core principles: Less eligibility, and the workhouse test.
The aim of these principles was to reward the able-bodied labourer and punish the unwilling with the threat of the workhouse. This approach was much harsher towards those in poverty, and was widely refuted.Edwin Chadwick believed that it would correct three main faults that the allowance system had created; It would remove the ‘poor’ who were being subsidised and cater for the truly destitute, it would restore the principle of work so paupers were actually providing some service to compensate for the relief they received and it would provide a standard of living below the lowest independent labourer, therefore removing the attraction the old poor law had acquired through the allowance system.As with Bentham’s ideology it was believed that men were masters of their own fate and that the poor were poor because they wished it so. The fear of the workhouse would in theory ‘pick the prospective pauper up’ to find employment. www.
users.ox.ac.uk. (Accessed on 27.
09.2005).Many opposed the new system and mass protest movements developed in industrial areas. The poor law had focused mainly on rural labourers and did not estimate the full extent of the poverty that lay in industrial societies. What was also belived was that these demoralising workhouses created as a form of deterrent were not justified to those labourers without work due to the booms and slumps of the economy.People’s spirits became crushed with the cruel ‘bastilles’ and the prospect of virtual imprisonment became unbearable to those whose fate lay in the hands of the fluctuating economy.
Rumours began spreading of the inhumane practices that went on in the workhouses, and a case recorded in Andover where paupers were reduced to knawing on rotten bones, which the labourers had been set to grind reiterated public fears. Conditions in the workhouse were appalling with often 10 children sharing a bed. They were unhygienic and infirmary patients often had to share a bed with a corpse for days on end. www.users.
ox.ac.uk (accessed on 27.09.2005).
As Malthus firmly believed that a lot of the poor’s problems were due to their over populating he envisaged that these segregated workhouses would prevent this overpopulation, therefore families were ripped apart, babies and children separated from their mothers and wives from their husbands. Before entering the workhouse, all worldly possessions had to be surrended and their right to vote taken away. Indeed the most self-respecting poor would sooner die than submit themselves to such torture and degradation.In The Bradford Argus an article was written which highlighted popular opinion. “That act which separated those whom God had joined together, gave a premium to murder, made poverty a crime, starved the poor man and tried to prove whether or not he could live on bread and water”.
Jones.K (2000) Pg 12.So was this poor law in any interest of the people or was it just a method of saving money and controlling a population?Britain appeared to have changed from a once feudalistic and self-sufficient united country to one driven apart through poverty and desperation, yet ironically the wealth of the nation as a whole was increasing due to industrialisation, so who was profiting from this?The government who had once feared a revolution appeared safe in the knowledge that the institutionalised who were the people suffering the most, had no voice, no vote and no means of rising up against them. On the other hand although harsh, these acts cannot be totally damned as these reforms paved the way to the Britain we live in today, and similarities can be seen in the 1834 writings, in our own welfare state. Thus the poor law institutions whilst harsh did evolve into places where those struck with poverty could go to receive free medical treatment, which over the years manifested into the NHS system.The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 ironically though harsh in it’s rulings was successful in it’s aims in that in the ten years following, poor rates fell dramatically.
What can be debated though is as there were many good harvests in these years and with the development of railways there was an increased demand for labour so perhaps this fall would have been inevitableThe fact remains that from 1601 onwards the poor were treated inhumanely and with little respect, and even more so following the harsher poor law of 1834. The acts enforced while eventually alleviating some of the countries monetary strains, did so at a cost that cannot be justified. However, Britain today has become one of the wealthiest in the world and it can be argued that these acts of trial and error paved the way for the welfare state that we so desperately rely on today.