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Definition: poor law from Collins English Dictionary


1 English history a law providing for the relief or support of the poor from public, esp parish, funds

Summary Article: poor law
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English system for relief for the poor, established by the Poor Relief Act of 1601. Each parish was responsible for its own poor, paid for by a parish tax. The care of the poor was transferred to the Ministry of Health in 1919, but the poor law remained in force until 1929.

Elizabethan poor law Before the reign of Elizabeth I the approach to poverty in England was punitive. In 1494 a law had ordered beggars to be put in the stocks. In 1547 beggars and vagrants had been ordered to be branded with a ‘V’ and made a slave for two years. A law of 1572 continued this approach, declaring that beggars should be whipped and, for a third offence, executed. The only help for poor people was private charity. However, steady inflation and rural economic problems, caused by enclosure and the move from tillage to sheep farming, were worsened in the 1570s and the 1590s by a series of poor harvests. The government was worried that the growing numbers of beggars and vagrants might lead to social disorder, and also came to realize that poverty was not always the fault of the victim – a distinction was made between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor. The Poor Relief Act of 1601 allowed each parish to collect a poor rate to give a little money to the ‘impotent poor’, such as the elderly and the blind; and to provide workhouses for the ‘poor by casualty’, such as the sick and the senile. Orphans were to be given an apprenticeship. Only the ‘idle poor’, the so-called ‘sturdy beggars’, were to be whipped and returned to their place of birth. The 1601 Poor Relief Act did not end poverty, but it remained the basis of England's poor law system for two centuries, and supplied for the first time a basic ‘safety-net’ for some of those who had fallen on hard times.

Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834 The old poor law was substantially adapted in the 18th century to meet changing needs. The Workhouse Act of 1723 required parishes to build workhouses to accommodate the poor; it was largely ignored, because it was far more expensive to build a workhouse than it was to allow ‘outdoor relief’. Instead, in 1782 Gilbert's Act tried to make the administration of the poor law more professional; it also laid down that the ‘able-bodied’ poor were to receive outdoor relief. In response to changing agricultural practices in the south of England, the system was further liberalized in the late 18th century by the Speenhamland system and the Roundsman system.

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. The system also failed to prevent the Swing Riots of 1830–31.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 set up large poor law unions, administered by elected boards of guardians, and controlled by a central Poor Law Commission. Outdoor relief for able-bodied paupers was abolished and replaced by workhouses run by unions of parishes. The principle applied was that of ‘less eligibility’: conditions in such workhouses were designed to act as a deterrent for all but the genuinely destitute. The level of provision was supposed to be worse than that which would be afforded by the lowest-paying job, and husbands, wives, and children were to be split up. The act was implemented quickly in the south, but it provoked riots in the north, where it proved impossible to implement, and some workhouses were burned down. Conditions in some of the workhouses were terrible, but after the Andover workhouse scandal of 1847 (where it was found that workhouse inmates were so hungry that they were eating scraps from the bones they were meant to be crushing for bonemeal fertilizer), the government removed some of the greatest corruptions and evils of the system.

By the end of the century, local councils began to take over the work of the boards of guardians, and although the act remained in force until 1929, it was gradually superseded by other forms of welfare.


The Problem of Poverty in Elizabethan England

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