Origins of the Poor Law system

Origins of the Poor Law system

The origins of the Poor Law system in Britain can be traced as far back as the fifteenth century. Monasteries were in decline and their eventual dissolution during the Reformation caused poor relief to move from a largely voluntary basis to a compulsory tax that was collected at a parish level.

Early legislation was concerned with vagrants and making the able-bodied work, especially while labour was in short supply following the Black Death. Specific legislation was passed which prevented private individuals from giving poor relief to able-bodied paupers. In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge was passed, making each individual parish responsible for administering poor relief to the impotent poor. [ [ - The Workhouse Web Site ] ]

Tudor attempts to tackle the problem originate during the reign of Henry VII. In 1495, Parliament passed a statute ordering officials to seize " [a] ll such vagabonds, idle and suspected persons living suspiciously and then so taken and set in stocks, there to remain by the space of three days and three nights to have none other sustenance but bread and water, and there after the said three days and three nights, to be had out and set at large and then to be commanded to avoid the town."Fact|date=September 2008 No remedy to the problem of poverty was offered by this; it was merely swept from sight, or moved from town to town. Moreover, no distinction made between vagrants and the jobless; both were simply categorised as "sturdy beggars", to be punished and moved on.

In 1530, during the reign of Henry VIII, a proclamation was issued, describing idleness as the "mother and root of all vices" and ordering that whipping should replace the stocks as the punishment for vagabonds.Fact|date=September 2008 This change was confirmed in statute the following year, with one important change: a distinction was made between the "impotent poor" and the sturdy beggar, giving the old, the sick and the disabled licence to beg. Still no provision was made, though, for the healthy man simply unable to find work. All able-bodied unemployed were put into the same category. Those unable to find work had a stark choice: starve or break the law.

In 1535, a bill was drawn up calling for the creation of a system of public works to deal with the problem of unemployment, to be funded by a tax on income and capital. Though supported by the king, it was savaged in Parliament. The following year, an Act was passed that placed responsibility for the elderly and infirm with the parish or municipal authorities, though provision was reliant on voluntary donations.

For the able-bodied poor, life became even tougher during the reign of Edward VI. In 1547, a bill was passed that subjected vagrants to some of the more extreme provisions of the criminal law, namely two years servitude and branding with a "V" as the penalty for the first offence and death for the second. Justices of the Peace were reluctant to apply the full penalty and there is no evidence that the act was ever enforced before it was repealed in 1550.Fact|date=September 2008

The government of Elizabeth I, Edward VI's successor after Mary I, was also inclined to severity. An Act passed in 1572 called for offenders to be bored through the ear for a first offence and that persistent beggars should be hanged. However, the Act also made the first clear distinction between the "professional beggar" and those unemployed through no fault of their own. The first complete code of poor relief was made in the Act For the Relief of the Poor 1597 and some provision for the "deserving poor" was eventually made in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.

Historical interpretations

Marjie Bloy, a Senior Research Fellow with the National University of Singapore, has argued that the Reformation caused moral expectations surrounding charitable giving to disappear. [ [ The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law ] ]


* A.L. Beier, "Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640" (1985)
* A.L. Beier,"The Problem of the Poor in Tudor and Stuart England" (1983)
* N Fellows, "Disorder & Rebellion in Tudor England" (2001)
* Steve Hindle, "The State and Social Change in Early Modern England" (2000)
* John F Pound, "Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England" (1971)
* Paul Slack, "From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England" (1998)
* Paul Slack, "Poverty and Policy in Tudor England" (1988)
* Penry Williams, "The Tudor Regime" (1979)


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