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Poor relief

Woodcut-16th century, gentleman giving alms to beggar Poor Relief refers to any actions taken by either governmental or ecclesiastical bodies to relieve poverty experienced by a population. More specifically, the term poor relief is often used to discuss how European countries dealt with poverty from the time just around the end of the medieval era to modernity when systems changed from barter style economy to the early days of capitalism. Throughout this time frame, authorities have been confronted with such questions as, "Who exactly should benefit from legislation that is passed?" and "Who is ultimately responsible for the care of these individuals?". As a result of trying to answer these difficult questions, in addition to ever changing attitudes towards poverty, many methods have been instituted to remedy this social crisis. From the early part of the 16th century to the modern day, poverty legislation passed by the English Parliament has transformed from a systematic means of punishment to a system of governmental support and protection as a result of the creation of the Welfare State.


Tudor era

Henry VII of England Tudor Coat of Arms (Arms of the United Kingdom) In the later period of the 15th century, legal measures were put in place for poverty which focused on punishing the individual for such acts such as vagabonding and begging. In 1495 during the reign of Henry VII of England, Parliament passed the Vagabond Act. This act stated that officials arrest and hold "all such vagabonds, idle and suspect persons living suspiciously and then so taken to set in stocks, there to remain three nights and to have none other sustenance but bread and water; and after the said three days and three nights, to be had out and set at large and to be commanded to avoid the town."[1] Unfortunately, as historian Mark Rathbone discussed in his article "Vagabond!", this act had a very loose definition of vagabonds and did not make any distinctions between individuals that were unemployed and were in search of employment or the individual who freely chose to live the life of a vagabond. In addition, the act failed to recognize the impotent poor, those individuals who could not provide for themselves. These individuals included the sick, the elderly and the disabled. This neglect to define the act of vagabonding precisely would continue to hinder the effectiveness of legislative acts for years to come.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Henry VIII of England England s poverty issues were only exacerbated during the early part of the 16th century by a dramatic increase in population. The population rose from little more than 2 million in 1485, (to) about 2.8 million by the end of Henry VII s reign (1509) . The population was growing faster than the economy s ability to provide employment opportunities.[1] Amplifying the problem was the fact that during the period of the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. One consequence of this departure was the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in which monastery assets including lands were seized by the crown. These acts had a devastating impact on poor relief. According to British historian Paul Slack, prior to the dissolution, "(i)t has been estimated that monasteries alone provided 6,500 pounds[2] a year in alms before 1537; and that sum was not made good by private benefactions until after 1850."[3] In addition to the closing of monasteries, the majority of hospitals were also closed "which had come to be seen as special types of religious houses"[4] which left many of the sick without proper health care. In 1531 the Vagabonds and Beggars act was revised and a new act was passed by parliament. This act did make some provisions for the different classes of the poor. The sick, the elderly and the disabled were issued licenses to beg. Unfortunately, those individuals who were out of work and in search of employment were still not spared punishment. Throughout the 16th century, a fear of social unrest was the primary motive for the majority of legislation that was passed by parliament.

Slavery law 1547

Edward VI of England Palace of Westminster in the 16th Century This fear of social unrest carried into the reign of Edward VI of England. A new level of extreme punishment was introduced in the Duke of Somerset s Act of 1547. Two year s servitude and branding (human branding) with a V was the penalty for the first offense, and attempts to run away were to be punished by lifelong slavery and, there for a second time, execution. .[1] Fortunately for vagabonds during this era, "there is no evidence that the Act was enforced." [1] In 1550 these excessive punishments were revised in a new act that was passed. The act of 1550 makes a reference to the limited enforcement of the punishments established by the Act of 1547 by stating "the extremity of some [of the laws] have been occasion that they have not been put into use." [1]

Parliament and the parish

Following the revision of the Duke of Somerset s Act of 1547, parliament passed a new act in 1552. This act focused on using parishioners as a source of funds to combat the increasing poverty epidemic. This statute appointed two individuals from each parish to collect alms to distribute to the poor individuals inhabiting the town. These individuals were to gently ask [1] for donations for the cause. Refusal to donate to the cause would ultimately result in a meeting with the bishop who would induce and persuade [1] them. However, at times even these intimidating meetings by the bishop would often fail to complete their objective.

Sensing that these voluntary methods of donation were ineffective, parliament passed new legislation in 1563. Once this act took effect parishioners could be brought by the bishop before the Justices, and continued refusal could lead to imprisonment until contribution was made. .[1] However, this act did have its shortcomings, because individuals could donate however much they desired in order to gain their freedom.

A more structured system of these donations was established by the act of 1572. After determining the amount of funds that was needed to provide for the poor, Justices of the Peace were granted authority to determine the amount of the donation from each of the more wealthy parishioners. The act turned these donations into an imposed tax .[5]

In addition to creating these new imposed tax, the act of 1572 created a new set of punishments to inflict upon its population of vagabonds. These (p)unishments included being bored through the ear for a first offense and hanging for persistent beggars. [1] Unlike the previous brutal punishments established during the Act of 1547, these extreme measures were enforced with great frequency.

However, despite its introduction of such violent actions to deter vagabonding, the Act of 1572 was the first time in history that the parliament passed legislation that began to address the different categories of vagabonds. Peddlers, tinkers, workmen on strike, fortune tellers and minstrels were not spared these gruesome acts of deterrence. This act punished all able bodied men without land or master who would neither accept employment, nor explain the source of their livelihood .[1] In this newly established definition of what constituted a vagabond, members who had served in the military and released servants or servants whose masters had deceased were exempt from these gruesome punishments. Unfortunately, this legislation did not establish any means to support these individuals.

A new approach

A system to support individuals who were willing to work, but were having difficulty finding employment was established by the Act of 1576. According to this act ...Justices of the Peace were authorized to provide any town which needed it with a stock of flax, hemp or other materials on which paupers could be employed and to erect a house of correction in every county for the punishment of those who refused work." [5] This was the first time Parliament had attempted to provide labor to individuals as a means combat the increasing vagabond epidemic.

Two years after the act of 1576 was passed, more dramatic changes were made to the methods to fight vagabonding and provide relief to the poor. The Act of 1578, transferred power from the Justices of the Peace to church officials in the areas of collecting these new imposed taxes that were established in the Act of 1572. In addition, this Act of 1578 also extended the power of the church by stating that vagrants were to be summarily whipped and returned to their place of settlement by parish constables. [1] By eliminating the need for the involvement of the justices, law enforcement was streamlined.

End of the Elizabethan Era to 1750

Elizabeth I of England Starting as early as 1590, authorities began to take a more selective approach in supporting the poor. Those who were labeled legitimately needy were allowed assistance and those who were idle were not. People incapable of providing for themselves such as young orphans, the elderly, and mentally and physically handicapped were seen to be legitimately needy. Those who were physically able, but were too lazy to work were labeled as idle and were seen by the public to be of bad moral character, therefore becoming people who were undesirable to help.[6] Most poor relief in the 17th century came from voluntary charity which mostly was in the form of food and clothing. Parishes distributed land and animals. Institutionalized charities offered loans to help craftsmen to Alms houses and hospitals.[7]

The Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) were one of the longest-lasting achievements of her reign, left unaltered until 1834. This law made each parish responsible for supporting the legitimately needy in their community.[5] It taxed wealthier citizens of the country to provided basic shelter, food and clothing, though they were not obligated to provide for those outside of their community.

Parishes responsible for their own community caused problems because some were more generous than others. This caused the poor to migrate to other parishes that were not their own. In order to counteract this problem, the Poor Relief Act 1662 was implemented. This created many sojourners, people who resided in different settlements that were not their legal one.[7] The settlement act allowed such people to be forcefully removed, and garnered a negative reaction from the population. Laissez-faire economist said it was barrier to labour mobility and a barrier to migration decisions .[7] In order to fix the flaws of the 1662 act, the act of 1691 came into effect which gave ways that people could gain settlement in new locations. Such methods included owning or renting property above a certain value or paying parish rates, but also by completing a legal apprenticeship or a one-year service while unmarried, or by serving a public office for a year .[7]

From around 1500 to 1700, the population of England nearly doubled.[6] Capitalism in agriculture and manufacture started to emerge as well as the increase in overseas trade. Even though expansion was flourishing, it was not enough to provide employment in the late 1600. The population increased at alarming rates than the productivity and Inflation of goods whereas wages declined.[5] Wages were nearly half of what they were a decade previously.

The boom-and-bust nature of European trade in woolen cloth, England s major manufacture and export caused a larger fraction of the population of England to fall under poverty. With this increase in poverty, all charities operated by the Catholic Church were abolished due to the impact of protestant reformation[5]

The Industrial Revolution

Child Labor

Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801 thumb

By the mid to late 18th century most of the British Isles region was caught up in the process of industrialization that would carry it from then until now and beyond in terms of production of goods, manner of markets and concepts of economic class. In many cases, factory owners engaged to some extent in employing children without paying them, thus exacerbating poverty levels.[8] Furthemore, the poor laws of this era encouraged children to work through an apprenticeship, but by the end of the 18th century the situation changed as masters became less willing to employ children in apprenticeships and factory owners had to step in and
make use of this surplus of laborers.[8] Because of this employment in factories of children, there were not many jobs for adult laborers.[8] Forthose who could not find work there was the workhouse as a means of sustenance.

New Poor Law of 1834

Indoor Relief vs. Outdoor Relief

The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, UK Exeter Work House 1744 Following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, in 1834 the Parliament of the United Kingdom revised the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) after studying the conditions found in 1832. Over the next decade they began phasing out outdoor relief and pushing the paupers towards indoor relief. The differences between the two was that outdoor relief was a monetary contribution to the needy, whereas indoor relief meant the individual was sent to one of the workhouses.

The Great Famine (Ireland)

The Famine Memorial in Dublin, Republic of Ireland Following the reformation of the Poor Laws in 1834, Ireland experienced a severe potato blight that lasted from 1845 1849 and killed an estimated 1.5 million people with effects lasting until 1851. During this period the people of Ireland lost much land, many jobs and appealed to the Westminster Parliament for aid. This aid generally came in the form of establishing more workhouses as indoor relief.[9] Some argue that as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was in its prime as an empire, it could have given more aid in the form of money, food or rent subsidies; although the counter-argument is that Britain was also affected by the same blight (as was the whole of Europe) and acted as quickly as she could.

In other regions of the United Kingdom, amendments to and adoptions of poor laws came in and around the same time. In Scotland, for example, the 1845 Scottish Poor Law Act revised the Poor Laws that were implemented under the 1601 acts.


  1. a b c d e f g h i j k Rathbone,Mark. "Vagabond!", History Review; March 2005, Issue 51, p8-13 Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 25, 2010)
  2. (Conversion)
  3. Slack,Paul. "Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England" (London, 1988)
  4. Rushton, Neil S. and Single-Rushton, Wendy "Monastic Poor Relief in Sixteenth-Century England", Journal of Interdisciplinary History Autumn 2001, Vol. 32 Issue 2, p193-216, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2010)
  5. a b c d e
  6. a b McIntosh, Marjorie K. 2005. "Poverty, Charity, and Coercion in Elizabethan England." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 3: 457-479. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 1, 2010).
  7. a b c d
  8. a b c Honeyman, Katrina. "The Poor Law, the Parish Apprentice, and the Textile Industries in the North of England, 1780 1830." Northern History 44, no. 2 (September 2007): 115-140. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed July 25, 2010)
  9. Thomas E Hachey, Joseph M Hermon, Jr. and Lawrence J McCaffery. "The Irish Experience: A Concise History"; (New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996) 92-93

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