By 1782 the industrial and agricultural revolution was well under way and in these latter years of the 18th century the population had almost doubled from being that of around 9million in the early 1700's to almost 16 million in 1821 (Walsh et al, 2000). It is accepted that this increase in population is due to increased national wealth, improved living conditions and therefore increased fertility this was stretching the already crumbling legislation to its limit. It was the social and economic changes at work in British society that exasperated the archaic system and its legislation.
The 1601 Poor Law had been statute for social needs in pre industrial economy. Other contributing factors to the failure of the Poor Law would also include the economic problems encountered by bad harvests and the dislocation of war in Europe. It is also worth considering changing religious attitudes as Britain was in the process of replacing Catholicism with Protestantism. This is significant as within the changing religion Britain appeared to develop new attitudes to work.
Protestantism is generally concerned with 'self fulfilment' as opposed to Catholicism that concentrates on 'helping your neighbours/Christian charity'. Therefore whilst some were recognising the deteriorating Poor Law, the lay man was experiencing it first hand yet still no practical alternative was available. It is at this point that we see the introduction of the Speenhamland System, although it was never formally legislated it is evident it was a method of pacifying the poor when nothing else was addressing the failing Poor Laws and the plight of the poor.
The Speenhamland System attempted to address the acute rural economic crisis and low subsistence levels, in essence it was concentrating on those in absolute poverty. The system was designed to supplement low wages on a scale that measured entitlement against the cost of bread and the number of heads in a family. The introduction of this system of allowances was widespread even though it was never legislated. The system has been criticised as it led able bodied labourers to thinking they were entitled to parish relief when unemployed and encouraged idleness and lack of respect towards employers.
This is hardly surprising when you consider the fact that, employers would purposely keep wages low, in the knowledge that the allowance system would 'top' them up, therefore maintaining and increasing their profits for them. Reverend Thomas Malthus, who was an enlightened thinker, believed similar concepts to Protestantism. Notably, that individuals were in control of their own destinies, and it was therefore up to the individual to create their own standard of living, by using their capacities for rational thought.
It is therefore no surprise that Malthus criticised the allowance system. He believed that it encouraged population growth by rewarding large families with bonuses. Malthus also noted that this population growth would even at the optimistic level outstrip the means of subsistence. Malthusian concerns regarding population growth are still evident in modern day history, for example in India and China in the 1990's. Malthus was just one political influence/figure that was raising concerns at the time. However, each proposal that was offered failed to address every issue.
The abolitionist case was too light weighted at this time for radical reform especially when we consider that it wasn't until 1832 that people began to be enfranchised. The ruling classes were still ruling and legislating in their own self interests, the plight of the paupers simply did not concern them (adapted from Wright, 1989). However, the pressure for change was similar to a pressure cooker. By 1817 to 1819 poor relief expenditure was at an all time high and with this the abolitionist case was at its pinnacle, yet still nothing viable was offered to the landed classes and their self interests.
Two groups of dissatisfied workers existed despite the Speenhamland System. The Luddite movement of 1816 was industrial mill workers rebelling against the industrial machinery that in their opinion had demeaned their skills as tradesmen, by producing inferior goods and replacing them as tradesmen. Combined with the Luddite movement, the Swing Riots of 1816 and 1830 illustrated agricultural workers' dissatisfaction with the implications of the agricultural revolution. They destroyed machinery as they believed these innovations were the cause of their poverty and instability as did the Luddites.
Pressure was increasing for something to be done. A half hearted measure that simply strove to pacify the workers temporarily was no longer an option, due to the mass social, political, religious and economic change Britain had encountered over the last 200 years. This state of disarray was further enhanced by the news of a social revolution in France and America. All these factors prompted a worried government to address the issue of the outdated archaic Poor Law of 1601 that had been stood in statute for over 230 years.
For the first time in British history, Earl Grey revolutionary ordered a full scale enquiry into the old poor laws. Edwin Chadwick, a follower of Bentham, was appointed Assistant Commissioner. Chadwick was greatly influenced by Bentham as he was firmly convinced that the allowance system was to blame for the poor laws failing. It is here that we see Bentham's influence, Chadwick was adamant that the allowance system demoralised the able bodied worker. Therefore, the only solution would be to make poor relief a specific deterrent.
This is the Bentham's 'greatest happiness principle' this was generally utilitarian ideology that involved reducing the taxation burden of poor relief but also addressing the issue of the poor (Blakemore, 1998). Fraser concludes by saying that the "report [was not] geared to the interests of the pauper, but it was geared to the interests of the majority by whom the pauper wished to be maintained… [therefore the pauper] must suffer the injustice in the interests of the majority. " (Fraser, 2003:50). Bentham's influential ideology along with Protestant ethics is mirrored through the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.
The new poor law was without a doubt to be harsher than its predecessor, yet underneath its harshness there appeared to be some sort of benevolence. Although it was widely believed at this time that men were masters of their own fate and had the power to find salvation the new poor law appeared to provide security. Although this security appeared harsh, the ideology was that, relief would be available for the truly destitute but it must form a deterrent effect. Fraser emphasises and concludes this ideology perfectly: "Men who had been encouraged to be idle by security [poor relief] could be stimulated to industry by fear.
It seemed harsh to offer men a pit instead of a feather bed to fall back on should they slip, but perhaps the fear of the pit would prompt independence more than the security of the feather bed. " (Fraser, 2003:51). The new poor law was centred on two central ideas. Firstly, the principle of 'less eligibility'. Chadwick was aware that the standard of relief due to the allowance system had been above that of the lowest paid labourer. Therefore it had to be changed, instead of relief being of a standard above that of an industrious labourer it must be below.
Chadwick's theory was that people would now quit the class of pauper and join the class of labourer. This concept was without doubt potentially a powerful inducement to self help and was a uniformed approach of Bentham's utilitarian ideology, and what was later to be recognised as, the Protestant work ethic. Secondly, came the task of putting the principle of 'less eligibility' into practice. This was done by the 'workhouse test'. Chadwick was concerned with the able bodied labourer, he wished to provide them with institutional relief also. Chadwick believed that the old poor law had been adapted and stretched to fit all means.
Therefore, there had to be a specific distinction between what Bentham called the indigent (real destitution) and poverty (caused by the allowance system and human nature). Chadwick's solution was to enforce a workhouse test, its intention was to abolish all outdoor relief and offer only institutional relief in a workhouse. Chadwick believed that this idea would remove the poor (i. e. the labourer whose wages were being subsidised) from the Poor Law and therefore only cater for the indigent (the truly destitute) which was its primary focus.
Secondly, the more punitive and stigmatizing Poor Law would restore the principle of work, in that, the paupers would provide a service in return for relief as the 1601 legislation had originally intended. Finally, the new Poor Law would provide a standard of living below that of the lowest paid labourer. Therefore, the workhouse would, once and for all, remove the attraction of relief that the "Poor Law had acquired by virtue of the allowance system. " (Fraser, 2003:49). Chadwick also suggested a centralised uniform system to administer the new Poor Law, and therefore it encouraged parish unions.
It is worth noting at this point that although workhouses were to be built to offer this institutional relief, legislation never existed to compel local Poor Law Unions to build workhouses. This was because, the Commissioner's didn't want objections, and the landed classes wanted immediate relief not more expenditure. Nevertheless, the centralised uniform system of administration is still evident in today's local governments. The new Poor Law was opposed in many areas especially in the north. It isn't surprising as, in hindsight, it does appear that the new Poor Law of 1834 was predetermined to utilitarian ideology.
The Poor Law had as before focused on rural labourers and did not take into account the full picture of the industrial north. In the north unemployment tended to be, temporary caused by the 'booms and slumps' of the marketplace. However, once an industrial labourer was incarcerated into a workhouse it was permanent due to the stigma, institutionalisation and the fact that they had no possessions once within the workhouse. This appears amazingly unjust that an individual was incarcerated indefinitely when their employment is simply insecure because the market is insecure.
People's spirits became crushed as news of cruel workhouses and the prospect of incarceration and segregation began to spread. Rumours of inhumane practices were widespread due to ration like allowances of food, overcrowding, and unhygienic infirmaries. Chadwick's deterrent had prevailed as "most self respecting poor [would rather die] than submit themselves to such degradation" (Adapted from www. users. ox. ac. uk, no date. ). However, the new poor law did succeed in at least one of its aims it reduced poor rates. In the ten years that followed 1834, poor rates fell nationally to between i??
4. 2 million and i?? 5 million per annum. Chadwick deemed this as a great success of the principle of 'less eligibility'. However, many argue that the good harvests of them years and the increased demand for labour for railway developments would have reduced the poor rates anyway. (Adapted from www2. rgu. ac. uk, no date). It appears evident, that the Poor Law of 1834 was not initially intended as the first stepping stone to the welfare state. Its intention cannot possibly been seen as a form of benevolence or charity.
Therefore it must be considered and accepted that its original intention or aim was a method of social control to prevent social revolution or uprising. However, although the poor were treat appallingly by the 1834 Poor Law there are elements of benevolence underneath the harsh terminology. For example, the concept of 'less eligibility' is a sound principle that is used in today's welfare state. The introduction of bonuses for working, for example, the tax credits system (in modern day Britain) must therefore be seen as an evolution from this principle and to some extent the Speenhamland system.
Governments throughout history have tried to instigate and install the work ethic into society and this can obviously only be viable if the population is financially more secure working than not working. It is evident that the poor were treated appallingly throughout the period 1601 to 1834. Conditions were unjust especially following the harsher more punitive Poor Law of 1834. However, the social, political, religious and economic changes during the period had an enormous impact and influence on the 1834 legislation.
These influences have been discussed throughout this essay, it is evident that all these changes were contributing factors to the emergence and creation of the harsher, more punitive, stigmatizing and utilitarian or secular Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The act of 1834 has been criticised by the majority of historians, in many ways it failed to recognise the true causes of poverty and certainly failed to address them in a humanitarian manner. However, it can be viewed, not as the birth of British welfare, but initially, a tool of social control and the eventual evolution, of the government to address social welfare issues.
The days of laissez-faire were diminishing rapidly aided by the massive transition from the domestic feudal system to industrialisation, secularism and eventual democracy and the British welfare state of today.
List of References
1. Anon, no date, Enclosures [online] available from http://cla. calpoly. edu/~1call/enclosures. htm [accessed on 30/09/2005]. 2. Anon, no date, Introduction to Social Policy [online] available from www2. rgu. ac. uk [accessed on 22/09/2005]. 3. Anon, no date, Poor Laws [online] available from www. users. ox. ac. uk [accessed on 27/09/2005]. 4. Blakemore, K, 1998, Social Policy an Introduction. Buckingham, OU Press.