The present parish-laws

Similarly, David Ricardo, a banker and fellow economist, also called for the abolition of the Poor Laws as he felt that parish allowances dragged down the price of labour. He writes in 'The Principles of Political Economy' 'The clear and direct tendency of the poor laws is… to deteriorate the condition of both poor and rich; instead of making the poor rich, they are calculated to make the rich poor; and whilst the present laws are in force, it is quite the natural order of things that the fund for the maintenance of the poor should progressively increase till it has absorbed all the net revenue of the country'.

Whilst the views of the abolitionists were greatly influential at the time, there was also an increasing train of thought that advocated 'self help'. The 43rd of Elizabeth had arisen from the 'paternal' ideology of the period, where the state's role was seen to be directive through well-meant legislation (Kidd 1999 p72). Whereas in the nineteenth century, ideas were changing. Self-help, pioneered by Adam Smith, amongst others, believed that the poor should be enabled to be independent rather than encouraged to be dependent on the poor relief.

The early nineteenth century can be seen as the 'age of laissez faire' (Marshall 1982 p196) and the evangelical movement wanted to make society more moral. Poverty was seen as a personal failing rather than a situation brought about by the social and political climate. The cost of the Poor Laws was rapidly increasing, expenditure on the rates had risen significantly from about i?? 2 million in 1784 to nearly i?? 8 million in 1818 (Gregg, 1973 p182). This was particularly in the South where the 'Speenhamland' system was practised, which insured that people were paid corresponding to need, rather than at the market rate of wages.

Of course, employers caught onto this and paid their workers less, knowing that the parish would 'top up' their wages accordingly. The implementation of the Poor Laws had become increasingly fragmented, localised administration meant that there were large variations in the execution of relief and parishes handed out relief in up to six different methods (Kidd 1999 p15). The parish overseers were not paid, but elected locals and this lead to widespread corruption, with self-interest being at the heart of local practise (Gregg 1973 p182).

Also, due to the changing economic climate, where previously having local overseers had been effective because of small, close-knit communities, industrialisation had seen the migration of thousands of the workforce into towns and cities, along with an increasing population, the present system had all but broken down (Marshall 1982 p198). Ironically, whilst the cost of relief had risen, social discontent had increased. In 1830, the notorious 'Captain Swing' riots occurred. So called due to a number of threatening letters signed by a mythical Captain Swing, they began in Kent and spread through the southern counties.

The summers of 1829 and 1830 had been particularly bad ones, with a severe winter in-between. The Napoleonic wars had just ended, and with men returning from the army, work was in high demand and in short supply. The price of corn and bread rose steadily and many found themselves destitute. Similarly, due to failed crops, farmers and landowners found it difficult to reach the poor rates, the local property tax, demanded by the parish, and therefore reduced the wages of those who were employed. This was sufficient to trigger rioting.

The rioters had two aims, firstly to smash up the new agricultural machinery, which was partly blamed for the lack of work available; and secondly, to put pressure on the parishes to reduce the poor rates. In one particular riot in the Hampshire village of Selborne, a mob of several hundred attacked the workhouse demanding the parson reduced the tithes, or tax, by half (Smith 1993). Fear of further rioting and anarchy was the deciding factor for the Government who launched the aforementioned Royal Commission Report (Fraser 1984 p41) in 1832.

The Commission consisted of nine commissioners and was led by Lord Melbourne to get a clearer view of the situation. The evidence was acquired by sending out questionnaires to parishes that were then visited by assistant commissioners who were unpaid. The evidence received by the Commission was unreliable and unrepresentative (Marshall 1984 p199). Its recommendations became the basis for the New Poor Law in 1834. In summary, the Old Poor Law and the New Poor Law encapsulated pre-twentieth century welfare.

During this period the state played a low key, moralistic role in the nations' welfare. The laws are significant as they influence our modern views on how people in need should be supported. I have attempted to explain how the reasons behind the reform stem from three principle areas; changing ideas, fear of social discord and rising costs. The Poor Law reform in 1834 is important in social history because it demonstrates the link between attitudes towards poverty and social policy, the increasing moral tone influencing legislation (Fraser 1984 p241).


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Fraser, Derek (1984) The Evolution of the British Welfare State London: Macmillan Press

Gregg, Pauline (1973) A Social and Economic History of Britain 1760-1972 London: Harrap & Co.

Hazlitt, Harry (1973) Conquest of Poverty [accessed 20/10/00]

Kidd, Alan (1999) State, Society and the Poor in Nineteenth Century England London: Macmillan Press

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Marshall, Dorothy (1973) Industrial England 1776-1851 London: Routledge

Ricardo, David (1817) The Principles of Political Economy [accessed 27/10/00]

Smith, John Owen (1993) The Selborne and Headley Workhouse Riots of 1830 [accessed 5/11/00]