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poor laws

poor laws. During the Middle Ages, canon law required each member of the parish to pay a tax of one-tenth, a tithe, of their income to the church. From this income the rector was required to set aside one-third each year for the relief of the poor. The money was intended to provide for the regular needs of the poor in the parish, such as orphans, the old, and the infirm. It was not intended to remove the duty of Christian charity to give help in times of crisis and emergency.

This parochial system was undermined when tithe incomes began to be appropriated for other uses. For example, papal licences permitted tithe revenues to be claimed by other institutions within the church. In England some of the richer abbeys acquired tithe income in this way. The situation worsened when tithes became a fixed levy rather than a true tenth of incomes within a parish. By the beginning of the reign of Richard II in 1377, about one-third of parishes no longer had any tithes available for the support of the poor and others had depleted resources.

The state intervened to make good the shortcomings in the parochial system with the Acts of 1388 and 1391. These legitimized begging and stipulated that the able-bodied poor should look to their birth parish or the parish where they usually lived for support. Poor relief through the allocation of tithe income, where it existed, and begging elsewhere, continued until the Poor Law of 1536. This required the better-off members of each parish to collect money to support the ‘impotent’, who were defined as the infirm and children. Those who were fit but unemployed could expect no direct help. However, parish funds, where available, could be used to provide employment for them. Initially, giving to the parish collection was a matter of strong moral obligation, but in 1563 it became a legal requirement. Justices of the peace (magistrates) were given the task of determining what should be paid by each householder and an Act of 1572 required that the basis of payment should be reviewed regularly.

Such piecemeal legislation was replaced by a coherent system for England and Wales by the Poor Law Act of 1601. This required each parish to be responsible for its own poor. Justices of the peace had the duty of setting up a framework for the administration of the law, together with the minister of the parish and those householders designated as members of the parish meeting or vestry. The vestry had the authority to raise the necessary money by collecting a rate, the level of which depended on the estimated value of each property in the parish. In practice, some parishes, mainly in large towns, came under the control of a small group of powerful ratepayers including the magistrates and minister, who formed a select vestry. The decisions of all vestries were enforced, on a day-to-day basis, by the parish constable and, where appropriate, by paid officials, who collected rates and acted as overseers of the poor.

Care of the poor varied from place to place. Some parishes bought cottages to house the homeless or built a house where the poor might live. In small rural parishes relief, in money and in kind, was sometimes provided for the poor in their own home. Such a system assumed a settled agrarian society with few itinerants seeking help. In an effort to control the consequences of increasing population movements following the civil wars of the mid-17th cent., the Act of Settlement of 1662 obliged parish authorities to give poor relief only to those either long resident or born in the parish. All others seeking assistance had to return to their place of origin.

During the 18th cent. there were changes in response to increasing numbers of poor amongst those who had migrated to work in expanding industrial areas. The earlier system continued, but the law was amended to allow Poor Law authorities to attempt novel solutions to the problem of the increasing numbers of those seeking relief. Some parishes combined to form a union, which built a workhouse and required those who were poor but able to work to live within it. The poor who entered the workhouse had to wear a uniform and were referred to as paupers. It was hoped, not always justifiably, that the work undertaken in the workhouse would cover its costs. At the end of the 18th cent. rural poverty in southern England grew so persistently that the Berkshire magistrates met at Speenhamland and devised a system of poor relief in cash which supplemented inadequate wages. This system was taken up by other authorities and persisted in some places until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

The Act of 1834 put into practice a system which had operated in the previous decade in the parish of Southwell (Notts.). Relief was given only to those poor who agreed to accept the strict regime of the workhouse, where the conditions provided were funded at a level below that affordable by a person in work. In addition, the new Act created a commission to supervise the establishment of unions of parishes in England and Wales. These unions were to be administered by boards of guardians comprising magistrates and parish ministers of the Church of England, ex officio, and representatives of parishes elected by ratepayers.

All the evidence from official reports and popular literature shows that the Act was loathed by the poor. However, although it was amended on several occasions to make it more appropriate to meet the needs of large urban areas and to respond to the problems of trade depressions and the special needs of children, the basic system remained in place until 1929 when provision for the poor was transferred to county and county borough councils.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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poor law

poor law, in English history, legislation relating to public assistance for the poor. Early measures to relieve pauperism were usually designed to suppress vagrancy and begging. In 1601, England passed the Elizabethan poor-relief act, which recognized the state's obligation to the needy; it provided for compulsory local levies to be administered by the parish, and it required work for the able-bodied poor and apprenticeships for needy children. Local reluctance to support the poor from other areas led to settlement laws limiting migration. Institutional relief was provided by poorhouses, where the aged, sick, or insane were grouped together. From c.1700 workhouses were established where the poor were expected to support themselves by work. However, because of widespread unemployment and low wages, it became customary in the late 18th cent. to give home relief. Poor-law amendments of 1834 sought to establish uniform assistance by placing relief under national supervision; they curtailed home relief and modified the settlement laws. Those amendments assumed that pauperism stemmed partly from unwillingness to work rather than from inadequate employment opportunities. As a result poor relief was maintained at a level below that of the poorest laborer. The Local Government Act of 1929 established the basis for a more far-reaching and humane approach to the conditions of the poor.

See S. Webb and B. Webb, English Poor Law History (1927–29, repr. 1963); J. R. Poynter, Society and Pauperism (1969); M. E. Rose, English Poor Law, 1780–1930 (1971).

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poor laws

poor laws Legislation that was designed to relieve poverty in England. In 1601, the Poor Law Act required individual parishes to provide for the local poor via the levying of property rates. Three categories of poor were identified: vagabonds and beggars, the infirm and the ‘deserving’ unemployed. In 1795, the Speenhamland system provided levels of poor relief based on the price of bread and the size of families. In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act forbade the giving of assistance to the impoverished outside of the workhouse. In the 20th century, the poor laws were finally abolished by social security legislation and the creation of the welfare state.

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