The business of the poor

June 26, 1998

THE SOLIDARITIES OF STRANGERS. The English poor laws and the people, 1700 1948. By Lynn Hollen Lees. 373pp. Cambridge University Press. Pounds 45. - 0 521 57261 4.

In 1829, Harriet Williams, a widow who had worked for many years as a servant in Hanover Square, became unemployed and decided to visit her uncle in Exmouth. In Exeter she fell ill and applied for poor relief, which was refused because she had no legal "settlement" there; the official ordered her removal from the parish, and she was unceremoniously dumped beside a hedge. Discovered by a gentleman who gave her a lift in his gig for a few miles, she was then abandoned, fainted, and was found by some labourers who took her to a nearby inn. Examined by a poor-law clerk, she was given a few shillings, and then disappears from the records. Her work and residence in London would probably have given her a good entitlement to relief there, but under the English poor law, local obligation was paramount and exclusive.

Lynn Hollen Lees's book The Solidarities of Strangers: The English poor laws and the people 1700-1948 puts flesh on the dry bones of poor- law administration by citing human experiences such as this, derived from a largely untapped wealth of local records, autobiographies and other personal testimony. They present pictures of the treatment of the poor which range from kindness to cruelty, as officials struggled with mounting numbers of applicants, rising costs and changing policies. Lees argues that the poor law was always residualist, in that it dealt with those outside the mainstream of activity, yet that within local communities strong collective ties asserted the "rights" of the poor and the parish's obligations. As feudal responsibility decayed, maintenance of the poor was squarely laid on the parish by Elizabeth I's Act of 1601 which, in a remarkably "modern" way, attempted to categorize the needy for appropriate treatment - orphan children were to be apprenticed to trades, the old and sick were to be maintained in poor-houses, the unemployed "set to work" and those who refused to do so disciplined and reformed in Houses of Correction. The system favoured the young and the old, and, in many parishes in the eighteenth century, half or more of those receiving relief, usually in the form of small pensions or rent allowances, were the elderly. But for the "able-bodied" work was the condition of support and a God-given duty; as Bishop Sherlock of London put it, "Labour is the Business and Employment of the Poor: it is the Work which God has given them to do." Lees rightly observes that "workfare has had a seductive appeal for centuries". When local employers could not be cajoled into taking on extra hands, parishes established their own farms, set men to stone-breaking or road-making, sometimes provided them with tools, training for a trade and travel grants to look for work. When all else failed, there was the workhouse - 2,000 or so of them by the 1770s - though the intention that they be self-supporting institutions was rarely achieved. Increasingly, after the introduction of the Speenhamland system in 1795, it seemed less troublesome to pay allowances related to the number of children and the price of bread, both as supplements to inadequate wages and as doles to the unemployed.

Criticism of the supposed effects of over-generous outdoor relief quickly mounted - that it demoralized labourers, sapped their independence and will to work, lowered wages and, as the Revd Thomas Malthus believed, encouraged illegitimacy, early marriages and a population growth which would outstrip the means to support it. By the 1820s, when 50 per cent of agricultural parishes were supplementing wages and 95 per cent paying child allowances, the old "moral economy" was giving way to the new political economy. The poor were no longer neighbours and objects of compassion, but undeferential, unruly and dangerous, especially when they erupted into widespread rioting in 1830-31. It was time for reform. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the product of the leading classical economist, Nassau Senior, and the Benthamite Edwin Chadwick, aimed to attack pauperism by making the conditions of public relief "less eligible" than the lowest-paid worker could achieve for himself; there would be no more subsidies for the able-bodied, only a deterrent workhouse which none but the truly destitute would accept.

The Act of 1834 did not, of course, aim to relieve poverty. Poverty was natural, inherent in society, even desirable because it encouraged effort and independence. As the proportion of the population applying for relief fell, legislators could congratulate themselves on a successful solution. By the early twentieth century more people were escaping the clutches of the poor law through old-age pensions and the beginnings of health insurance, but it was not until 1942 that William Beveridge proposed a welfare state which would conquer the Giant of Want (his other Giants were Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor). For a quarter of a century after the formal demise of the poor law in 1948, it seemed that welfare policies and Keynesian economics had largely succeeded; now we know that the Giants were only slumbering.

This is a particularly timely book when the whole concept of the welfare state is under review. Are universal benefits still appropriate or affordable; is selectivity only reversion to residualism; should work always be preferred to dependency, and at what level should those who cannot work be maintained? The enduring continuities in social policy are at least as significant as the changes. Lynn Lees's book is not a radical reinterpretation of poor-law history, but it is of great value in making sense of the wide range of poor law research in recent years and in focusing on the human experience of public relief.

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