Before the Reformation, it was considered to be a religious duty for all Christians
to undertake the seven corporal works of mercy. These were deeds aimed at relieving
bodily distress: in accordance with the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 25 vv. 32-46)
people were to
- feed the hungry
- give drink to the thirsty
- welcome the stranger
- clothe the naked
- visit the sick
- visit the prisoner
- bury the dead
After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church
of England, many of the old values and moral expectations disappeared so
it became necessary to regulate the relief of poverty by law. During the reign
of Elizabeth I, a spate of legislation was passed to deal with the increasing
problem of raising and administering poor relief.
Parish registers of the poor were introduced so that there
was an official record of those who fell into the category of 'poor'
Justices of the Peace were authorised and empowered to raise
compulsory funds for the relief of the poor and, for the first time, the
poor were put into different categories
- those who would work but could not: these were the able-bodied
or deserving poor. They were to be given help either through outdoor
relief or by being given work in return for a wage.
- those who could work but would not: these were the idle poor.
They were to be whipped through the streets, publicly, until they learned
the error of their ways.
- those who were too old/ill/young to work: these were the impotent
or deserving poor. They were to be looked after in almshouses, hospitals,
orphanages or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were to
be given a trade apprenticeship so that they would have a trade to pursue
when they grew up.
the first compulsory local poor law tax was imposed making
the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility
the idea of a deterrent workhouse was first suggested although
nothing was done at this point
Justices of the Peace once more were authorised and empowered
to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor and the post of 'Overseer
of the Poor' was created. The position continued after the 1834 Poor
Law Amendment Act
the 'Elizabethan Poor Law' was passed
Provisions of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601
It [43 Eliz I Cap.
2], consolidated all the previous legislation into one massive law and
made provision for
- a compulsory poor rate to be levied on every parish
- the creation of 'Overseers' of relief
- the 'setting the poor on work'
- the collection of a poor relief rate from property owners
The law required each parish to elect two Overseers of the Poor every Easter:
those who were elected were unpaid and often were unwilling appointees who acted
under the supervision of the JPs. However, the means of poor relief did provide
a way of controlling the 'lower orders' and reinforced a sense of social hierarchy.
The Elizabethan Poor Law were appropriate for the society of the time.
The duties of the Overseers were to
- work out how much money would be needed for the relief of the poor and set
the poor rate accordingly
- collect the poor rate from property owners
- relieve the poor by dispensing either food or money
- supervise the parish poor-house
Two types of relief were available
Outdoor relief: the poor would be left in their own homes and would be given either a 'dole' of money on which to live or be given relief in kind - clothes and food for example. This was the norm.
- the poor would be taken into the local almshouse
- the ill would be admitted to the hospital
- orphans were taken into the orphanage
- the idle poor would be taken into the poor-house or workhouse where
they would be set to work
Part of the 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for
each other, so elderly parents were expected to live with their children for
example. However, everyone in need was looked after at the expense of the parish,
which was the basic unit of poor law administration. There were 15,000
parishes throughout England and Wales, each based on a parish church. However,
no mechanism was introduced to enforce any of the measures stated by the 1601
Act and the operation of the poor law was inconsistent. The legislation did
not set down any administrative standards so parishes were at liberty to interpret
the law in any way they wished. There were great differences between parishes
which varied between extreme laxity and extreme stringency in the interpretation
of the law. Some towns, such as Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool, obtained local
by-laws that established corporations of the poor: their responsibilities extended
over several of the urban parishes within their jurisdiction.
The Elizabethan legislation was intended to help the 'settled' poor who found
themselves out of work (for example) because of illness, or during a hard winter
or a trade depression. It was assumed that these people would accept whatever
work or relief the parish offered, whether that was indoor or outdoor relief.
Neither method of assistance was seen as punitive or harsh. It was intended
to deter or deal with the 'sturdy beggars' who were roaming the roads, robbing
travellers and generally posing a threat to civil order. The increase in the
numbers of beggars was probably the historical background to the nursery rhyme
Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!
The beggars are coming to town:
Some in rags, some in tags
And one in a velvet gown
The first adaptation of the 1601 Act came in 1607 and provided for the setting
up of Houses of Correction in each county. Here, work was provided for the unemployed
at local rates of pay; work could be forced on the idle and on vagabonds. The
Houses of Correction were not part of the Elizabethan system of poor relief
and were totally separate from the parish poor houses because the law made a
clear separation between the settled and 'wandering' poor.
The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law continued with further adaptations — for example
the 1662 Settlement Act, Gilbert's
Act (1782) and the Speenhamland system of 1795
— until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment
Act and formed the basis of poor relief throughout the country for over
two centuries. It was a fair and equitable system run for and administered by
local people at a time when the population was small enough for everyone to
know everyone else and his/her circumstances. This meant that the idle poor
were known as such and would be given short shrift at the hands of the Overseers
of the poor.
One of the later complaints about the 1601 Act was that the basis of the law
was that it rated land and buildings but not personal or movable wealth. Consequently
it benefited the industrial and commercial groups in society who did not fall
within the parameters of the legislation and so did not pay into the poor rates
unless they also happened to own landed property.
12 November 2002