he basis of poor relief in Britain continued to be that of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law until 1834, although there had been some modifications such as the 1662 Settlement Act. Another modification was the passing of Gilbert's Act, which was intended to provide a more humane method for the relief of poverty than that of the 1723 Workhouse Test Act. During the 1780s there was an increase in under- and un-employment in rural areas because of high food prices, low wages and the effects of enclosure. Agricultural labourers were hard-hit and claimed on the poor rates for survival. As a result, poor rates increased rapidly, which was unacceptable to the landowners.
Thomas Gilbert (1720-98) failed to have passed his Act 'for the Better Relief and Employment of the Poor' in 1765 because Gilbert was a supporter of the Duke of Bedford. The Prime Minister, Charles Watson Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham opposed the legislation on factional grounds since he and Bedford were political opponents. Gilbert spent the next 17 years attempting to have his Bill passed. He finally succeeded in 1782, ironically, during Rockingham's second ministry.
The legislation made provision for groups of parishes to form unions so that they could share the cost of poor relief through 'poor houses' which were established for looking after only the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers explicitly were excluded from these poor-houses: instead, either they were to be provided with
- outdoor relief
- employment near their own homes
Land-owners, farmers and other employers were to receive allowances from the parish rates so they could bring wages up to subsistence levels.
Gilbert's Act is often used to demonstrate the government's humanitarianism but it was even more important in expanding the scope of poor relief and attempting to bring the gentry into closer involvement in poor relief administration. Gilbert's legislation of 1786 (26 Geo. III, c. 58) supplemented another Act (22 Geo. III, c. 56), requiring that parishes should provide accurate figures on both poor law expenditure and charitable payments to the poor during the previous three years. These so-called 'Gilbert Returns' show the close connection in the minds of reformers between public and private charity and represent the attempt to legislate on the basis of quantifiable data.
The next major change to the method of poor relief came with the implementation of the 'Speenhamland System': this was not a piece of legislation and was not really a 'system'; it did provide the poor with a subsistence level of food and possibly prevented revolution during the French Wars.
Last modified 12 November 2002