In 1798 Thomas Malthus published his Principles of Population in which he asserted that the population was growing at an unsustainable rate. It was thought that one of the reasons for this was the operation of the Speenhamland (and similar) systems which gave outdoor relief based on the price of bread and the number of children a man had. The thinking was that people had more children so they could claim more from the poor rates. This extract outlines the 'improvements' brought about by ending the allowance system and introducing the principle of 'less eligibility'.
The next class of specific effects which have followed the application of the principle of keeping the condition of the pauper inferior to that of the independent labourer, is, that it has arrested the increase of population, which the evidence shows to be produced by the present state of the law and of its administration.
In the Report from Cookham, it is stated, that 'some very striking consequences have resulted from the operation of the present system. In the eight years preceding the operation of the new system, the increase of population was very rapid; for the eight years subsequent there was, as compared with the eight years preceding, a positive diminution. Improvident marriages are less frequent'. In the Report from Swallowfield, it is stated, that 'the number of improvident marriages is diminished about one half'. In Bingham, the diminution of improvident marriages was about one-half; and yet, in all these parishes, illegitimate births, instead of having been promoted by the diminution of marriages, have been repressed still more effectually, and in the last, almost extinguished.
Whatever impels any class into courses of sustained industry must necessarily diminish crime; and we find that one characteristic of the dispauperised parishes is the comparative absence of crime. In Bingham, before the change of system took place, scarcely a night passed without mischief;' and during the two years preceding 1818, seven men of the parish were transported for felonies; now there is scarcely any disorder in the place. In Uley and Southwell parishes crime has similarly ceased. In almost every instance the content of the labourers increased with their industry.
The Report from His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, 1834, pp. 240-41.
Last modified 12 November 2002