One of the main problems in rural England in the 1830s was that employers paid low wages, thus impoverishing agricultural labourers who then claimed on the poor rates for supplements to wages as provided for under the Speenhamland (and similar) systems. The Poor Law Commissioners thought that if the subsidisation of wages was stopped then wages would rise. Unfortunately, this did not happen until the 1850s and in the meantime, many agricultural labourers found themselves and their families having to go into the workhouse. This extract sets out an example of the beneficial effects of ending wage subsidies.
efore the experiment was made, it might fairly have been anticipated that the discontinuance of parochial allowances would effect little or no improvement in wages unless a similar change were made in the neighbouring parishes. When a considerable proportion of the labourers who had been entirely dependent upon the parish were driven to rely on their own industry, it might have been anticipated that the wages of the entire body of labourers within the parish would have been injuriously affected by their competition. And this certainly would have been the case if they had added nothing to the fund out of which their wages came. That fund is, in fact, periodically consumed and reproduced by the labourer, assisted by the land and the farmer's capital, and, all other things remaining the same, the amount of that fund, and consequently his share if it, or, in other words, the amount of his wages, depends on his industry and skill. If all the labourers in a parish cease to work, they no longer produce any fund for their own subsistence, and must either starve or be supported, as they were at Cholesbury [a Buckinghamshire village], by rates in aid. A single person who has no property and is supported without working, bears the same relation to the labourers who do work as the parishioners of Cholesbury bore to the neighbouring parishes. He is supported by a sort of rate in aid on their industry. His conversion from a pauper, wholly or partially supported by the labour of others, into an independent labourer producing his own subsistence, and in addition to that, a profit to his employer, so far from injuring his fellow workmen, produces on them the same effects, as the enabling the inhabitants of Cholesbury to support themselves has produced on the parishes which had to supply them with rates in aid. This has been perceived by some of our witnesses. A farmer of considerable intelligence, who had resided in Cookham, and observed the effects of the change in that parish, declared his conviction that if such a change could be generally introduced, the money saved in poor's rates would almost immediately be paid in wages. The withdrawal of relief in aid of wages appears to be succeeded by effects in the following order:
First the labourer becomes more steady and diligent;
Next the more efficient labour makes the return to the farmer's capital larger, and the consequent increase of the fund for the employment of labour enables and induced the capitalist to give better wages.
Report from His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws (1834)
Last modified 2 October 2002