The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law provided for each parish to raise a rate for the relief of poverty within its own jurisdiction; in 1662 the Settlement Laws restricted the obligation of the parish to looking after persons who had a permanent settlement there. In 1723 the Workhouse Test Act (Knatchbull's Act) obliged the poor to enter workhouses in order to obtain relief; Gilbert's Act (1782) excluded the able-bodied poor from the workhouse and forced parishes to provide either work or outdoor relief for this group of people. Indoor relief was confined specifically to caring for the old, sick, inform and dependent children.

In 1793 Britain became involved in the French Wars (1793-1815). This made the import of foodstuffs from Europe increasingly difficult and the price of bread increased rapidly. Concurrently, there were food shortages because of a series of poor harvests. The correlation between high bread prices, food shortages and riots was well established in Britain so to prevent potential disturbances, the magistrates of the Berkshire village of Speen held a meeting at the Pelican Inn on 6 May 1795. They felt that 'the present state of the poor law requires further assistance than has generally been given them' and decided to bring in an allowance scale whereby a labourer would have his income supplemented to subsistence level by the parish, according to the price of bread and the number of children in his family. They went on to publish the following resolution:

That it is not expedient for the Magistrates to grant that assistance by regulating the Wages of Day Labourers, according to the directions of the Statutes of the 5th Elizabeth and 1st James: But the Magistrates very earnestly recommend to the Farmers and others throughout the county, to increase the pay of their Labourers in proportion to the present price of provisions; and agreeable thereto, the Magistrates now present, have unanimously resolved that they will, in their several divisions, make the following calculations and allowances for relief of all poor and industrious men and their families, who to the satisfaction of the justices of their Parish, shall endeavour (as far as they can) for their own support and maintenance.

That is to say, when the Gallon Loaf of Second Flour, Weighing 8lb. 11ozs. [3.9 kg] shall cost 1s. then every poor and industrious man shall have for his own support 3s. weekly, either produced by his own or his family's labour, or an allowance from the poor rates, and for the support of his wife and every other of his family, 1s. 6d. When the Gallon Loaf shall cost 1s. 4d., then every poor and industrious man shall have 4s. weekly for his own, and 1s. and 10d. for the support of every other of his family. And so in proportion, as the price of bread rise or falls (that is to say) 3d. to the man, and 1d. to every other of the family, on every 1d. which the loaf rise above 1s.

By order of the Meeting.
W. BUDD, Deputy Clerk of the Peace.

The following example of the scales of relief shows how the 'system' operated:

Income for

When a gallon loaf cost









Single man








Husband and wife








Husband, wife and one child








Husband, wife and two children








The idea spread rapidly in the south of England and it is thought that the system saved many families from starvation. Although Pitt attempted — and failed — to have the idea passed into legislation, this method of poor relief was not a national system. In the post-war depression after 1815 it was felt that there was a need to increase employment in rural areas in an attempt to reduce unemployment. The system was particularly common in the counties where the "Captain Swing" riots erupted in 1830. As time passed, contemporary writers such as Thomas Malthus said that the system tended to increase the population because it encouraged labourers to marry earlier than they might have done without the availability of poor relief.

One of the effects of the Speenhamland System was that ratepayers often found themselves subsidising the owners of large estates who paid poor wages. It was not unknown for landowners to demolish empty houses in order to reduce the population on their lands and also to prevent the return of those who had left. At the same time, they would employ labourers from neighbouring parishes: these people could be laid off without warning but would not increase the rates in the parish where they worked. Farmers often were the same men who paid low wages and laid off workers; consequently, subsidising wages through poor relief drove wages down even further. What was intended as a safety net ended up causing many more problems.

There were a number of variations to the Speenhamland System

In 1832 the Employment of Labourers Act gave sanction to the labour rate: the Act expired on 25 March 1834 and coincided with the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act. The 1832 Act allowed a majority of 75% of the landowners in a parish — voting in accordance with Sturges-Bourne's plural voting system — to adopt the labour rate, provided that the JPs at the Petty sessions approved of the plan.

The total labour bill for the parish was worked out by multiplying the number of settled able-bodied labourers by their 'supposed' market value and requiring each employer to hire a quantity of labour based on his rateable value or acreage. Those refusing to hire their quota of workers paid the difference in value into the poor rates.

The labour rate was preferred to the 'demoralising' roundsman system by both landowners and tenant farmers who employed lots of men. However, the labour rate was denounced by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Poor Laws on the grounds that it did not distinguish between free and pauper labour.

Last modified 7 November 2002