poor law

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During the Middle Ages, canon law required each member of the parish to pay a tax of one‐tenth, a tithe, of their income to the church. From this income the rector was required to set aside one‐third each year for the relief of the poor. This parochial system was undermined when tithe incomes began to be appropriated for other uses. The situation worsened when tithes became a fixed levy rather than a true tenth of incomes within a parish.

The state intervened to make good the shortcomings in the parochial system with the Acts of 1388 and 1391. These legitimized begging and stipulated that the able‐bodied poor should look to their birth parish or the parish where they usually lived for support. Poor relief through the allocation of tithe income, where it existed, and begging elsewhere, continued until the Poor Law of 1536. Those who were fit but unemployed could expect no direct help. However, parish funds, where available, could be used to provide employment for them.

Such piecemeal legislation was replaced by a coherent system for England and Wales by the Poor Law Act of 1601. This Act required each parish to be responsible for its own poor. Justices of the peace had the duty of setting up a framework for the administration of the law and, together with the minister of the parish and those householders designated as members of the parish meeting or vestry, had the task of organizing poor relief. The vestry had the authority to raise the necessary money by collecting a rate.

Care of the poor varied from place to place. Some parishes bought cottages to house the homeless or built a house where the poor might live. In small rural parishes relief, in money and in kind, was sometimes provided for the poor in their own home. Such a system assumed a settled agrarian society with few itinerants seeking help. The Act of Settlement of 1662 obliged parish authorities to give poor relief only to those either long resident or born in the parish. All others seeking assistance had to return to their place of origin.

During the 18th cent. there were changes in response to increasing numbers of poor amongst those who had migrated to work in industrial areas. The earlier system continued, but the law was amended to allow Poor Law authorities to attempt novel solutions to the problem of the increasing numbers of those seeking relief. Some parishes combined to form a union, which built a workhouse and required those who were poor but able to work to live within it. The poor who entered the workhouse had to wear a uniform and were referred to as paupers. At the end of the 18th cent. rural poverty in southern England grew so persistently that the Berkshire magistrates met at Speenhamland and devised a system of poor relief in cash which supplemented inadequate wages. This system was taken up by other authorities and persisted in some places until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.


Subjects: British History.

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