The Poor Law

Section I: Research Strategies and Issues

It seems evident that the first step to researching this assignment was obtaining, reading, and analyzing the document. Thankfully, my document had a short introduction at the top, giving a general outline and even a few questions to ask myself as I read through it. These little additions made identifying the historical issue easier than expected. Right away, even before reading the document itself, I knew that the issue was about the draft of the Poor Law.

After reading the document as extensively as possible and making mental notes about smaller, and most likely less accessible historical issues, I decided to broaden the issue a bit to cover the greater history of the Poor Law in England. Unfortunately, my change of mind on the issue really only occurred after I had done a bit of unfocused research – I went out, looking for books without much seriousness of finding actual sources; just to browse the selection, as it were.

I didn’t encounter any major problems during the research of this project. Originally when I had begun looking for secondary sources, I went immediately to books. Now that I can reflect, this actually seemed like the best idea. After searching somewhat extensively, I found it hard to come up with any sources that related specifically to the time period I was searching for. The date given on the primary document was 1536, the initial introduction of the Poor Law, and so this is what I spent my efforts searching for. However, my labors in this case were not very well gratified. I didn’t come up with many resources for this specific time period. This is the point when I decided I was going to have to broaden the historical era for research.

Before actually diving in and reading any of the books or articles (JSTOR) that I had come up with, I went on a generic Internet search for information about the Poor Law’s broad history. I came across a few pages that were able to give a brief history of the topic, but thankfully only enough to get me started on my way with appropriate and reliable secondary sources.

The ideal research strategy would probably consist of significantly more available time and resources. With other classes in my schedule, it obviously remained hard for me to keep the research as a top priority from the time that it was assigned. Had I been able to devote greater time and precedence to this assignment, I’m sure my research strategies would’ve differed greatly.

Section II: Annotated Bibliography

  1. Slack, Paul. The English poor law, 1531 – 1782. Great Britain: University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

    This is by far the most reliable, easy to understand, straightforward source I had come across. Paul Slack goes over what he sees as the most important part of the history of the Poor law from the very first sign induction in 1531. It describes the reasons for the original implementation of the law to the various effects of and changes to the law. Very insightful and provides both perfect background details and detailed information to create a starting point.

  2. Anthony Brundage, David Eastwood. “The Making of the New Poor Law Redivivus.” Past and Present 127 (May, 1990): 183-194.

    This article was probably the most eye opening of the journals. It discussed greatly the differing views of the Poor Law, especially the role of paternalist practices. This was really more of debate paper (author versus Peter Mandler) than an informative work, but it nonetheless offered two conflicting but equally important opinions on various specifics of the law. It was not necessarily essential to the bare history of the issue, but it would certainly help to dig deeper into more specialized interests.

  3. Mary MacKinnon. “Poverty and Policy: The English Poor Law, 1860-1910.” The Journal of Economic History Vol. 46, No. 2 (June, 1986): 500-502.

    As the source suggests, this article mainly focuses on the economic matters behind the English Poor Law. It discusses the actual statistics: rates of unemployment and income rather then the reasons of why they were that way. By drawing my own conclusions, I did find the statistics useful in that way. As well, this focused on the much later effects of the poor law, from the mid-nineteenth century to even the early twentieth century.

  4. George R. Boyer. “The Economic Role of the English Poor Law, 1780-1834.” The Journal of Economic History Vol. 45, No. 2. (June, 1985): 452-454.

    Though short, this article really helps in understanding some of the causes and effects of the later presence of the English Poor Law. It brings up the issue of the Speenhamland system as an emergency response to high food prices that resulted in greater unemployment, which generally caused greater mayhem. Additionally, it does a good job of centering emphasis on the agricultural impact and cause of the Poor Law, which seemed to be more vague in other sources.

  5. Mark Blaug. “The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New.” The Journal of Economic History Vol. 23, No. 2 (June, 1963): 151-184.

    This really seemed like the most in-depth of the articles. The fine details were aplenty, maybe even too much, but when taken as a whole it was an excellent source of information. It made great comparisons from the Old Poor Law to the New, and made great references between the economic and employment circumstances of both eras.

Section III: Examination by Historians

Quite obviously, the easiest way of looking at the positive or negative effects of such a law would be to look at the before and after. This is exactly what each of the sources seemed to do for the most part, especially the book resource by Paul Slack. The other journals referenced seem to also use factual statistics to prove the effectiveness of the implemented law, for example: “real per capita relief expenditures increased significantly faster from 1748/50 to 1782/84 than from 1782/84 to 1832/34 (1.42 percent versus 0.78 percent per year).”1

Using these statistics is probably the most historically reliable way of relaying information to the reader. Although it’s often acknowledged that statistics can be made to do and say whatever you want them to, it’s not necessarily easy to do that with such a broad issue as the Poor Law. I’m sure that historians are more concerned about simply sharing their research rather than using to give their potentially irrelevant outright opinion. In this case, I found it hard to really say whether the authors of these articles/books were for or against the Poor Law (or its causes and effects). The theses, of the journals at least, seem to be more aimed toward providing explanations rather than opinions. In “The Economic Role of the English Poor Law”, it does describe a “hypothesis that implicit labor contracts containing seasonal layoffs and outdoor relief represented an efficient method for securing an adequate peak-season labor force” still seems no more judgment than fact, even despite it’s wording. The journals and books seem to do little more than reflect what has happened, and not necessarily how much the authors think it benefited or proved for greater loss.

The purpose of the English Poor Law was to create help for the paupers and beggars of the society. Many struggled as the result of Acts of God, and the government knew this and was willing to help. As a result, things changed significantly economically, socially and politically – this simply can’t be denied. This was, if nothing else, one of the major points being made by the sources.

Section IV: Overview of Document

This document, as so much as my research has told me, was the first enactment of the English Poor Law from 1536. The Poor Law came quickly as a result of growing populations, and therefore an increase in the number of poor.3 This introduction to the Poor Law was written as a formal, government file. Knowing this, the document would likely further go on to be the basis for later and better-outlined laws regarding the poor, written by other government-type authorities. The language is quite formal and seems very specific and descriptive.

Emphasis in the document seems to be greatly focused on the various types of poor: valiant beggars, handicapped beggars, vagabonds, and others. With this in mind, at first it does seem rather biased towards these paupers, but it does seem to acknowledge that some arrive in their unfortunate situations by accident. I could’ve been under the disposed assumption that all the government wanted to do was rid the land of all beggars completely and quickly. At the time that the document was produced, economic and social problems were severe and were placing a lot of pressure on the government. This sort of situation would almost call for an expected government reaction of unreasonable proportions. However, it has been said that the Poor Law was inspired by humanism, and the need to keep up the welfare of others.4

It generally just seems quite obvious why the document was written in the first place: the government had an issue with the increasing number of poor in the population, and they wanted to do something about it. Any explanation beyond that may just be clouding the issue with unnecessary details. This initial draft of the Poor Law would be the starting point of many revisions of similar laws. And as with any government amendment to society, there would be much debate that follows.

The author’s intentions are fairly explicit. He is identifying the issue at hand, as was stated many times above, and outlining reasons and solutions to the problem. It was likely to be read by the King and the other important government figures associated with implementing societal laws. As these are the intentions and audience, the one obvious viewpoint that was neglected was that of the poor themselves. Though the law is doing nothing but providing the poor with much needed support, their view would have been still relevant to the issue and writing of the law itself.

Section V: Significance of Issue

There is no doubt that the introduction and evolution of the Poor Law over the course of more than four hundred years is significant. The kingdom foresaw a problem that was both already among them and growing faster: the population was increasing while the food supply and job opportunities were not able to keep up. As a result, many were left without jobs and unable to obtain any, and many others simply could no longer afford food with the ever-increasing prices of goods. With all of this at hand, no one could simply just sit idly by while this was happening, and thus the initial Poor Law was enacted and transformed itself just as the law transformed society back to norm.

It is offered that “poor relief destroyed incentives to work, and did nothing to increase productivity”, but there is much more to it than this overly pessimistic view.5 Whether directly or indirectly, however, the Poor Law provided much for English society in many ways. More gracious societies arose, living standards rose, it helped to preserve and stabilize the country politically, and it encouraged social and cultural differentiation.6

As far as I’m concerned, any effort to help the less fortunate is worth the money and time. Although that’s a pretty broad statement, I see no reason why it cannot apply to a law first established in the early sixteenth century. For it to have lasted for nearly four hundred years and eventually be replaced with a National Assistance Board in 1948, it surely must have been successful to some degree, no matter how historians choose to display the facts.

What there is to learn from the past is undoubtedly relevant to what we have to do today. We are learning from both the pros and cons of such things as the Poor Law, and we are implementing them back into our system all of the time, either directly or indirectly. To have this put into practice in the first place was inevitable, as the problem with the increasing poor population was not going to fix itself. Even if I thought that the poor law created a lot of problems for the contemporary culture, its benefits would still be great to us today. We can learn just as much from our mistakes as from our triumphs.

End Notes

  1. George R. Boyer. “The Economic Role of the English Poor Law, 1780-1834.” The Journal of Economic History Vol. 45, No. 2. (June, 1985): 452-454.
  2. Boyer
  3. Slack, Paul. The English poor law, 1531 – 1782. (Great Britain: University Press, Cambridge, 1990), 3
  4. Ibid.
  5. Slack, 45
  6. Slack, 43-48

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