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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Poor Laws

The Poor Law of 1601 codified the method for coping with the needy which had evolved in local areas during the 16C. It had been widely realized that the problem could only be solved by a compulsory levy on householders within a district, and the act established the relevant district as the *parish. It took a long time before the law was effective nationally, but over the next two centuries it gradually became accepted that parishioners were responsible for the well-being of the poor in their midst. The poor naturally tended to gravitate towards richer or more generous parishes, and a familiar aspect of the poor laws in the 18C was a widespread obsession with keeping out or throwing out the needy from elsewhere.

Economic conditions during and after the Napoleonic Wars led to alarming increases in the poor rates, causing the entire system to be brought into question. As a result the new Poor Law of 1834 changed the emphasis; it introduced, on rigorously *Benthamite principles, a much more stern and disapproving view of those applying for help. A relatively little used element of the previous system had been the workhouses, in which the able-bodied poor were supposed to be provided with work of a kind useful to the parish. After 1834 these became a central part of the scheme. They were redefined as institutions which had to be more uncomfortable than the lowest level of subsistence in the outside community, with discipline and hard work to reinforce the message.

By mid-century the workhouse was established in the public mind as a terrifying place of last refuge, as the legislators of 1834 had intended. Later in the century humanity reasserted itself in most such institutions, and many workhouses became pioneers of health care and education for the poor. But the public hatred of the system was powerfully expressed in a poem of 1903, Christmas Day in the Workhouse by George Sims. It depicts a dramatic moment when an inmate thrusts away the Christmas meal so charitably brought by the guardians and their ladies, and then roundly abuses them for their patronizing cruelty; exactly a year ago, he tells them, his starving wife died after he had been denied a crust of bread for her at the door of this same workhouse – on the grounds that they never gave 'out relief', but would instead admit her to the institution.

A Royal Commission investigated the poor laws in 1909, and a minority of four members recommended scrapping the system entirely (one of them, Beatrice *Webb, wrote the minority report). The Poor Law of 1930 finally altered the emphasis to that of social security, under the national control of the minister of health, and in 1948 the postwar Labour government established the right of the poor to national assistance.

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