Poor relief

Woodcut-16th century, gentleman giving alms to beggar

In English and British history, poor relief refers to government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty. Over the centuries various authorities have needed to decide whose poverty deserves relief and also who should bear the cost of helping the poor. Alongside ever-changing attitudes towards poverty, many methods have been attempted to answer these questions. Since the early 16th century legislation on poverty enacted by the English Parliament, poor relief has developed from being little more than a systematic means of punishment into a complex system of government-funded support and protection, especially following the creation in the 1940s of the welfare state.

Tudor era

In the late 15th century, parliament took action on the growing[citation needed] problem of poverty, focusing on punishing people for being "vagabonds" and for begging. In 1495, during the reign of King Henry VII, Parliament enacted the Vagabond Act. This provided for officers of the law to arrest and hold "all such vagabonds, idle and suspect persons living suspiciously and them so taken to set in stocks, there to remain three nights and to have none other sustenance but bread and water; and after the said three days and three nights, to be had out and set at large and to be commanded to avoid the town."[1] As historian Mark Rathbone has discussed in his article "Vagabond!", this Act of Parliament relied on a very loose definition of a vagabond and did not make any distinction between those who were simply unemployed and looking for employment and those who chose to live the life of a vagabond. In addition, the Act failed to recognise the impotent poor, those who could not provide for themselves. These included the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. This lack of a precise definition of a vagabond would hinder the effectiveness of the Vagabond Act for years to come.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The problem of poverty in England was exacerbated during the early 16th century by a dramatic increase in the population. This rose "…from little more than 2 million in 1485,…(to) about 2.8 million by the end of Henry VII's reign (1509)". The population was growing faster than the economy's ability to provide employment opportunities.[1] The problem was made worse because during the English Reformation, Henry VIII severed the ecclesiastical governance of his kingdoms of England and Ireland and made himself the "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England. This involved the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Wales: the assets of hundreds of rich religious institutions, including their great estates, were taken by the Crown. This had a devastating impact on poor relief. According to the historian Paul Slack, prior to the Dissolution "it has been estimated that monasteries alone provided 6,500 pounds[2] a year in alms before 1537 (equivalent to £3,400,000 in 2016); and that sum was not made good by private benefactions until after 1580."[3] In addition to the closing of the monasteries, most hospitals (which in the 16th century were generally almshouses rather than medical institutions) were also closed, as they "had come to be seen as special types of religious houses".[4] This left many of the elderly and sick without accommodation or care. In 1531, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act was revised, and a new Act was passed by parliament which did make some provision for the different classes of the poor. The sick, the elderly, and the disabled were to be issued with licences to beg. But those who were out of work and in search of employment were still not spared punishment. Throughout the 16th century, a fear of social unrest was the primary motive for much legislation that was passed by parliament.

Slavery law 1547

Palace of Westminster in the 16th Century

This fear of social unrest carried into the reign of Edward VI. A new level of punishment was introduced in the Duke of Somerset's Vagrancy Act of 1547.[5] "Two years' servitude and branding with a 'V' was the penalty for the first offense, and attempts to run away were to be punished by lifelong slavery and, there for a second time, execution." [1] However, "there is no evidence that the Act was enforced." [1] In 1550 these punishments were revised in a new act that was passed. The act of 1550 makes a reference to the limited enforcement of the punishments established by the Act of 1547 by stating "the extremity of some [of the laws] have been occasion that they have not been put into use." [1]

Parliament and the parish

Following the revision of the Duke of Somerset’s Act of 1547, parliament passed the poor Act in 1552. This focused on using the parishes, which were the areas attached to a parish church, as a source of funds to combat the increasing poverty epidemic. This statute appointed two "overseers" from each parish to collect money to be distributed to the poor who were considered to belong to the parish. These overseers were to ‘gently ask’ [1] for donations for poor relief, and refusal to give money would ultimately result in a meeting with the bishop of the Church of England diocese which contained the parish, and he would ‘induce and persuade’ them.[1] However, at times even such a meeting with the bishop would often fail to achieve its object.

Sensing that voluntary donation was ineffective, parliament passed new legislation in 1563, and once this Act took effect parishioners could be brought by the bishop before the Justices, and continued refusal could lead to imprisonment until contribution was made.[1] However, even this Act still suffered from shortcomings, because individuals could decide for themselves how much money to give in order to gain their freedom.

A more structured system of donations was established by the Vagabonds Act 1572. After determining the amount of funds needed to provide for the poor of each parish, Justices of the Peace were granted the authority to determine the amount of the donation from each parish's more wealthy property-owners. This Act finally turned these donations into what was effectively a local tax.[6]

In addition to creating these new imposed taxes, the Act of 1572 created a new set of punishments to inflict upon the population of vagabonds. These included being "bored through the ear" for a first offense and hanging for "persistent beggars".[1] Unlike the previous brutal punishments established by the Act of 1547, these extreme measures were enforced with great frequency.

However, despite its introduction of such violent actions to deter vagabonding, the Act of 1572 was the first time that parliament had passed legislation which began to distinguish between different categories of vagabonds. "Peddlers, tinkers, workmen on strike, fortune tellers, and minstrels" were not spared these gruesome acts of deterrence. This law punished all able bodied men "without land or master" who would neither accept employment nor explain the source of their livelihood.[1] In this newly established definition of what constituted a vagabond, men who had been discharged from the military, released servants, and servants whose masters had died were specifically exempted from the Act's punishments. This legislation did not establish any means to support these individuals.

A new approach

A system to support individuals who were willing to work, but who were having difficulty in finding employment, was established by the Act of 1576. As provided for in this, Justices of the Peace were authorized to provide any town which needed it with a stock of flax, hemp, or other materials on which paupers could be employed and to erect a "house of correction" in every county for the punishment of those who refused work.[6] This was the first time Parliament had attempted to provide labour to individuals as a means to combat the increasing numbers of "vagabonds".

Two years after the Act of 1576 was passed into law, yet more dramatic changes were made to the methods to fight vagabondage and to provide relief to the poor. The Act of 1578 transferred power from the Justices of the Peace to church officials in the area of collecting the new taxes for the relief of poverty established in the Act of 1572. In addition, this Act of 1578 also extended the power of the church by stating that "…vagrants were to be summarily whipped and returned to their place of settlement by parish constables."[1] By eliminating the need for the involvement of the Justices, law enforcement was streamlined.

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