A History of Poverty

By Tim Lambert

Poverty in the Middle Ages

Not much was written about poverty in the Middle Ages. The poor were not considered important. Much more was written about the rich and powerful. However, in the Middle Ages, poverty was common. England was basically a subsistence economy where each village made most of the things it needed and most of the population were subsistence farmers. They grew as much food as their families needed (if they were lucky).

Surprisingly, perhaps, examining Medieval skeletons shows that most people had an adequate diet, except in times of famine. However, life must have been very hard for the disabled. There were many disabled beggars in Medieval towns.

The Church tried to help the poor. The Church taught that it was a Christian duty to give to the poor. In monasteries, a monk called an almoner gave alms to the poor. However, in the Middle Ages, fearful poverty was an inescapable part of life. The Church also ran the only hospitals in the Middle Ages.

Things did improve after the Black Death of 1348-49. In England, about one-third of the population died. Afterward, there was a shortage of workers so wages rose. In the 15th-century wage, labourers were better off than in the 13th century.

Poverty in England in the 16th Century

With the rise in population during the 16th century jobs were not always easy to find. In Tudor times there were thousands of people without jobs wandering around looking for work. There were also disabled beggars. Some people pretended to be mad or disabled to beg. Tudor governments tolerated people who were disabled begging. However, they did not tolerate able-bodied people without jobs wandering around. They saw such ‘sturdy vagabonds’ as a threat to law and order.

Since the 14th century, there had been laws against vagabonds but in 1530 a new law was passed. The old and disabled poor were to be given licenses to beg. However, anyone roaming without a job was tied to a cart in the nearest market town and whipped till they were bloody. They were then forced to return to the parish where they had been born or where they had lived for the last 3 years. A law of 1547 said vagabonds could be made slaves for 2 years. If he ran away during that time he was branded and made a slave for life. This terrible law was abolished in 1550.

Poverty in England in the 17th Century

At the end of the 17th century, a writer estimated that half the population could afford to eat meat every day. In other words, about 50% of the people were wealthy or at least reasonably well off. Below them, about 30% of the population could afford to eat meat between 2 and 6 times a week. They were ‘poor’. The bottom 20% could only eat meat once a week. They were very poor. At least part of the time they had to rely on poor relief.

By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had the power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for. The overseers were meant to provide work for the able-bodied poor. Anyone who refused to work was whipped and, after 1607, they could be placed in a house of correction. Pauper’s children were sent to local employers to be apprentices.

A law of 1697 said that paupers (people supported by the parish) must wear a blue or red ‘P’ on their clothes. On a more cheerful note in the 17th century in many towns, wealthy people left money in their wills to provide almshouses where the poor could live.

Poverty in England in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, probably half the population lived at subsistence or bare survival level. In the early part of the century, England suffered from gin drinking. It was cheap and it was sold everywhere as you did not need a license to sell it. Many people ruined their health by drinking gin. Yet for many poor people drinking gin was their only comfort. The situation improved after 1751 when a tax was imposed on gin.

In the 18th century, craftsmen and laborers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain. Despite the improvements in farming methods during the 18th century food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them, meat was a luxury. They lived mainly on bread, butter, potatoes, and tea.

During the 18th century, the Poor Law continued to operate. In the 17th century, there were some workhouses where the poor were housed but where they were made to work. They became much more common in the 18th century.

Poverty in Britain in the 19th Century

We know more about poverty in the 19th century than in previous ages because, for the first time, people did accurate surveys and made detailed descriptions of the lives of the poor. We also have photographs and they tell a harrowing story. At the end of the 19th century, more than 25% of the population was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness).

If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. Married couples were separated and children over 7 were separated from their parents. The inmates were made to do hard work like breaking stones to make roads or breaking bones to make fertilizer. The poor called the new workhouses ‘bastilles’ (after the infamous prison in Paris) and they caused much bitterness. However during the 19th century workhouses gradually became more humane.

At the beginning of the 20th century surveys by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree showed that more than 25% of the population was living in poverty. They found that at least 15% were living at the subsistence level. They had just enough money for food, rent, fuel, and clothes. They could not afford ‘luxuries’ such as newspapers or public transport. About 10% were living below subsistence level and could not afford an adequate diet. (Charles Booth published Life and Labour of the People in London in 17 volumes in 1902-03. Poverty, A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree was published in 1901.)

The surveys found that the main cause of poverty was low wages. But the main cause of extreme poverty was the loss of the main breadwinner. If dad was dead, ill, or unemployed it was a disaster. Mum might get a job but women were paid much lower wages than men.

Surveys also found that poverty tended to go in a cycle. Workers might live in poverty when they were children but things usually improved when they left work and found a job. However, when they married and had children things would take a turn for the worse. Their wages might be enough to support a single man comfortably but not enough to support a wife and children too. However, when the children grew old enough to work things would improve again. Finally, when he was old a worker might find it hard to find work, except the lowest-paid kind, and be driven into poverty again.

Poverty in Britain in the 20th Century

In 1900 some women made their underwear from bags that grocers kept rice or flour in. Poor children often did not wear underwear. Some poor families made prams from orange boxes.

A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and they made some reforms. From that year poor children were given free school meals. In January 1909 the first old-age pensions were paid. They were hardly generous – only 5 shillings a week, which was a paltry sum even in those days, and they were only paid to people over 70. Nevertheless, it was a start.

Also in 1909, the government formed wages councils. In those days some people worked in the so-called ‘sweated industries’ such as making clothes and they were very poorly paid and had to work extremely long hours just to survive. The wage councils set minimum pay levels for certain industries. In 1910 the first labor exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up.

Then in 1911, the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefits for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. In 1920 unemployment benefit was extended to most workers although it was not extended to agricultural workers until 1936.

Things greatly improved after the First World War. A survey in 1924 showed that 4% of the population was living in extreme poverty. (A tremendous improvement from the period before 1914 when it was about 10%). A survey in Liverpool in 1928 found that 14% of the population was living at subsistence level. (That figure may not apply to the whole of Britain as n was a poor city). In 1929-30 a survey in London found that about 10% of the population were living at subsistence level. A survey in 1936 found that just under 4% were living at a bare survival level. Poverty had by no means disappeared by the 1930s but it was much less than ever before.

Pensions and unemployment benefits were made more generous in 1928 and in 1930. In 1931 unemployment benefit was cut by 10% but it was restored in 1934. Furthermore, prices continued to fall during the 1930s. By 1935 a man on the ‘dole’ was about as well off as a skilled worker in 1905, a measure of how much living standards had risen.

By 1950 absolute poverty had almost disappeared from Britain. Absolute poverty can be defined as not having enough money to eat an adequate diet or afford enough clothes. However, there is also such a thing as relative poverty, when you cannot afford the things most people have. Relative poverty persisted in the late 20th century and it increased in the 1980s. That was partly due to mass unemployment. During the 1980s the gap between rich and poor increased as the well-off benefited from tax cuts.

Poverty in the 21st Century

Poverty still exists in the UK in the 21st century. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the number of people using food banks.

My Youtube video about the history of poverty

Last revised 2024