A History of the Poor Law

By Tim Lambert

The Poor in Tudor Times

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. Every man was supposed to have a master and stay in one place. Large numbers of people on the move without a master worried the authorities. They feared vagabonds were a threat to social stability and so they were dealt with very harshly.

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 that 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. Once again flogging was made the punishment for vagrancy.

The Establishment of the Poor Law

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.

During the 18th century, the Poor Law continued to operate. In the 17th century, there were some workhouses. In them, the poor were housed but had to do some form of work. They became much more common in the 18th century.

In 1792 magistrates met at Speenhamland in Berkshire and devised a system for helping the poor. Low wages were supplemented with money raised by a poor rate. Many areas of England adopted the system but it proved to be unpopular with the wealthy and the government decided to change things.

In 1834 they passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. In the future, the poor were to be treated harshly to dissuade them from seeking help from the state. In the future, able-bodied people with no income were to be forced to enter a workhouse. (In practice some of the elected Boards of Guardians sometimes gave the unemployed ‘outdoor relief’ i.e. they were given money and allowed to live in their own homes).

For the unfortunate people made to enter workhouses, life was made as unpleasant as possible. 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 fertiliser.

The poor called the new workhouses ‘bastilles’ (after the infamous prison in Paris) and they caused much bitterness. However, as the century went on the workhouses gradually became more humane.

In the early 20th century the poor law was gradually replaced by a new welfare state. In 1906 a Liberal government was elected and they introduced several reforms.

In 1908 the Old Age Pensions Act gave small pensions to people over 70. The pensions were hardly generous but they were a start. From 1925 pensions were paid to men over 65 and women over 60. Widows were also given pensions.

In 1911 the National Insurance Act was passed. All employers and employees made contributions to a fund. If a worker was ill he was entitled to free treatment by a doctor. (Normally you had to pay and it was expensive). If he could not work because of illness the worker was given a small amount of money to live on. However, his family was n entitled to free medical treatment.

From 1911 workers in certain trades such as building and shipbuilding who frequently had periods of unemployment all contributed to a fund. If unemployed they could claim a small amount of money for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year. Again it was hardly generous but in 1920 the scheme was extended to most (not all) workers and they were given money for more than 15 weeks.

Workhouses became increasingly unnecessary and the poor law was finally abolished in 1929.

Last revised 2024