The Poor Law provided during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I at the very end of the sixteenth century was still in force at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Not much progress had been made during those three hundred years. A Poor Law is supposed to provide public relief, that is benefits paid out of the public purse to the destitute. Poor agricultural organisation and constant wars leaving thousands of out-of-work ex-soldiers ensured there were always destitute people.
In Britain parishes were made responsible for the support of the old, infirm and insane. Workhouses gave work to the workless, and were supposed to feed their otherwise helpless children. The cash necessary came from local rates and taxes, often supervised by unqualified overseers, who might succumb to temptation.
In 1795 the Speenhamland System was introduced by Berkshire magistrates in the small town of that name, a concept rapidly followed in many counties; it was fixed on a sliding scale according to the price of bread, and the size of a labourer’s family. This was attacked by political economists, saying that it interfered with ‘the fair and free competition of the market’, but it seemed to work and by 1831, 80% of the revenue from rates was used for poor relief. But this was blamed by the Poor Law Commission for creating the poverty it was supposed to alleviate. Naturally such a system led to larger families and unnaturally early marriages. Benefits were a response to population increase, unemployment and low wages rather than their cause. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 reflected the ideas of the Commission.
Workhouses were in fact even worse than Dickens describes in novels like Oliver Twist. The idea was to dissuade the able-bodied and sane from getting in, these houses were made ‘less eligible’ a euphemism for dreadful and miserable. Conditions were beyond decent description, the children brought up on a diet of lukewarm gruel (the water used for boiling vegetables and meat), and order was enforced with prodigious use of the cane. The idea was to make life in a workhouse even worse than life in a typical labourer’s cottage. Wives were kept apart from their husbands, and both from their own children. Some comparison could be made with the concentration camp. A leading intellectual said of the workhouse that ‘it was an announcement that whoever will not work ought not to live’.
One must remember that Laws were debated and enacted by a very different group in society – only rich people could be guaranteed a place in Parliament, or at least persons backed by rich people. They knew nothing of the sufferings of the poor, and it is on the cards that they did not care either. They believed that people were poor because they were lazy or because they preferred it that way. It is worthy of note that the poor themselves referred to workhouses as ‘bastilles’. I belong to no commune, but I believe workhouses were intended to be places of terror and shame.
The Poor Law stayed in force throughout the whole of the nineteenth century, though it was totally inadequate. The millionaire philanthropist B. S. Rowntree (1871 – 1954 ‘cocoa and chocolate’) famously declared that fully one third of Britain’s population hadn’t a penny to their name.
Liberal governments in the twentieth century, especially that of 1906 – 1914 slowly dismantled the poor laws. Then the Great War started which ‘solved the problem’ of employment for millions – for a period of five years. After the War, unemployment returned in force.
The National Insurance Act of 1911 began social insurance, which was gradually extended to all classes, including the rich, and by 1946 every employed person paid for an insurance stamp every week – the peoples’ contribution – while employers added their percentage according to status. I believe Britain was the first country to introduce National Insurance and its associated benefits. But Britain had centuries of ill-treatment of the poor to make up for. In 1942 the Beveridge Report, named after its leader founded the ‘Welfare State’ under the aegis of the Labour Party’s government between 1945 and 1948. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin remarked, “At last we have buried the Poor Law”, and he was right, but no-one knew then what abuse of the Welfare State would eventually lead to . . .