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Legal history: England & common law tradition: Poor Law

Poor Law regimes

Factors that meant people without regular jobs/fixed homes increased/became increasingly visible to authorities:

  • rising population (between 1500-1650 estimated to have doubled)
  • enclosure of land
  • occasional bad harvests & farming crises
  • trade depressions
  • closure of monasteries 1536-9 (which had given charitable relief)

Statutory responses show a mix of charitable/welfare concerns, the desire to prevent rewarding the healthy but idle (sturdy beggars), and the fears of public disorder that could result from the itinerant poor (vagrants and vagabonds) turning to violence and/or theft.

Some key statutes & developments up to the 1601 Act

22 Henry 8 c 12  Statutes of the Realm, v 3 p 328

27 Henry 8 c 25 Statutes of the Realm, v 3 p 558

39 Eliz 1 c 4 Statutes of the Realm, v 4 p 899

 43 Eliz 1 c 2 Statutes of the Realm, v 4 p 962

From 1572 Overseers of the Poor appointed in parishes
From 1601 duties of Overseers & Churchwardens defined

Later reigns also saw a lot of statutory interventions

14 Chas 2 c 12 - every pauper had a place of legal settlement
1691 ways of acquiring settlement laid down
1696-1721 growth of Union workhouses

13 Anne c 11 Vagrancy transportable offence

22 Geo.3 c.83 "Gilbert’s Act" – allowed  outdoor relief, leaving  workhouse places for the aged and infirm 

3 Geo 4 c 40 Vagrancy (England) Act

5 Geo 4 c 83 For the Punishment of Vagabonds, Rogues, and idle and disorderly persons

From the 1790s onwards increasing recognition that reform was needed resulting in

1795 – Speenhamland system – a sliding scale for outdoor relief related to the price of grain

1815 Abridgement of abstract of answers and returns relative to expense and maintenance of poor in England and Wales, 1813–1815 BPP, 1818, XIX.1 (82)

1832 Royal Commission to investigate state of the poor laws

Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 4/5 Wm 4 c 76

1909 Royal commission on poor laws and relief of distress & 2 volume Minority Report

The National Committee to Promote the Break-up of the Poor Law

Print collection in the Bodleian Libraries

Most of the modern commentary on this topic will be in Bodleian History Reading Rooms or  the closed stack.

However the Law Bod's history of crime section may have useful works discussing the problem of vagrancy, forging of licences to beg, passports etc

Subject searches to use in SOLO

Poor laws -- England -- History
Vagrancy -- England -- History

Justices of the Peace - England
Parishes (local government) - England
Constables -- England --- History

Poor -- England - History

Legal history topics

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