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The Poor Law

The Old Poor Law

During the reign of Elizabeth I various attempts were made to try to deal with the problem of poverty. Acts were passed to try to improve poor relief and to force people to give money to their parish authorities for the care of the poor. In 1601, Elizabeth's government sought to bring all the different Acts together and create one nationally recognised system. This was known as the Poor Law Act.

This Act allowed "sturdy beggars" and vagabonds to be stripped from the waist up and whipped until bloody and then sent back to the parish where they were born or the last parish that they had lived in. When they had been sent back to this parish they were to be put to work for a whole year. The "sturdy beggar" was someone who it was believed was able to work but was too idle to do so. Vagabonds (wandering beggars) had become a major problem in the 16th century and the government was extremely concerned with the trouble that these people could create. It was thought that punishing them harshly would deter others from begging in this way.

The government of Elizabeth I recognised that not all the poor and destitute were on the take and able to work. The Poor Law Act of 1601 set out national guidance for poor relief for the sick, disabled, elderly and young - the so-called "impotent poor".

To enable each parish to look after their own poor a "Poor Rate" was collected. In the parish men were selected as overseers of the poor. They had to decide how much money was needed to care for the poor, how much each household could afford to contribute and then collect it. They were also responsible for meeting the paupers and deciding who was deserving of the help available. The "impotent poor" would be given relief, the able-bodied poor would be put to work and the vagabonds would be punished and sent on their way.

The Poor Law Act did not solve the problem of poverty in England but it did ensure that every parish in the country looked after their poor to the best of their ability. One of the biggest problems with the enforcement of the Poor Law Act was money. The only way to obtain money for poor relief was to collect it from those who did not classify as paupers themselves. This system often made those who had to pay very angry, especially when it was people from outside of their parish who tried to claim it.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]