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Problems with the Poor Law

The Poor Law of 1601 had been created when the majority of the population in England worked in the countryside. It had been adapted slightly over the decades as the population and industry grew but as time went on the system became more and more outdated and unable to cope with the changing society of post-medieval England. During the 18th century, England was undergoing huge advances in industry and agriculture and the population was booming. The poor relief system that was in existence at this point failed to deal adequately with the poor in the new industrial towns and the rise in unemployment and poverty in the farming areas.

In the 16th century the population in England had been about four million, by the time of the first official census in 1801 it had risen to nine million, and by 1834 it was over 14 million. As all control of the distribution of poor relief was done at local level, there was no central administration responsible for dealing with the increase in paupers or the new problems in the industrial and agricultural areas.

In 1776, the amount spent on poor relief throughout the country was £1,520,000; less than 60 years later this amount stood at £6,317,000, over four times the 1776 amount.

So what had caused such a rise in the number of people applying for poor relief? Between 1793 and 1815, Britain was at war with France. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, had put a blockade on trade with Britain, which prevented food and other provisions from reaching England. This meant many of the farmers in Britain had a monopoly on the goods that they produced and with no competition from abroad were able to keep their prices high. The larger farmers prospered, but those buying the goods soon began to struggle.

More problems arose in the country because of the new system of enclosing common and waste land in villages in the Midlands. This meant that villagers no longer had any rights to gather wood or graze animals on common land.

(For further information, see M. A. Crowther, The Workhouse System 1834 - 1929: The History of an English social institution, Batsford, 1981)

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]