A short history of British poverty


Historically, social responses to poverty tend to fall into two groups:

  • ‘relief’ of beggars and paupers
  • a profound mistrust and fear of the poor.

These usually occur together.

Queen Elizabeth the First was the first lawmaker to recognise the need for poverty to be addressed by society rather than by individuals. Prior to this, individuals who felt moved to help their neighbours did so but there was no obligation to. The Church, mainly through convents, abbeys and other religious houses, had offered shelter, food and at times work for the destitute but the Reformation broke this chain of support.

In 1563 the first Poor Laws were introduced which for the first time recognised that poor people were part of a community and that the community, in the form of the parish, must help support them. The system was funded by taxation and each parish was required to provide employment.

The poor were categorised into the deserving poor or the helpless poor – infants, the very elderly, the very infirm and families who had temporarily fallen on difficult times; the deserving unemployed or the able bodied poor – people who were able to work but unable to find employment, and who often ended up in a workhouse, working at anything they were told to; and the undeserving poor who were considered a threat to society – beggars, travellers, migrant workers. Beggars would be flogged “until his back was bloody,” and if found outside of the parish boundaries, would be flogged until he made it to his home parish boundaries. He could be kept as a slave for 2 years, have his tongue branded, his earlobe burned through, and be executed.

It’s worth noting the political and social circumstances that preceded these laws. More people were simply remaining alive and there was less food. The Enclosures Act devastated the peasant farming tradition as private landowners found it more profitable to have sheep on their land rather than people, or to increase their personal area of farmland and decrease the number of individuals working it. Prior to the Enclosures Act individual family groups grew their own food in what we might call a smallholding, now they were simply turned out of their homes and made vagrant. Those that didn’t die of starvation or illness came to the city. The numbers of the very poor, the very weak, potential carriers of disease and the very angry increased and it was the fear of civil unrest that caused the Poor Laws to come into being rather than any inherent concern for individual welfare.

Laws altered over time, becoming more or less penalising. Houses of Correction, established prior to Elizabeth I and continued well after, were variously places where the poor were punished or fed and trained.

Whatever the case, poverty is perceived as a fault that requires correction.


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