English society was shattered by the Reformation in the 1530s, which destroyed centuries of provision for the poor by the Roman Catholic church. What had once been a religious duty1 now was a choice. Sixty years of undirected assistance showed the limitations of philanthropy for this social problem. The Elizabethan Poor Law imposed duties across the entire country and was the first secular national welfare system.
The scope of the legislation
The law required each parish to elect two Overseers of the Poor every Easter: those who were elected were unpaid and often were unwilling appointees who acted under the supervision of the JPs.2 The new law was comprehensive in allocating duties to those with oversight of the legislation in their parish. Their duties were-
1) a compulsory poor rate to be levied on every parish
2) the creation of ‘Overseers’ of relief
3) the ‘setting the poor on work’
4) the collection of a poor relief rate from property owners3
The elegance of the Poor Law lay in it being local. Point 1: taxpayers set tax levels to pay for their poor and Point 4: a named local person collected it. The tax was transparent. This pound was collected for those poor people. Point 2 is finely nuanced. Overseers were elected annually which meant a parish didn’t suffer from continuous compassion or harshness. Point 3 gave satisfaction to taxpayers who could see a return for their tax.
The role of the parish
The parish was used as an administrative unit and not as was the case pre-Reformation when the church designed the welfare. Welfare was secular and the poor weren’t God’s Children any more.
By basing poor relief in the parish, the assumption was the poor were personally known to those providing relief:
Choices about who should or should not be relieved were shaped ‘by personal sympathy for suffering people and concern about order and authority’…5
They didn’t want the poor to become dependent and a drain on parish taxpayers. An unfortunate effect of personal knowledge was that anyone they didn’t know was treated with intense suspicion “local xenophobia” [with] local communities [who] were inward looking.6
As a result only impotent4 poor got long term relief. Point 3 is crucial here. Relief came with the obligation that work was allocated and completed satisfactorily. The ultimate premise was that society was static and the poor lived and died in the parish they were born in. This was, and always had been, nonsense.
Given what has been termed ‘local xenophobia’ there was intense suspicion for strangers who were routinely treated with harshness. Being poor was a crime. Asking for relief was a provocation, which could be met with being flogged to the parish boundary.
The Elizabethan Poor Law was the most successful piece of social legislation ever. Apart from a few amendments, it continued until 1834 with the introduction of the New Poor Law. By 1834 the basics of poor relief had changed beyond recognition. Britain was an industrialised society and the population had grown exponentially. The genius of the Tudors is illustrated by this law, which is magnificent.
1 Matt. 25: 32-46 For the text see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A32-46&version=NIV
4 ‘Impotent’ in this usage are those who are too old to work or had severe illnesses.