Articles of Interest

The Poor Laws of England

One would get the impression, reading most of the discussions in today’s American newspapers and magazines, that no one had ever thought of doing anything for the poor until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s, or even until President Johnson’s “war on poverty” in the 1960’s. Yet private charity is as old as mankind; and the history of governmental poor relief, even if we ignore the ancient world, can be traced back more than four centuries.

In England the first poor law was enacted in 1536. In 1547 the city of London levied compulsory taxes for the support of the poor. In 1572, under Elizabeth, a compulsory rate was imposed on a national scale. In 1576 the compulsion was imposed on local authorities to provide raw materials to give work to the unemployed. The Statute of 1601 compelled the Overseers of the Poor in every parish to buy “a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wool, thread, iron and other stuff to set the poor to work.”

It was not compassion alone, or perhaps even mainly, that led to these enactments. During the reign of Henry VIII, bands of “sturdy beggars” were robbing and terrorizing the countryside, and it was hoped that the relief or the provision of work would mitigate this evil.

Poor relief, once started, kept growing. According to the early statistician, Gregory King (1648–1712), toward the end of the seventeenth century over one million persons, nearly a fifth of the whole English nation, were in occasional receipt of alms, mostly in the form of public relief paid by the parish. The poor rate was a charge of nearly £800,000 a year on the country and rose to a million in the reign of Anne.

There was seldom any shame felt in receiving outdoor relief, and it was said to be given with a mischievous profusion. Richard Dunning declared that in 1698 the parish dole was often three times as much as a common laborer, having to maintain a wife and three children, could afford to expend upon himself; and that persons once receiving outdoor relief refuse ever to work, and “seldom drink other than the strongest ale-house beer, or eat any bread save what is made of the finest wheat flour.” The statement must be received with caution, but such was the nature of the complaint of some rate-payers and employers about the poor law.1

Guaranteed Income

In 1795 a momentous step was taken that enormously aggravated the whole relief problem. The justices of Berkshire, meeting at Speenhamland, decided that wages below what they considered an absolute minimum should be supplemented by the parish in accordance with the price of bread and the number of dependents a man had. Their decision received parliamentary confirmation the next year. In the succeeding 35 years this system (apparently the first “guaranteed minimum income”) brought a train of evils.

The most obvious to the taxpayers was a geometric rise in the cost of relief. In 1785 the total cost of poor law administration was a little less than £2 million; by 1803 it had increased to a little more than £4 million; and by 1817 it had reached almost £8 million. This final figure was about one-sixth of total public expenditure. Some parishes were particularly hard hit. One Buckinghamshire village reported in 1832 that its expenditure on poor relief was eight times what it had been in 1795 and more than the rental of the whole parish had been in that year.2 One village, Cholesbury, became bankrupt altogether, and others were within measurable distance of it.

But even the public expense was not the worst of the evil. Much greater was the increasing demoralization of labor, culminating in the riots and fires of 1830 and 1831.

It was in the face of this situation that the Whig government decided to intervene. In 1832 a royal commission was appointed to inquire into the whole system. It sat for two years. The report and recommendations it brought in became the basis of the reforms adopted in Parliament by a heavy majority (319 to 20 on the second reading) and embodied in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

The report was signed by the nine commissioners. The secretary was Edwin Chadwick; one of the commissioners was the eminent economist, Nassau W. Senior. The text of the report itself ran to 362 pages; together with its appendices it came to several bulky volumes. It was widely regarded as a “masterly example of a thorough, comprehensive, and unbiased inquiry.” As late as 1906, one British writer, W. A. Bailward, described it as a “Blue-book which, as a study of social conditions, has become a classic.”3

Repeating Ancient Errors

But today the report is just as if it had never existed. Schemes are being proposed on all sides, which their sponsors assume to be brilliantly original, but which would restore the very relief and income-guarantee systems that failed so miserably in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which the report of 1834 so devastatingly analyzed.

The Speenhamland plan, and schemes like it, endeavored to insure that people were paid, not in accordance with the going rate of wages, or the market value of their services, but in accordance with their “needs,” based on the size of their families. A married man was paid more than a single man, and paid still more on a scale upward in accordance with the number of his children. The government — i.e., the taxpayers — paid the difference between his market rate of wages and this scale of minimums.

One effect, of course, was to depress the market rate of wages, because the employer found he could reduce the wages he offered and let the taxpayers make up the deficiency. It made no difference to the worker himself who paid him how much of the fixed total that he got. Another effect was to demoralize the efficiency of labor, because a man was paid in accordance with the size of his family and not in accordance with the worth of his efforts. The average unskilled laborer had nothing to gain by improving his efforts and efficiency, and nothing to lose by relaxing them.

Conditions in 1834

But let us turn to the text of the Commission’s report, and let the following excerpts speak for themselves. They are taken almost at random:

The laborer under the existing system need not bestir himself to seek work; he need not study to please his master; he need not put any restraint upon his temper; he need not ask relief as a favor. He has all a slave’s security for subsistence, without his liability to punishment. As a single man, indeed, his income does not exceed a bare subsistence; but he has only to marry, and it increases. Even then it is unequal to the support of a family; but it rises on the birth of each child. If his family is numerous, the parish becomes his principal paymaster; but small as the usual allowance of 2s. a head may be, yet when there are more than three children, it generally exceeds the average wages given in a pauperized district. A man with a wife and six children, entitled, according to the scale, to have his wages made up to 16s. a week, in a parish where the wages paid by individuals do not exceed 10s. or 12s., is almost an irresponsible being. All the other classes of society are exposed to the vicissitudes of hope and fear; he alone has nothing to lose or to gain. ...

The answer given by the magistrates, when a man’s conduct is urged by the overseer against his relief, is: “We cannot help that; his wife and family are not to suffer because the man has done wrong.” ...

Too frequently petty thieving, drunkenness, or impertinence to a master, throw able-bodied laborers, perhaps with large families, on the parish funds, when relief is demanded as a right, and if refused, enforced by a magistrate’s order, without reference to the cause which produced his distress, viz., his own misconduct, which remains as a barrier to his obtaining any fresh situation, and leaves him a dead weight upon the honesty and industry of his parish. ...

It appears to the pauper that the government has undertaken to repeal, in his favor, the ordinary laws of nature; to enact that the children shall not suffer from the misconduct of their parents — the wife for that of the husband, or the husband for that of the wife: that no one shall lose the means of comfortable subsistence, whatever be his indolence, prodigality, or vice: in short, that the penalty which, after all, must be paid by some one for idleness and improvidence, is to fall, not on the guilty person or on his family, but on the proprietors of the lands and houses encumbered by his settlement. ...

“In the rape of Hastings,” says Mr. Majendie, “the assistant overseers are reluctant to make complaints for neglect of work, lest they should become marked men and their lives rendered uncomfortable or even unsafe. Farmers permit their laborers to receive relief, founded on a calculation of a rate of wages lower than that actually paid: they are unwilling to put themselves in collision with the laborers, and will not give an account of earnings, or if they do, beg that their names not be mentioned. ... Farmers are afraid to express their opinions against a pauper who applies for relief, for fear their premises should be set fire to. ...

“In Brede, the rates continue at an enormous amount. The overseer says much of the relief is altogether unnecessary; but he is convinced that if an abatement was attempted, his life would not be safe.” ... “I found in Cambridgeshire,” says Mr. Power, “that the apprehension of this dreadful and easily perpetrated mischief [fire] has very generally affected the minds of the rural parish officers of this country, making the power of the paupers over the funds provided for their relief almost absolute, as regards any discretion on the part of the overseer.” ...

“Mr. Thorn, assistant overseer of the parish of Saint Giles, Cripplegate, London, says —

“The outdoor relief [i.e., relief given outside of a poorhouse] in the city of London would require almost one man to look after every half dozen of able-bodied men, and then he would only succeed imperfectly in preventing fraud. They cheat us on all hands. ...

“By far the greater proportion of our new paupers are persons brought upon the parish by habits of intemperance. ... After relief has been received at our board, a great portion of them proceed with the money to the palaces of gin-shops, which abound in the neighborhood. However diligent an assistant overseer, or an officer for inquiry, may be, there are numerous cases which will baffle his utmost diligence and sagacity. ...

“It is the study of bad paupers to deceive you all they can, and as they study their own cases more than any inquirer can study each of the whole mass of different cases which he has to inquire into, they are sure to be successful in a great many instances. The only protection for the parish is to make the parish the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster than can be applied to.’”

To economize space, my remaining quotations from the Commissioners’ criticisms of the conditions they found must be few and brief.

In many parishes, “the pressure of the poor-rate [i.e., taxes on property] has reduced the rent to half, or to less than half, of what it would have been if the land had been situated in an unpauperized district, and some in which it has been impossible for the owner to find a tenant. ...”

Says Mr. Cowell: “The acquaintance I had with the practical operation of the Poor Laws led me to suppose that the pressure of the sum annually raised upon the ratepayers, and its progressive increase, constituted the main inconvenience of the Poor Law system. The experience of a few weeks served to convince me that this evil, however great, sinks into insignificance when compared with the dreadful effects which the system produces on the morals and happiness of the lower orders.” ...

The relief system was found to encourage “bastardy.’’ “To the woman, a single illegitimate child is seldom any expense, and two or three are a source of positive profit. ... The money she receives is more than sufficient to repay her for the loss her misconduct has occasioned her, and it really becomes a source of emolument. ...

The sum allowed to the mother of a bastard is generally greater than that given to the mother of a legitimate child; indeed the whole treatment of the former is a direct encouragement to vice. ...

Witness mentioned a case within his own personal cognizance, of a young woman of four-and-twenty, with four bastard children; she is receiving 1s. 6d. weekly for each of them. She told him herself, that if she had one more she should be very comfortable. Witness added, “They don’t in reality keep the children; they let them run wild, and enjoy themselves with the money.”

Much Like Today

Given a modernization of phraseology and an appropriate change in the monetary amounts mentioned, this description of relief conditions and consequences in the early years of the nineteenth century could easily pass as a description of such conditions in, say, New York City in 1971.

What, then, in the face of these results of the prior Poor Law, were the recommendations of the commission? It desired to assure “that no one need perish from want”; but at the same time it suggested imposing conditions to prevent the abuse of this assurance.

It may be assumed, that in the administration of relief, the public is warranted in imposing such conditions on the individual relieved as are conducive to the benefit either of the individual himself, or of the country at large, at whose expense he is to be relieved.

The first and most essential of all conditions ... is that his situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible [i.e., attractive] as the situation of the independent laborer of the lowest class. Throughout the evidence it is shown, that in proportion as the condition of any pauper class is elevated above the condition of independent laborers, the condition of the independent class is depressed; their industry is impaired, their employment becomes unsteady, and its remuneration in wages is diminished. Such persons, therefore, are under the strongest inducements to quit the less eligible class of laborers and enter the more eligible class of paupers. ... Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent laborer, is a bounty on indolence and vice. ...

We do not believe that a country in which ... every man, whatever his conduct or his character [is] ensured a comfortable subsistence, can retain its prosperity, or even its civilization.

The main principle of a good Poor-Law administration [is] the restoration of the pauper to a position below that of the independent laborer.

The report then followed with its detailed recommendations, which involve many administrative complexities.

The Workhouse System

In 1841, seven years after the enactment of the new Poor Law, when a whole series of amendments were being proposed to it by various members of Parliament, Nassau Senior, in an anonymous pamphlet signed merely “A Guardian,” came to the defense of the original act, and explained its rationale perhaps in some ways better than did the original report.

“In the first place,” he wrote, “it was necessary to get rid of the allowance system — the system under which relief and wages were blended into one sum, the laborer was left without motive to industry, frugality, or good conduct, and the employer was forced, by the competition of those around him, to reduce the wages which came exclusively from his own pocket, and increase the allowance to which his neighbors contributed.

Supposing this deep and widely extended evil to be extirpated, and the poorer classes to be divided into two marked portions — independent laborers supported by wages and paupers supported by relief — there appeared to be only three modes by which the situation of the pauper could be rendered the less attractive.

First, by giving to the pauper an inferior supply of the necessaries of life, by giving him worse food, worse clothing, and worse lodging than he could have obtained from the average wages of his labor. ...

A second mode is to require from the applicant for relief, toil more severe or more irksome than that endured by the independent laborer. ...

The third mode is, to a certain degree, a combination of the two others, avoiding their defects. It is to require the man who demands to be supported by the industry and frugality of others to enter an abode provided for him by the public, where all the necessaries of life are amply provided, but excitement and mere amusement are excluded — an abode where he is better lodged, better clothed, and more healthily fed than he would be in his own cottage, but is deprived of beer, tobacco, and spirits — is forced to submit to habits of order and cleanliness — is separated from his usual associates and his usual pastimes, and is subject to labor, monotonous and uninteresting. This is the workhouse system.”

The Royal Commission, in defending that system, had argued that even if “relief in a well-regulated workhouse” might be,

in some rare cases, a hardship, it appears from the evidence that it is a hardship to which the good of society requires the applicant to submit. The express or implied ground of his application is, that he is in danger of perishing from want. Requesting to be rescued from that danger out of the property of others, he must accept assistance on the terms, whatever they may be, which the common welfare requires. The bane of all pauper legislation has been the legislation for extreme cases. Every exception, every violation of the general rule to meet a real case of unusual hardship, lets in a whole class of fraudulent cases, by which that rule must in time be destroyed. Where cases of real hardship occur, the remedy must be applied by individual charity, a virtue for which no system of compulsory relief can be or ought to be a substitute.

Destroying the Beneficiary

To later generations the reforms introduced by the Poor Law Amendments of 1834 came to seem needlessly harsh and even heartless. But the Poor Law Commissioners did courageously try to face up to a two-sided problem that the generation before them had ignored and many of the present generation seem once more to ignore — “the difficult problem’’ as Nassau Senior put it, “how to afford to the poorer classes adequate relief without material injury to their diligence or their providence.” In his 1841 pamphlet we find him rebuking

the persons who would legislate for extreme cases — who would rather encourage any amount of debauchery, idleness, improvidence, or imposture, than suffer a single applicant to be relieved in a manner which they think harsh. ... [They] would reward the laborer for throwing himself out of work, by giving him food better, and more abundant, than he obtained in independence. ... They are governed by what they call their feelings, and those feelings are all on one side. Their pity for the pauper excludes any for the laborer, or for the rate-payer. They sympathize with idleness and improvidence, not with industry, frugality, and independence. ... It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader of the well-known principle, that if relief be afforded on terms which do not render it less eligible than independent labor, the demand for it will increase, while there is a particle of property left to appease it.

However the Poor Law Reform of 1834 may be considered by many today, it proved sufficiently satisfactory to successive British governments to be retained with only minor changes until the end of the nineteenth century. But there was mounting sentiment against it as the years wore on. Much of this was stirred up by the novels of Charles Dickens and others, with their lurid pictures of conditions in the workhouses. Toward the end of the century the more stringent regulations were gradually relaxed. Ih 1891 supplies of toys and books were permitted in the workhouses. In 1892 tobacco and snuff could be provided. In 1900 a government circular recommended the grant of outdoor relief (i.e., relief outside of the workhouses) for the aged of good character.

A 1905 War on Poverty

A new Royal Commission on the Poor Laws was set up in 1905. (One member was Beatrice Webb.) It brought in a report in 1909, but as the report was not unanimous, the Government took no action on it. However, new “social legislation” continued to be enacted. An Old Age Pensions Act was passed in 1908. And in 1909 David Lloyd George, the radical chancellor of the exchequer, anticipating President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” by more than half a century, exclaimed in introducing his new budget: “This is a war budget for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.”

Finally, the National Insurance Act of 1911, providing sickness and unemployment benefits on a contributory basis to a selected group of industrial workers, marked the birth of the modern Welfare State in England, which reached maturity with the enactment of the Beveridge reforms in 1944.

But the Poor Law Commissioners of 1834, and the Parliament that enacted their recommendations, had frankly recognized and faced a problem that their political successors seem, as I have said, almost systematically to ignore — “the difficult problem,” to quote once more the words in which Nassau Senior stated it, “how to afford to the poorer classes adequate relief without material injury to their diligence or their providence.”

How to Afford Relief Without Destroying Incentives

Is this problem soluble? Or does it present an inescapable dilemma? Can the state undertake to provide adequate relief to everybody who really needs and deserves it without finding itself supporting the idle, the improvident, and the swindlers? And can it frame rigid rules that would adequately protect it against fraud and imposture without as a result denying help to some of those really in need? Can the state, again, provide really “adequate” relief for any extended period even to the originally “deserving” without determining or destroying their incentives to industry, frugality, and self-support? If people can get an adequate living without working, why work? Can the state, finally, provide “adequate” relief to all the unemployed, or, even more, guaranteed incomes for all, without undermining by excessive taxation the incentives of the working population that is forced to provide this support? Can the state, in sum, provide “adequate” relief to all without gravely discouraging and inhibiting the production out of which all relief must come? — without letting loose a runaway inflation? — without going bankrupt?

This apparent dilemma may be surmountable. But no relief system or welfare-state system so far embarked upon has satisfactorily surmounted it; and the problem certainly cannot be solved until the alternatives it presents are candidly recognized and examined.

[Originally appeared in The Freeman (March 1971).]

  • 1G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (David McKay, 1942), p. 278.
  • 2Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1965. Article, “Poor Law.” Vol. 18, p. 218.
  • 3J. St. Loe Strachey (ed.), The Manufacture of Paupers (London: John Murray, 1907), p. 108.


Henry Hazlitt, “The Poor Laws of England,” Freeman (March 1971): 137–46. This is an early version of what was to become chapter 7 in Hazlitt’s The Conquest of Poverty (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973).

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