Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834

Prepared by: Senior, Nassau
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First Pub. Date
London: H.M. Stationery Office
Pub. Date
Additional preparers include Edwin Chadwick. Includes testimony by Richard Whately.

[Part I.]


We do not think it necessary to prefix to the statement of the result of our inquiries any account of the provisions of the 43d of Elizabeth, c. 2, or of the subsequent Acts for the relief of the poor. Those Acts are well known, and are to be found in almost every treatise on the Poor Laws, and we have inserted the 43d of Elizabeth in the Supplement. But as the preceding Acts are almost forgotten, and not easily accessible, and as they throw great light on the intentions of the framers of the 43d of Elizabeth, we will shortly state the substance of some of the principal enactments of those which appear to us most to deserve attention.


The great object of our early Pauper legislation seems to have been the restraint of Vagrancy.


The 12 Richard II. c. 7, (1388,) prohibits any labourer from departing from the hundred, rape, wapentake, city, or borough where he is dwelling, without a testimonial, showing reasonable cause for his going, to be issued under the authority of the justices of the peace. Any labourer found wandering without such letter, is to be put in the stocks till he find surety to return to the town from which he came. Impotent persons are to remain in the towns in which they be dwelling at the time of the Act; or, if the inhabitants are unable or unwilling to support them, they are to withdraw to other towns within the hundred, rape, or wapentake, or to the towns where they were born, and there abide during their lives.


The II Henry VII. c. 2, (1495,) requires beggars not able to work to go to the hundred where last they dwelled, or were best known, or born, without begging out of the hundred.


The 19 Henry VII. c. 12, (1504,) requires them to go to the city, town, or hundred where they were born, or to the place where they last abode for the space of three years, without begging out of the said city, town, hundred, or place.


The 22 Henry VIII. c. 12, (1531,) directs the justices to assign to the impotent poor a limit within which they are to beg. An impotent person begging out of his limit is to be imprisoned for two days and nights in the stocks, on bread and water, and then sworn to return to the place in which he was authorized to beg. An able-bodied beggar is to be whipped, and sworn to return to the place where he was born, or last dwelt for the space of three years, and there put himself to labour.


Five years after, was passed the 27 Henry VIII. c. 25, (1536.) This Statute is remarkable, both as having first introduced the system of compulsory charity, and as showing that the motive for its establishment was the desire and the difficulty of repressing vagrancy. It recites the preceding Act, and adds, that no provision is made for the support of the impotent, nor for setting and keeping in work the said valiant beggars; and then enacts, that the head officers of every city, shire, town, and parish, to which such poor creatures or sturdy vagabonds shall repair in obedience to that Act, shall most charitably receive the same, and shall keep the same poor people, by way of voluntary and charitable alms, within the respective cities, shires, towns, hundreds, hamlets, and parishes, by their discretion, so that none of them of very necessity shall be compelled to beg openly, and shall compel the said sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars to be kept to continual labour in such wise as they may get their own living by the continual labour of their own hands, on pain that every parish making default shall forfeit 20s. a month. It then directs the head officers of corporate towns, and the churchwardens and two others of every parish, who are to remain in office only one year, to collect voluntary alms for the purpose of relieving the impotent poor, and that such as be lusty be kept to continual labour. Every preacher, parson, vicar, and curate, as well in their sermons, collections, bidding of the beads, as in the time of confession and making of wills, is to exhort, move, stir, and provoke people to be liberal for the relief of the impotent, and setting and keeping to work the said sturdy vagabonds.


The money collected is to be kept in a common box in the church, or committed to the custody of a substantial trusty man, as they can agree on, to be delivered as necessity shall require. Almsgiving, otherwise than to these common boxes or common gatherings, or to fellow parishioners or prisoners, is prohibited on forfeiture of ten times the amount given. And all persons bound to distribute ready money, victuals, or other sustentation to poor people, are to dispose of the same, or the value thereof, to such common boxes. The overplus of the collection of wealthy parishes is to be applied in aid of other parishes within the same city, borough, town, or hundred.


A sturdy beggar is to be whipped the first time, his right ear cropped the second time, and if he again offends, to be sent to the next gaol till the quarter sessions, and there to be indicted for wandering, loitering, and idleness, and if convicted, shall suffer execution of death as a felon and an enemy of the commonwealth.


It appears that the severity of this Act prevented its execution. Such at least is the reason assigned for its repeal by the 1st Edward VI. c. 3, (1547,) which recites, that partly by foolish pity and mercy of them which should have seen the said goodly laws executed, and partly from the perverse nature and long-accustomed idleness of the persons given to loitering, the said goodly Statutes have had small effect, and idle and vagabond persons, being unprofitable members, or rather enemies of the commonwealth, have been suffered to remain and increase, and yet so do: and, as a milder punishment, enacts, that an able-bodied poor person who does not apply himself to some honest labour, or offer to serve even for meat and drink, if nothing more is to be obtained, shall be taken for a vagabond, branded on the shoulder with the letter V, and adjudged a slave for two years to any person who shall demand him, to be fed on bread and water and refuse meat, and caused to work by beating, chaining, or otherwise. If he run away within that period, he is to be branded on the cheek with the letter S, and adjudged a slave for life; if he run away again, he is to suffer death as a felon. If no man demand such loiterer, he is to be sent to the place where he says he was born, there to be kept in chains or otherwise, at the highways or common work, or from man to man, as the slave of the corporation or inhabitants of the city, town, or village in which he was born; and the said city, town, or village shall see the said slave set to work, and not live idly, upon pain, for every three working days that the slave live idly by their default, that a city forfeit 5l., a borough 40s., and a town or village 20s., half to the King and half to the informer. If it appears that he was not born in the place of which he described himself as a native, he was to be branded on the face, and be a slave for life.


It appears also, that taking surety of the impotent poor that they would repair to the places where they were born, or had dwelt for the three previous years, was not effectual. The officers, therefore, are directed to convey the impotent poor on horseback, cart, chariot, or otherwise, to the next constable, and so from constable to constable, till they be brought to the place where they were born, or most conversant for the space of three years, there to be kept and nourished of alms. "Provided always, that if any of the said impotent persons be not so lame or impotent but that they may work in some manner, and refuse to work, or run away and beg in other places, then their city, town, or village, is to punish them according to their discretion, with chaining, beating, or otherwise." The Statute also orders the curate of each parish, every Sunday after reading the Gospel, to exhort his parishioners to remember the duty of Christain charity in relieving them which be their brethren in Christ, born in the same parish, and needing their help.


This Statute had a very short existence, for it was repealed by the 3d and 4th Edward VI. c. 16, (1450,) and the 22d Henry VIII. c. 12, revived. The directions, however, that the impotent poor should be removed to the place where they were born, or had been most conversant for three years, and that they should be kept to work, if capable of some manner of work and punished by chaining, beating, or otherwise, if they refused, were re-enacted.


The 5th and 6th Edward VI. c. 2, (1551,) "to the intent that valiant beggars, idle and loitering persons, may be avoided, and the impotent, feeble, and lame provided for, which are poor in very deed," confirms the 22d Henry VIII. c. 12, and 3d & 4th Edward VI. c. 16, and commands that that they shall be put in execution; and then directs a book to be kept in every city, corporate town, and parish, containing the names of the householders and of the impotent poor, and that yearly in Whitsun week the head officers of towns, and the minister and churchwardens in every parish in the country, shall appoint two persons to be collectors of alms for the relief of the poor, which collectors shall, the next or following Sunday at church, gently ask every man and woman what they of their charity will give weekly towards the relief of the poor, and write the same in the book and distribute what they collect weekly to the same poor and impotent persons, after such sort that the more impotent may have the more help, and such as can get part of their living the less, and by the direction of the collectors be put on such labour as they be able to do; but none to go or sit openly begging, upon pain limited in the above statutes. If any one, able to further this charitable work, do obstinately and frowardly refuse to give, or do discourage others, the minister and churchwardens are to gently exhort him. If he will not be so persuaded, the bishop is to send for him, to induce and persuade him by charitable ways and means, and so according to his discretion take order for the reformation thereof.


It is a curious example of the fear of our ancestors that Statutes should grow into desuetude, and perhaps a proof that such a fate had actually befallen the 5th and 6th Edward VI. that precisely the same enactments, with precisely the same preamble, are repeated by the 2d and 3d Philip and Mary, c. 5, (1555.) But the Act, however reiterated, seems to have been ineffectual. Neither the gentle askings of the collectors, the exhortations of the minister, nor the charitable ways and means of the bishop, appear to have persuaded the parishioners to entrust to the collectors the distribution of their alms.


The 5th Elizabeth, c. 3, (1563,) therefore, after repeating the same preamble and the same enactments, goes on to enact, that if any person of his froward, wilful mind shall obstinately refuse to give weekly to the relief of the poor according to his ability, the bishop shall bind him to appear at the next sessions; and at the said sessions the justices there shall charitably and gently persuade and move the said obstinate person to extend his charity towards the relief of the poor of the parish where he dwelleth; and if he will not be persuaded, it shall be lawful for the justices, with the churchwardens, or one of them, to tax such obstinate person, according to their good discretion, what sum the said obstinate person shall pay weekly towards the relief of the poor within the parish wherein he shall dwell; and if he refuse, the justices shall, on complaint of the churchwardens, commit the said obstinate person to gaol, until he shall pay the sum so taxed, with the arrears.


The next Statute, the 14th Elizabeth, c. 5, (1572,) is remarkable, as a proof of the inefficacy of the previous Statutes, and as showing how short an interval elapsed between giving to the justices power to tax at their sessions an obstinate person, at the complaint of the minister, the churchwardens, and the bishop, and the giving to them discretionary power to tax every inhabitant in their divisions, and to direct the application of the sums so taxed.


It begins by a recital, that all the parts of this realm of England and Wales be presently with rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars exceedingly pestered, by means whereof daily happeneth in the same realm horrible murders, thefts, and other great outrage, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, and to the great annoyance of the common weale.


And then, "as well for the utter suppressing of the said outrageous enemies to the common weal, as for the charitable relieving of the aged and impotent poor people in manner and form following," it enacts, that all persons thereafter set forth to be rogues and vagabonds, or study beggars, shall for the first offence be grievously whipped, and burnt through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about; for the second, be deemed felons; and for the third, suffer death as felons without benefit of clergy.


Among rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars, are included all persons whole and mighty in body, able to labour, not having land or master, nor using any lawful merchandise, craft, or mystery; and all common labourers, able in body, loitering and refusing to work for such reasonable wages as is commonly given.


"And forasmuch as charity would that poor, aged, and impotent persons should as necessarily be provided for as the said rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars repressed, and that the said aged, impotent, and poor people should have convenient habitations and abiding places throughout this realm to settle themselves upon, to the end that they nor any of them should hereafter beg or wander about," it enacts, "that the Justices of the peace shall within their several divisions and authorities make inquiry of all aged, poor, impotent, and decayed persons born within their said divisions and limits, or which were there dwelling within three years next after this present Parliament, living by alms, and register their names; and when the number of poor people forced to live upon alms be by that means known, the said Justices shall appoint within their said divisions meet places, by their discretion, to settle the same poor people for their abidings, if the parish within which they shall be found shall not or will not provide for them, and set down what portion the weekly charge towards the relief and sustentation of the said poor people will amount unto, and that done, shall by their good discretions tax and assess all the inhabitants dwelling within the said divisions to such weekly charge as they and every of them shall weekly contribute towards the relief of the said poor people, and shall appoint collectors, who shall gather the same proportion, and make delivery of so much thereof, according to the discretion of the said Justices, to the said poor people, as the said Justices shall appoint them. If any person able to further this charitable work shall obstinately refuse to give, or discourage others, he shall be brought before two Justices, to show the cause of such refusal or discouragement, and to abide such order therein as the said Justices shall appoint, and if he shall refuse to do so, they shall commit him to gaol until he shall be contented with their said order and do perform the same."


It then provides that the justices, out of the surplus of such collections, (the impotent being first provided for,) shall settle to work the rogues and vagabonds that shall be disposed to work (i.e. capable of working) born within the said counties or there abiding for the most part within the said three years, there to be holden to work to get their livings, and to live and be sustained only upon their labour and travail. And "that the justices in sessions within any of the counties, cities, or towns where collection of money cannot presently be had, may license some of the poor, or any other for them, to gather, within such other town, parish, or parishes of the county as the said justices shall name within the division of the licensing justices, charitable donations and alms at the houses of the inhabitants. And the inhabitants of every such parish to which such poor shall be so appointed, shall be coacted and bound, under such pain as to the said justices shall seem convenient, to relieve the said poor in such sort as the said justices shall appoint."


Even its kindness is mixed with much severity, for "if any of the said poor people refuse to be bestowed in any of the said abiding places, but covet still to hold on their trade of begging, or after they be once bestowed in the said abiding places, depart and beg, then the said person so offending, for that first offence shall be accounted a rogue or vagabond, and suffer as a rogue or vagabond in the first degree of punishment; and if he do the second time offend, then be esteemed a rogue or vagabond, and suffer as a rogue or vagabond in the last degree of punishment, (that is, suffer death as a felon;) and if any of the said aged and impotent persons, not being so diseased, lame, or impotent but that they may work in some manner of work, shall be by the overseers of their said abiding place appointed to work, and refuse, they are to be whipped and stocked for their first refusal, and for the second refusal to be punished as in the case of vagabonds in the said first degree of punishment."


The 14th Elizabeth, c. 5, does not appear to have been expressly repealed, as far as the relief of the impotent is concerned. It was replaced, in that respect, by the 39th Elizabeth, c. 3, (1598,) and, with respect to able-bodied vagrants, by the 39th Elizabeth, c. 4. That Statute, which is in fact merely a continuation of the 39th Elizabeth, c. 3, directs that every rogue and vagabond (among whom are included "all wandering persons and common labourers, being persons able in body, using loitering, and refusing to work for such reasonable wages as is taxed or commonly given in such parts where such persons do or shall happen to dwell or abide, not having living otherwise to maintain themselves") "shall, on his apprehension, be openly whipped until his body be bloody, and shall be forthwith sent from parish to parish the next strait way to the parish where he was born, if the same may be known by the party's confession or otherwise; and if the same be not known, then to the parish where he last dwelt before the punishment by the space of one whole year, there to put him or herself to labour as a true subject ought to do; or, not being known where he or she was born or last dwelt, then to the parish through which he or she last passed without punishment, to be by the officers of the said village where he or she so last passed through without punishment, conveyed to the house of correction of the district wherein the said village standeth, or to the common gaol of that county or place, there to remain or be employed in work until he or she shall be placed in some service, and so to continue by the space of one whole year; or, not being able of body, until he or she shall be placed to remain in some almshouse in the same county or place." And "if any of the said rogues shall appear to be dangerous to the inferior sort of people where they shall be taken, or otherwise be such as will not be reformed of their roguish kind of life, it shall be lawful to the justice of the limits where any such rogue shall be taken, to commit that rogue to the house of correction, or otherwise to the gaol of that county, there to remain until the next quarter-sessions; and then such of the same rogues so committed as by the justices of the peace there present, or the most part of them, shall be thought fit not to be delivered, shall be banished out of this realm and all other the dominions thereof, and, at the charge of that county, shall be conveyed into such parts beyond the seas as shall be at any time hereafter for that purpose assigned by the Privy Council, or otherwise be judged perpetually to the galleys of this realm, as by the same justices or the most part of them shall be thought fit and expedient."


The 27 Henry VIII. c. 25, which imposed a fine on the parish in which the impotent poor should not be relieved, and directed the surplus collection of rich parishes to be applied for the relief of poor parishes within the same hundred; the 1 Edward VI. c. 3, which directed the curate of any parish to exhort his parishioners to relieve those born in the same parish, and needing their help; and the 5 and 6 Edward VI. c. 2, which directed the parson, vicar, or churchwardens of each parish, to appoint collectors, and to gently ask for contributions in the church, were all so many steps towards making the relief of the poor a parochial charge. And it appears that the ecclesiastical division of parishes was preferred to any civil division, on account of the part which the clergy were required to take in the business.


The 14 Elizabeth, c. 5, appears to have deviated from this plan; and as it vested the power of assessment in the justices, it threw the burden, not on each parish, but upon all the inhabitants of the divisions within the jurisdiction of the assessing justices. The 39 Elizabeth, c. 3, (1598,) returned to the parochial system; and it differs so little in its provisions from the well-known 43 Elizabeth, c. 2, the basis, but certainly not the origin, of our present system, that we do not think it necessary to state its substance. The following clause, however, deserves to be cited, both on account of its importance, and from its not having been re-enacted:—

"No person or persons whatsoever shall go wandering abroad and beg in any place whatsoever, by license or without, upon pain to be esteamed, taken, and punished as a rogue: Provided always, and this present Act shall not extend to any poor people which shall ask relief of victualling only in the same parish where such poor people do dwell, so the same be in such time only and according to such order and direction as shall be made and appointed by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the same parish, according to the true intent and meaning of this Act."

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