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It is not my intention to found any part of the plan proposed on the existing poor laws, but rather to anticipate their speedy extinction, or, at least, to confine their operation to the relief of the description of poor designated by the 43d of Elizabeth ; I shall not, therefore, trouble the House with more than a very cursory view of their rise and progress, in order to show their effect in destroying the comforts and happiness of those whom they have been applied to relieve.
The emancipation of the labourer from feudal bondage caused numbers to quit their former habitations, with the hope of bettering their condition. Those who were disappointed in procuring employ were driven to seek a precarious subsistence on charity. By these means mendicity was increased to a degree occasioning great inconveniences to society, and the most severe sufferings to large classes of persons. This produced a variety of statutes, permitting begging of alms, and enjoining charity towards the indigent. The author of the Mirror states, that by the common law, the poor were ordered to be subsisted by parsons, rectors of the church, and the parishioners, so that none of them die for default of subsistence. In what a state must society then have been, to induce the legislature to enforce charity by act of Parliament! The dissolution of monasteries rendered the situation of the people still more deplorable, and. augmented the number of mendicants.' To what an extremity
1 “It is curious," says Dr. Burns, in his History of the Poor Laws," to observe the progress, by what natural steps and advances the compulsory maintenance becomes established. First the poor were restrained from begging at large, and were confined to beg within certain districts. Next the several hundreds, towns corporate, parishes, hamlets, or other like divisions, were required to sustain them with such charitable and voluntary alms, that none of them, of necessity, might be compelled to go openly in begging and the churchwardens or other substantial inhabitants were to make col
this at length had come, may be inferred from a statute passed in the first year of the reign of Edward VI. “ It is enacted, that if any one shall be idle for the space of three days, he may be seized and set to work : if he attempt to escape, and shall be absent for the space of fourteen days, and then retaken, he shall be branded with the letter S, and become the slave of his employer.” Miserable must have been the state of the country when such an inhuman remedy could be suggested. This statute remained in force for near four years; a dreadful monument of the misery of the times, and of the little consideration paid to the voice of humanity.
During the reign of Elizabeth, the state of the poor often occupied the attention of Parliament : in the 43d year of her reign was passed that statute on which the present system of
laws is founded. It is highly import. ant to attend to the terms of the enactment by which relief is granted. “For the necessary relief of lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them being poor and not able to work; and also of putting out such children to be apprentices.”
lections for them with boxes on Sundays, and otherwise, by their discretion; and the minister was to take all opportunities to exhort and stir up the people to be liberal and bountiful. Next, houses were to be provided for them, by the devotion of good people, and materials to set them on such work as they were able to perform. Then the minister after the gospel every Sunday was specially to exhort the parishioners to a liberal contribution. Next the collectors for the poor, on a certaiu Sunday in every year, immediately after divine service, were to take down in writiog what every person was willing to give for the ensuing year; and if any should be obstinate and refuse to give, the minister was gently to exhort him; if still he refused, the minister was to certify such refusal to the bishop of the diocese, and the bishop was to send for and exhort him in like manner; then the bishop was to certify the same to the justices in sessions, was again gently to hear and persuade him; and, finally, if he would not be persuaded, then they were
Such others amongst them being unable to work can. only be construed to relate to the preceding description of lame, blind, &c. yet, strange as the construction appears, it has been made the foundation on which maintenance is granted to all classes of persons. The indigent, the idle, the profligate, have all equal claims for support: distinction between vice and virtue there is none.
If a doubt can remain on the mind of any one as to the views with which this statute was framed, I would refer them to the sum fixed, beyond which no parish could be assessed : this was restricted to sixpence in the pound on the value of rateable property. If we consider the annual revenue of the kingdom to have at that time amounted to five millions, and every parish rated to the utmost, it would have amounted to one hundredth part, or fifty thousand pounds. Most probably, it did not reach half this sum, or above twenty five thousand pounds. I conceive this as affording complete evidence of the limited extent to which Parliament intended that the system should be carried,
I question not the humanity of those who have construed it so differently from the sound policy on which it was enacted. It is greatly to be regretted the results have turned out so contrary to their intention. Little did they suppose the effect would be to destroy all economy and forethought, — transferring the maintenance of the laboring classes from their own shoulders to those of the public. Vain is the hope of bringing the law back to its first principles. The evils resulting from this act evidently began to be felt very shortly after its passing. In 1680 the sum raised for the support of the poor amounted to £665,206. If we admit the value of rateable property to have doubled in the
to assess him what they thought reasonable towards the relief of the poor And this brought on tiie general assessment, in the fourteenth year of Queen Elizabetin."
eighty years from 1601, and to have reached ten millions, instead of being one fortieth, or more probably one eightieth, it was become one fifteenth.
The feelings and sentiments of the legislature are strongly marked by the acts of the 8th and 9th of William and Mary, for badging the poor. The extreme severity of the law shows how grievous the burdens for the maintenance of the poor were felt, and that it was deemed necessary to check the evil by attaching degradation to pauperism. The humanity of later times has removed it from the statuté book : the extent of the evil had long rendered the enforcing it impracticable. The act is so strong a proof of the rapid diffusion of the mischievous effects of the system, that I cannot omit reciting a part of it to the House.
“ Every such person as shall be upon the collections and receive relief of any parish or place, and the wife and children of any such person cohabiting in the same house, (such child only excepted as shall be by the churchwardens and overseers permitted to live at home, in order to attend an impotent and helpless parent) shall, upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of the uppermost garment, in an open and visible manner, wear a large Roman P, together with the firsc letter of the name of the parish or place whereof such poor person is an inhabitant, cut either in red or blue cloth, as by the churchwardens and overseers shall be directed : and if any such poor person shall neglect or refuse to wear any such badge or mark, it shall be lawful for one justice to punish such offender, either by ordering his allowance to be abridged, suspended, or withdrawn, or otherwise by committing him to the house of correction, to be whipped and kept to hard labour, not exceeding twenty-one days : and if any churchwarden or overseer shall relieve any, such poor person not wearing such
badge, and be thereof convicted on oath of one witness before one justice, he shall forfeit twenty shillings by distress, half to the informer and half to the poor.”
From year to year the malady has been augmenting. The amount of the poor rates in 1760 was not quite two millions : in the last fifty-six years they have quadrupled. It will not, I believe, be difficult to assign the causes that have produced this melancholy change, presenting us with such an accumulated prospect of human misery. From 1760 we may date a great revolution in the state of the country; from that period we began to become a great manufacturing nation ; agriculture shortly after declined. By the politicians of those days it was viewed as a subordinate object. The wealth of the country was doubtlessly rapidly augmented : luxury spread its baneful influence through all ranks of society. The price of labour rose, and the earnings of the working classes were increased, though not their happiness. The demand for workmen in the various manufactories transferred to them numbers from the peaceful occupation of agriculture. The habits of their former lives were soon lost: higher wages were obtained, more expensive habits acquired, and no thought taken, or provision made, for any reverse. Temporary depressions of trade occurred; the numbers that were thus at once exposed to hunger and the extreme of misery were too great for private benevolence to succour: so numerous were the demands for parochial relief, that all sense of shame was lost sight of. The plague is not more rapid in its progress than this malady has proved itself. The example of one great town quickly extended to another, and in a short period pervaded the whole kingdom. To so shameless a pitch is it now arrived, that pauperism is contemplated and calculated on in the very outset of life : instances are not wanting of parties applying im