The end of the 18th century saw a new system that encouraged employers to pay below-subsistence wages. It was called after an area in Berkshire...
In 1597 the English parliament ruled that rogues and vagabonds (note the emotive terms) should be sent back to their parishes for punishment and forced labour. The Poor Law Acts of 1598 and 1601 inaugurated a system of poor relief based on parish responsibility and parish rates which was to last until 1834.
An (idealised) image of the St James’s Workhouse, London, around 1800.
The system encouraged Justices of the Peace (usually local employers) to fix parish wages as low as possible, as workers could be kept alive by having their wages topped up by the rates. Money for parish poor relief was raised by collecting a rate, based on the estimated value of each property, and collected by the parish constable and “overseers of the poor”.
In 1637 in John Milton’s village of Horton, a local mill-owner cost parish ratepayers £7 5s (£7.25p) a week to supplement the wages of his workers. (Little wonder that ratepayers often opposed new industries setting up in the parish.)
Later, the 1662 Settlement Laws restricted the parish obligation to look after persons who had a permanent settlement; anyone else seeking assistance had to return to the place where they were born.
In 1723 the Workhouse Test Act made the poor enter workhouses in order to obtain relief. Between 1601 and 1750 a vast, cumbersome system of poor law was created, mainly serving the interests of landowners in rural society.
The Speenhamland System
In the second half of the 18th century England’s economy and society began to be transformed. There was population growth, industrialisation requiring greater mobility of labour, and mass enclosures of land. The earlier system of poor law continued, but was amended to respond to the new conditions.
In 1782 Gilbert’s Act excluded the “able-bodied poor” from the workhouse and forced parishes to provide either work or “outdoor relief” for them. It also permitted parishes to build workhouses. “Indoor relief” (in workhouses) was confined specifically to the old, sick or dependent children.
Britain was at war with revolutionary France from 1793 until 1815. Grain imports from Europe stopped, and poor harvests in 1795-6 meant grain prices shot up. Many at the time also blamed middlemen and hoarders for the rises. Food riots marked the spring of 1795. The ruling class feared that working people might be tempted to emulate the French, and revolt. Acute social and economic distress spread throughout the rural south of England, placing strains on the poor law system.
In May 1795, magistrates in Berkshire (one of the counties most affected by enclosure) met in Speenhamland and observed, “The present state of the poor does require further assistance than has been generally given them.” Seeking to retain control over the labourers and prevent disturbances, they established a minimum level a family needed to survive and decided to use the poor rate to make up the pay of those who found themselves below the level.
Their proposed basis for “outdoor relief” was that “when the gallon loaf (8lb 11oz) shall cost one shilling, then every poor and industrious man shall have for his own support three shillings [15p] weekly either produced by his own or his family’s labour or an allowance for the poor rates and for the support of his family one shilling and sixpence”. For every penny that the loaf rose above one shilling they reckoned that a man would need three pence for himself and one penny for each member of his family. This system spread rapidly and was soon adopted or modified in many other counties experiencing social distress.
“Speenhamland” was not created to support the unemployed or eradicate poverty. It aimed to provide a (mainly rural) labour force at low direct cost to employers, using local taxation (“poor rates”) as subsidies to supplement the poverty wages of farm workers.
The system allowed employers, including farmers and the nascent industrialists of the town, to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. Workers’ low incomes went unchanged. Speenhamland was a tactic to institutionalise poverty without letting it reach chronic heights or outright malnutrition.
The impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. It complicated the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law because it let “working paupers” draw on the poor rates. The Berkshire magistrates had also proposed another option – that farmers and other employers should increase the wages of their employees. But that idea met with little response.
Under the Speenhamland System ratepayers often found themselves subsidising the owners of large estates who paid poor wages. It was not unknown for landowners to demolish empty houses in order to reduce the population on their lands and also to prevent the return of those who had left. At the same time, they would employ labourers from neighbouring parishes. These people could be laid off without warning but would not increase the rates in the parish where they worked.
During the 20 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, attitudes to the poor began to change and the system was criticised by landed ratepayers as being expensive. Others said it impeded mobility of labour. It encouraged farmers to pay low wages and to lay off workmen in winter and re-employ them in spring and summer, as it enabled them, just, to survive.
A Royal Commission in 1834 called for the abolition of “outdoor” rate relief and recommended the maintenance of workhouse inmates at a level below that of the lowest paid workers – a crude piece of intimidation to everyone. The resulting 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act created a system of “indoor” relief and forced labour in a rapidly expanded system of hated workhouses. But that’s another tale.
Systems such as working tax credit and housing benefit, and the introduction of universal credits, are basically a re-enactment of the Speenhamland principle. They are another version of institutionalised poverty, a modern attempt to divert our class from trade union struggle for wages by offering paltry handouts taken from our class’s taxes (see article in May 2013 issue of Workers at www.workers.org.uk). ■