Elizabethan Poor Law (1601)

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The Poor Law Act 1601 was also known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, 43rd Elizabeth or Old Poor Law after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. It formalised earlier practices of poor relief distribution in England and Wales. The Old Poor Law was not one law but a collection of laws passed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The system's administrative unit was the parish, it was not a collectivist government policy but a piece of legislation which made individual parishes responsible for Poor Law legislation. The 1601 saw a move away from the more obvious forms of punishing paupers under the Tudor system towards methods of 'correction'.

Several amending pieces of legislation can be considered part of the Old Poor Law:

  • 1662 - Poor Relief Act 1662 (Settlement Acts)
  • 1723 - Workhouse Test Act
  • 1782 - Gilbert's Act
  • 1795 - Speenhamland

Main points of the 1601 Act

  • To board out (making a payment to families willing to accept them) those young children who were orphaned or whose parents could not maintain them,
  • To provide materials to "set the poor on work"
  • to offer relief to people who were unable to work — mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind", and
  • "The putting out of children to be apprentices".

Terms of the 1601 system

Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so called ' impotent poor', was in the form of a payment or items of food ('the parish loaf') or clothing also known as outdoor relief. Some aged people might be accommodated in parish alms houses, though these were usually private charitable institutions. Meanwhile able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in houses of correction ( indoor relief). However, provision for the many able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was relatively unusual, and most workhouses developed later . The 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for each other - elderly parents would live with their children.

The 1601 Poor Law could be described as 'parochial' as the administrative unit of the system was the parish.There were around 15,000 such parishes based upon the area around a parish church. This system allowed greater sensitivity towards paupers, however this system also made tyrannical behaviour from Overseers possible. Overseers of the Poor would know their paupers and therefore be able to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor. The Elizabethan Poor Law operated at a time when the population was small enough for everyone to know everyone else, therefore people's circumstances would be known and the idle poor would be unable to claim on the parishes' poor rate.

The 1601 Act sought to deal with 'settled' poor who had found themselves temporarily out of work - it was assumed they would accept indoor relief or outdoor relief.Neither method of relief was at this time in history seen as harsh. The act was supposed to deal with beggars whom were considered a threat to civil order.

In 1607 a House of Correction was set up in each county. However this system was separate from the 1601 system which distinguished between the settled poor and 'vagrants'.

Criticisms of the 1601 Act

Implementation and variation

There was much variation in the application of the law and there was a tendency for the destitute to migrate towards the more generous parishes, usually situated in the towns. There was wide variation in the amount of poor relief given out. As the parish was the administrative unit of the system there was great diversity in the system. As there were no administrative standards parishes were able to interpret the law as they wished. Some towns, such as Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool were able to obtain by-laws which established their control onto several of the urban parishes within their jurisdiction. Bristol gained a private Act of Parliament in 1696 which allowed the city to create a 'manufactory' so that the profits from the paupers work could be used for maintenance of the poor relief system.

Outdoor relief

Outdoor relief continued to be the most popular form of relief for the able-bodied poor even though the law described that "the poor should be set to work". In 1795 the Speenhamland system was introduced as a system of outdoor relief - again there was variation within the system with some parishes subsidising with food and others with money. Some parishes were more generous than others - there was no uniformity to the system. The Speenhamland system was popular in the south of England - elsewhere the Roundsman and Labour rate were used. The system was designed for a pre-industrial society, industrialisation, a mobile population, a series of bad harvests during the 1790s and the Napoleonic Wars tested the old poor law to breaking point.

Issues of Settlement

The 1601 Act states that each individual parish was responsible for its 'own' poor. Arguments over which parish was responsible for a pauper's poor relief and concerns over migration to more generous parishes led to the passing of the Settlement Act 1662 which allowed relief only to established residents of a parish - mainly through birth, marriage and apprenticeship. A pauper applicant had to prove a 'settlement'.If they could not, they were removed to the next parish that was nearest to the place of their birth, or where they might prove some connection. Some paupers were moved hundreds of miles. Although each parish that they passed through was not responsible for them, they were supposed to supply food and drink and shelter for at least one night.

Individual parishes were keen to keep costs of poor relief as low as possible - there are examples of paupers in some cases being shunted back and forth between parishes.

The Settlement Laws allowed strangers to a parish to be removed after 40 days if they were not working - but the cost of removing such people meant that they were often left until they tried to claim poor relief. In 1697 Settlement Laws were tightened when people could be barred from entering a parish unless they produced a Settlement certificate.

Affect on labour market

The Act was criticised in later years for its effect in distorting the labour market, through the power given to parishes to let them remove 'undeserving' poor. Another criticism of the Act was that it applied to rated land not personal or movable wealth - therefore benefiting commercial and business interests.

Cost of implementing act

The building of workhouses was expensive. The Workhouse Act of 1772 allowed parishes to combine and apply for a workhouse test - where conditions were made worse than those outside.

The Act stated that workhouses,poorhouses and houses of correction should be built for the different types of pauper. However, it was not cost effective to build these different types of buildings. For this reason parishes such as Bristol combined these institutions so that the profits paupers made were plunged back into the maintenance of the system.

Reliance on the parish

The systems reliance on the parish can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. It could be argued it made the system for humane and sensitive - but a local crisis such as a poor harvest could be a great burden on the local poor rate.

The eighteenth century

Bristol abandons the system

The eighteenth-century workhouse movement began at the end of the seventeenth century with the establishment of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor, founded by Act of Parliament in 1696. The corporation established a workhouse which combined housing and care of the poor with a house of correction for petty offenders. Following the example of Bristol some twelve further towns and cities established similar corporations in the next two decades. Because these corporations required a private Act, they were not suitable for smaller towns and individual parishes.

Starting with the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1714 several dozen small towns and individual parishes established their own institutions without any specific legal authorization. These were concentrated in the South Midlands and in the county of Essex. From the late 1710s the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge began to promote the idea of parochial workhouses.

Workhouse Test Act (Knatchbull's Act)

The Society published several pamphlets on the subject, and supported Sir Edward Knatchbull in his successful efforts to steer the Workhouse Test Act through Parliament in 1723. The act gave legislative authority for the establishment of parochial workhouses, by both single parishes and as joint ventures between two or more parishes. More importantly, the Act helped to publicise the idea of establishing workhouses to a national audience. The Workhouse Test Act made workhouses a deterrent as conditions were to be regulated to make them worse than outside of the workhouse. However during this period outdoor relief was still the most popular method of poor relief as it was easier or administer.

By 1776 some 1912 parish and corporation workhouses had been established in England and Wales, housing almost 100,000 paupers. Although many parishes and pamphlet writers expected to earn money from the labour of the poor in workhouses, the vast majority of people obliged to take up residence in workhouses were ill, elderly, or children whose labour proved largely unprofitable. The demands, needs and expectations of the poor also ensured that workhouses came to take on the character of general social policy institutions, combining the functions of creche, and night shelter, geriatric ward and orphanage.

Gilbert's Act

Gilbert's Act was passed in 1782 to combat the excessive costs of outdoor relief. It promoted indoor alternatives and allowed parishes to combine for the impotent poor. However outdoor relief was still used to help to able-bodied poor.

Reasons for overhauling the system


The 1601 system was for a pre-industrial society, the massive population increases after the Industrial revolution strained the existing system. Mechanisation meant that unemployment was increasing, therefore poor relief costs could not be met.

French Wars

The Napoleonic Wars meant that there were periods of trade blockades on Britain. The blockade and bad harvests in 1813 and 1814 meant that bread prices were kept artificially high. When the imports returned many farmers went bankrupt - the high prices had caused unemployment and therefore an increasing the poor rate. The bankruptcies meant that their workers became unemployed pushing the poor rate higher still and those that survived reduced wages in order to cover the cost of wartime taxes and money lost due to the enclosure of farmland. The Corn Laws were passed to protect British farmers - however this kept prices artificially high and made more people claim relief. The dislocation of trade and poor harvests after the French Wars caused poor rates to reach their highest levels.


In 1819 Select Vesteries were set up - these were committees set up in each parish whom were responsible for Poor Law administration. There were concerns over corruption within the system as contracts for supplying food and beer often went to local traders or these vestries.


The cost of the current system was increasing. The increasing numbers of people claiming relief peaked after the economic dislocation caused by the French Wars when it was 12 shillings per head of population.

Fear of unrest

One reason for changing the system was to prevent unrest or even revolution. Habeas Corpus was suspended and the Six Acts passed to prevent possible riots. The Swing riots highlighted the possibility of agricultural unrest.


See main article Opposition to the Poor Law
Jeremy Bentham argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems, whilst the writings of Thomas Malthus focused attention on the problem of overpopulation, and the growth of illegitimacy. David Ricardo argued that there was an "iron law of wages". The effect of poor relief, in the view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the "independent labourer".

The process of reform

The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws wrote a report stating the changes which needed to be made to the poor. These changes were implemented in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.

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