Landholding in England/Chapter 18

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CHAPTER XVIII.— THE PROBLEM OF POVERTY IN THE SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES


"I contend that from 1563 to 1824 a conspiracy, concocted by the law, and carried out by parties interested in its success, was entered into, to cheat the English workman of his wages, to tie him to the soil, to deprive him of hope, and to degrade him into irremediable poverty. … I am not deceived by the hypocrisy which the preamble of an Act of Parliament habitually contains. … The Act of Elizabeth declares that 'the wages of labourers are too small, and not answerable to these times'; and speaks of the 'grief and burden of the poor labourer and hired man,' and thereupon enacts a law which effectually makes the wages small … by allowing those who are interested in keeping him poor to fix the wages on which he shall subsist, and to exact a testimonial from his past employers and the overseers or churchwardens when he quitted a service, which he had to show before he entered another."—Rogers, "Six Centuries of Work and Wages," pp. 398-389.


IN the seventeenth century the wretched state and the increasing numbers of the poor much exercised people's minds.[1] Pamphlets, more than almost any other class of publications in those times, show the inner history of the nation; and the very titles of some of the seventeenth-century pamphlets are instructive. They show the poverty, and they suggest one great cause of that poverty. Here is one of 1649: "A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, directed to all that call themselves, and are called by other lords of manors through this Nation, that have begun to cut, or that through fear and covetousness (sic) do intend to cut down the woods and trees that grow on the Commons and Waste Lands." Here we have a glimpse of the stealthy way in which enclosure crept on. Again, "Adam Moore, Gentleman," writes in 1653 on the "Enclosure of the Wastes and Common grounds of England." And in the last months of the Commonwealth we have "The Outcryes of the Poor oppressed and imprisoned, or a Safe Way to save the Poor of the Nation from Begging. W. Pryor, 1659." After the Restoration we find no end of schemes proposed, from the "Herring-busses" in which the poor of England were to support themselves and cut out the Dutch, down to Mr Firmin's plans for setting the poor to spin. A pound of flax can be bought for 1s. 6d., and spun so fine that it makes a pound of thread worth 8s. or 10s.; indeed, Mr Firmin had seen a pound of flax spun so fine that it was worth £3 or £4. Another writer goes into causes, thinks that stage-coaches have increased poverty, and seriously advises suppressing hem—at least within fifty miles of London. Then people will be obliged to keep their own horses as formerly, and there will be more employment. Some of the proposals are extraordinary : Sir Josiah Child, the great banker, suggests seventy "Fathers of the Poor." They are to wear "some honourable medal, after the manner of the Familiars of the Inquisition in Spain"(!), and to have all the powers of justices, and much more, for they can send to the plantations such of the poor as they think fit. Child was a humane man : his "Fathers" were to take security for the comfort of these unfortunates, and for their "freedom when their term of service expired. Though by far the most humane, this is very far from the first proposal of the kind. There was surely never a nation so anxious to keep down its numbers as the English! The idea that the poor multiplied "like lice and fleas" seems to have haunted our fathers like a nightmare. Nor did ever a nation inflict such penalties on poverty. It is but literal truth to say that in England poverty is a crime. Yet surely the dishonest rich man was always known to history!

As the numbers of the poor increased, opinions differed more and more as to whether the cause of poverty was too many people or too little work. Mr Locke thought it was not want of employment, but "relaxation of discipline and corruption of manners." Half of those in receipt of relief could earn their living ; others might earn something towards it. Yet we do not hear complaints of the lack of workmen. In a vague way, we find the poor charged with idleness—especially if they ever ask for more wages; but we never hear of great works at a standstill for lack of hands. And there was no lack of severe laws against idleness—no one ever said there was ; all they said was that people could not find it in their hearts to put the laws in execution. It is inconceivable that there should have been so much sympathy for paupers, unless it had been felt that the paupers were to be pitied. The wilfully idle are not pitied. And if half of those receiving relief could have earned their living, and there was, as asserted, plenty of work for them, why did not those who had to keep them see that they did -this work and kept themselves?

Defoe was very emphatic about there being work if a man chose to work; for if not, "why are gaols rummaged" for recruits for the army? If there was really no work, they would be glad to wear the Queen's cloth, "or anybody's cloth," rather than go naked. Real poverty drives men in crowds into armies. But he that can earn 20s. a week in steady employment "must be drunk or mad to list to be knock'd o' th' head for 3s. 6d. a week" (Address to Parliament, "Giving Alms no Charity," 1704). Defoe] says, what is perfectly true, that all our Acts for setting the poor to work in workhouses "are and will be a public nuisance," and will only increase the number of poor. At this time the Poor Rate had risen from £840,000 in 1673 to £1,000,000 in 1700. The whole revenue of the country is given as £3,895,285 in 1701; so that more than a quarter of the revenue raised by taxes was spent on the poor out of the rates ! And however much opinion may differ on all other points, it always agrees that poverty and absolute begging are increasing.

Misery had become so chronic and so vast that it was worth being exploited. In 1731 and 1732, the disgraceful affair of the "Charitable Corporation" excited the public to such a degree that people compared it with the South Sea Bubble — with which it had not the remotest resemblance. The Bubble was the result of the public's own speculation; while the Charitable Corporation was a most glaring instance of a benevolent institution captured by swindlers. It was founded to lend money to the poor on pledges. When the exposure came, it was found that for £159.276 there were no vouchers at all. For £44,874 there were vouchers unsigned by the borrowers. By the simple trick of issuing new notes on renewal of the old pledges, which the cashier was unable to pay, the holders of fictitious pledges—"and perhaps some real ones"—would go to the office, pay interest, and get a new note, though the old notes were neither paid nor called in. Hardly a pledge of considerable value but had duplicate notes. For years the cash books had never been compared with the vouchers. Persons whose names appeared as large borrowers denied all knowledge of the transactions. By concealing the fact that a licence had been granted to increase their capital, the managers bought up shares at £6, to sell them shortly afterwards for £10. Thompson, who engineered this, was thanked nem. con. at a General Court of Directors, and leave was asked to put his portrait in their house. Bond, another director, when told that "the coining of notes and bonds was inconsistent with their charter for relieving the poor, "said: "Damn the poor : let's go into the city and get money for ourselves."[2] Walpole declared that his conduct in this matter should be the test of the integrity of his life. The affair assumed the proportions of a Jacobite plot. It was asserted that Thompson—who fled the country, and went to Rome—had stolen the money for the Pretender. Finally, a Bill was passed for a lottery to raise £400,000 for the sufferers by his huge swindle. It is a striking proof of the magnitude of the question of poverty that a company should have been formed to relieve it, able to swindle its shareholders to he tune of half-a-million.

It is evident that Elizabeth's Act of Settlement had a considerable share in increasing out-o'-works. Child had called it both cruel and stupid. It sent a man to a parish where there was no work for him—just because he was born there—while he could have found good work elsewhere. Moreover, it sent him off if he was likely to become chargeable." These points were now amended—he was not sent back till he actually was chargeable, and he was not to be sent back, as formerly, though he might be so sick that his life was endangered.

The great difference in wages in various parts of the country shows that the Act of Settlement must have worked deplorably. A few years before this time the Justices of Worcester had set a haymaker's wages at 4d. a day, with meat, and 8d. without; a mower's, 6d. or 1s., a reaper's the same. But in 1651 the Chelmsford Justices had fixed 10d. or 18d. for a mower; 12d. or 22d. for a reaper, and 8d. or 14d. for a woman reaper. We find the same discrepancies from generation to generation, showing that the demand for labour must have been much greater in some parts than in others. The Act of Settlement seems expressly framed to prevent labourers gaining any advantage from this.

The whole case for labour is given in those words of the old Intelligencer of 1649: "Labour is cheaper and food twice dearer than formerly." Prices rose, but wages did not rise in proportion. They were not allowed to do so. It is literally true that from 1563 to 1824 there was a legal conspiracy to cheat the English workman of his wages. The masters combined to keep wages down, and the law made the offence of "Conspiracy" extend to workmen who combined to raise them.[3]

At the end of the seventeenth century, Gregory King gave the first trustworthy statistics of the state of the country.[4] He was much troubled at the decrease in the revenue[5] (a million less in 1695 than in 1688), and the increase in expenditure, and foresaw that "if the war continues to 1698 inclusive," the national income will have fallen £4,000,000. He gives an elaborate table of statistics. In 1696 the arable land of England was 11,000,000 acres, and the pasture and meadow 19,000,000. "Moor, Mountain, and Barren lands," another 10,000,000; and woods and forests, parks, and covers, 6,000,000. The rent of the whole he put at £12,000,000; and the value of the annual produce at £22,275,000.

The following figures will show the increase in the poor rate in the eighteenth century as compared with that in the revenue and the National Debt. It must be remembered that the National Debt added a new and heavy item to the estimates— and to the taxes. The revenue increased, partly because there was now the interest on the Debt to pay. William III.'s wars— not undertaken for our benefit —entailed on us an annual burden of £1,310,242—or more than two-thirds of the whole average revenue twenty-two years before. Between 1603 and 1702 population cannot have doubled. At most it was not more than 5,000,000 at the end of Elizabeth's reign; the calculations of Gregory King make it about 5,180,000 in 1696. It is impossible to calculate the numbers of the poor much before 1673, because all accounts agree that during the first half of the century collections for the poor rate were systematically evaded. Probably the decrease in 1776 was due to the fact that every man who could be picked up was pressed for the army in America, the navy, or the East India Company's service.


Year Poor Rate Revenue National Debt
1673 £840,000 Average for
Chas. II.'s reign—
£1,800,000
1685 £665,000 1689, £2,001,855 £664,263
1698 £819,000
1700 £1,000,000 1701, £3,895,285 £16,394,702
Q. Anne  £1,000,000 1710, £5,691,803  1714, £54,145,363
1751 £3,000,000 1759, £8,523,540  1748, £78,293,313
1776 £1,000,000 1776, £10,265,405  1775, £135,943,051
1783-5  £2,167,749  1786,  £15,096,112  1784,  £257,213,043

This table is given by Eden in his "State of the Poor."


In 1640, "Stanley " says many say there are more than 80,000 "idle vagabonds in this land." At 3d. a day, this is £360,000 a year, and all for no good! In 1677 it was 4d.

The land-tax, as it at present stands, dates from 1692, the fourth year of William and Mary. Immediately after the revolution of 1688 this country was involved in the long and costly war with France which continued till the last year of Queen Anne. It was to carry on this war that in 1690 a land-tax of 4s. in the £ was voted for one year. As it was obvious that the tax must be continued, a valuation of all the lands of the kingdom[6] was taken in 1692. Commissioners were appointed to discover on the spot the annual value of rents, and to assess the respective counties. The rate is called 4s. in the £, but 24s. instead of 20s, are to be paid on every £100, and the lands are to be valued on what they would bring in, "if truly and bona fide leased at a rack-rent." The assessment of all the lands, at 4s. in the £, amounted to £2,037,627, but in 1697 4s. was made the limit of the rate, and £2,000,000 was fixed as the limit of the whole annual sum to be thus raised. The Act was still "for one year only," and was described as "for carrying on a vigorous war with France," but it long outlasted that war and many others. It was renewed year by year for a century. In peace time it was only 3s. or 2s. in the £, and even occasionally is., but the moment there was war it went up to 4s. again, amidst the bitter complaints of the landed gentry, who declared themselves by it. A striking instance of the way in which burdens have been shifted from the well-to-do to the great body of the people is connected with the Land Tax. At the beginning of the reign of George II. the revenue was in so flourishing a condition that Sir Robert Walpole thought he could do without the Salt Tax,[7] also first imposed in the reign of William III. It had long been complained of as "burdensome to the poor, bad for manufactures, and fatal to the progress of British fisheries." So in 1729 he repealed the Salt Tax (illegible text) some others, the abolition to take effect from Christmas, (illegible text) but before the repeal could do any good he proposed (illegible text) of his own Act that he might please "the landed m{{illegible} " by reducing the Land Tax to is. The gentlemen were relieved at the expense of British manufactures and fisheries, and of the poor; and in a few years a senseless commercial war[8] sent up the Land Tax again to 4s., and there was no more talk about the revenue being able to dispense with the Salt Tax.

The seventeenth century saw two other famous Acts, both connected with landholding, both made in the interest of the landholder and at the expense of the interests of the people. One was the Corn Bill of 1670, which for the first time put a duty on imported corn; the other was the Corn Bill of 1688, for which the Land Tax was the price paid. It gave a bounty on the export of corn. Both were intended as remedies against a low price of the chief necessary of life.


  1. At the same time, there was a constant alarm about depopulation.
  2. See Pope's "Moral Essays," 3rd Epistle, for a reference to Bond.
  3. "We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour."—"Wealth of Nations," Bk. 1. chap. viii.
  4. He was also the first to make a Survey of London on the seale of 100 feet to the inch, which expressed the ground plot of every house and garden. He surveyed many counties of England.
  5. From £42,500,000 to £38,500,000. "The kingdom is yearly decreasing three millions." This was the beginning of a serious National Debt. At this time the population was increasing at the rate of 6000 or 7000 a year. King gave the population as about 5,318,000, and thought that by the year 2300 we should have 11,000,000, and in 3500 years 22,000,000! He was a sagacious observer; but the 600 years of war from the first coming of the Saxons to the reign of the Confessor, the constant revolutions, insurrections, and wars from 1066 to Magna Charta (the Conqueror depopulated the whole country from Humber to Tees), the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, had made increase of population so very slow that he supposed he was making a very bold forecast. He estimated the population in 1696 at 5,180,000.
  6. It is generally received that, about 1660, the whole rental of England in land, houses, and mines, was about £6,000000 and twelve years' purchase. About 1690, the rental was about £14,000,000 and eighteen years' purchase.
  7. This was the excise of salt, not the duty on imported salt.
  8. This was the war of Jenkins' Ear. "It unquestionably arose from the turbulent spirit of the English, who, tired of a long peace, engaged in hostilities with Spain for very frivolous reasons. The trifling sum of one or two hundred thousand pounds was the original subject of contest."—Sinclair, "History of Revenue."

    The war cost £31,338,689.