The Slippery Slope/Poor Relief in a West Country Village, 1786-1906

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The Poor Law is in the melting-pot. Experts, of widely divergent views, are struggling for the handle of the ladle, and no one can guess what will come out. Meanwhile the volume of articles, pamphlets, and disquisitions of all sorts upon social subjects is growing at a prodigious rate, and there is some danger lest, in the clash of opinions, we should lose sight of plain facts. The ordinary man, with whom the decision must ultimately rest, is inclined to be weary of the conflict of authorities, and to say: "Who will show us any good?" The need of the moment would appear to be to escape from the tangle of conflicting sociology and economics by which the whole matter is overlaid, and to return to the simpler aspects of the question, which must be intelligible even to the "man in the street."

A study of the question in a single village, where the issues are simple and direct, and the facts concrete and clear, would appear to meet this need to some extent. And it is with that object that the following short sketch has been traced and put together.

The village in question is situated in a purely rural district in the West Country, and contained a population of about 800 at the end of the eighteenth century. The earliest poor-book still extant dates from 1786, four years after the passing of Gilbert's Act, under which outdoor relief was made obligatory. The parish year seems to have begun variously—perhaps at the discretion of the overseers—in April, May, or June, and the "first month" is always one of those three months. The accounts of poor relief are kept monthly, under the headings "monthly payments" and "extraordinaries." The former are regular allowances of outdoor relief, continued over long periods, in some cases apparently indefinitely. The latter are what we should now know as casual relief, and take the shape of various articles of clothing, coals, blankets, attendance in sickness, etc. The "first month's pay" for (May) 1786, shows thirty-three monthly allowances ranging from 16s. to 4s., total £10, 15s. The first month's "extraordinaries " number twenty-seven, and amount to £ or thereabouts. The maximum total monthly expenditure under these two heads during that year was £22, and the minimum £15. The total "disbursted" (sic) in poor relief for the year was about £200. Amongst the monthly allowances we find five evidently in respect of bastardy cases. Forty rates were made at £5, 0s. 6d. per rate.

Nine years later—that is to say, in the "first month" of 1805—the monthly payments had risen to eighty-six, and the "extraordinaries" to fifty-eight, and the total amount paid for the relief of the poor was £48, 16s. 8d. By this time the practice of giving "shirts," "shifts," and other articles of clothing, which hardly appear at all in the earlier record, had grown to enormous dimensions. That of paying people to attend upon their relations in sickness and old age had also assumed formidable proportions, and there is scarcely a month in which it does not appear in some form. There are some six allowances in respect of bastard children. We shall see later that there was a further increase in this respect. In this year there is a separate account in respect of eighteen allowances "paid to Volunteers' wives and familys" (sic). The annual expenditure by this time amounted to about £600.

By 1815 the "first month's" expenditure had risen to about £6$. There is a curious entry here, "Cash to R. H.'s family previous to their departure to New South Wales," the father having probably been transported.

In 1832 the poor-books come to an end. The total monthly expenditure for the first month, 1831-32, is £90 in respect of seventy "allowances" and fifty-seven "extraordinaries," and the total expenditure for the year £996. Forty-two rates were made at £23, 13s. 3½d. as against forty rates at £5, 0s. 6d. in 1786.

There are a few other items scattered about in the old books which have some interest for various reasons. In 1805 the parish had to pay a fine of £10, 18s. 6d. "for not providing a man for the army of reserve"—a severe penalty, indicating the tension of the times. Bastardy was increasing fast, and reached a maximum of nine allowances in a single month in 1829, and throughout there is a constant record of attempts to enforce maintenance upon putative fathers by attendance at sessions and elsewhere. Upon one occasion, £13 is paid "for a journey to Yorkshire to apprehend Francis Cotton on account of bastardy." We may doubt whether the journey repaid its expenses. Quaint expressions, the meaning of which is obscure to the writer, occur from time to time. Thus, very frequently, A. B. or C. D. "towards a turn." Perhaps some reader may be able to explain this. Some of the names appear upon the books almost from the cradle to the grave. Thus, one "Phebe Hains" appears about 1787, as "in distress, 1 shilling"; six years later comes the significant entry, "Phebe Hains and child"; after that the name appears continuously upon the books till 1832, when we take leave of poor Phebe Hains, still in the receipt of a monthly payment of 10s. "Melliar Helliar" is on the books in 1786, and still in 1815, and there are many cases of the sort. The same names go on from month to month, and from year to year, till we come to the last phase: "A. B. paid for coffin and shroud, digging grave and bell." Of the "unemployed" we read again and again: "A. B. work upon the roads"; "C. D., no work, 2s.; ditto a sheet." Of tramps, memoranda such as "poor woman in distress with four children," "seamen in distress," "poor man with a pass"; and 6d. is the usual maximum of relief given.

There were two poorhouses in the parish, and numerous entries in respect to them for "thatching," mending windows (possibly broken by discontented inmates). £19, 10s. 6d. is paid to the principal landlord half-yearly "as usual" for cottages occupied by paupers, and a considerable amount to other owners for the same purpose.

To sum up, then, the expenditure upon poor relief had risen in forty-five years from £200 a year to ^995, and was still rising. The monthly list of allowances and extraordinaries had grown from 60 to 127. Such were the conditions up to the passing of the new Poor Law. Relief was given for babies and children and for the sick; work and relief were given to the able-bodied; a system of practically universal pensions was in force for the aged.

And now we may compare these conditions with those of the present day. There has been little alteration in the external conditions of the village, except that the population has, like that of most rural villages, declined by about 25 per cent. The same families own the land. The same family, till recently, held the incumbency. The same names appear, almost without exception, amongst the farmers and labourers. There are still a few living who were born under the old Poor Law. There are many more who can remember well some of the old people whose names appear upon the parish books. The chief change in the external conditions is that the land, which was then largely agricultural, is now everywhere sown down to grass, and that the economic conditions in that respect would appear to be less favourable to the labourer than one hundred years ago.

What, then, are the present conditions in respect to poor relief? They may be stated in a sentence. The report of the Union for 1905-6 shows that during that time there were nine indoor and nine outdoor paupers for the whole year belonging to the village in question. If we estimate the cost of maintenance of indoor paupers at 5s. a week, the cost for them would be £117. The cost of the outdoor paupers was £52, and the total £169, as against £995 in 1831-2. The value of the change is not, however, to be measured by the reduction of the cost, but by the improvement in the condition of the people. Poor they still are, but there is little or no distress amongst them; and their poverty is as nothing compared with that of one hundred years ago. They are better fed, better clothed, and better housed, and many of them have something to spare for sick clubs. They seldom ask for any form of relief, and no one nowadays would dream of asking to be paid for attendance upon a sick relation. The prevailing spirit is entirely different from that of other days. Bastardy has practically disappeared. The village is no longer a village of paupers, but one of self-respecting citizens.

The conditions are not, of course, even now ideal; wages are still much too low; the labourer is still too far divided from the land which he cultivates. But in both those directions something has been gained. Wages have certainly increased considerably within the memory of the writer. Practically every labourer has a garden attached to his cottage, and many have allotments. The lowness of wages is, to some extent, counterbalanced by the cheapness of cottage accommodation, and there is no doubt that this accommodation is immeasurably better than that of a hundred years ago. The labourer is no longer clothed, fed, and housed by the parish. He does all this for himself out of his wages, and the writer submits that this is the true line of social progress rather than the condonation of inadequate wages by poor relief under whatever name it be disguised. The history of poor relief in this village is identical with that in hundreds of English villages. What, then, is the cause of the change? Can there be any doubt that it is due to the cutting off, in 1834, of the endowment of pauperism? Every practical man knows that, even to-day, it would be easy to return to the old conditions. Average human nature is not proof against the common desire to live without labour, to its own eventual ruin, body and soul. The foregoing sketch has been made because the issues are simple, and the facts—at least to one who knows the village and the people—as vivid as if they happened yesterday. Let any one who will make a similar study with regard to his own village, and form his own conclusions.