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Poor Laws are those legal enactments which have been made at various periods of the world's history in many countries for the relief of various forms of distress and sickness prevailing amongst the destitute. In England this is not strictly accurate, as certain laws have been enacted for the special benefit of the poor, which have not been classified as poor laws in order to avoid classifying the recipients of relief as paupers, a name much disliked amongst the poor. A person of seventy years of age in receipt of relief from the guardians of the poor would be classed a pauper, but if the relief were granted under the Old Age Pension Act such would not be the case, as the grant would be made up, to a large extent, from imperial taxation instead of local rates and the guardians of the poor would have no control over its distribution. The English poor law system is the most comprehensive and is the result of nearly four centuries of experiment; even now it is receiving the most careful consideration with a view to further legislation in consequence of the report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws issued in 1909. This commission sat for three years, held over two hundred meetings, took evidence from over one thousand three hundred witnesses, and the commissioners made upwards of eight hundred personal visits to Unions, meetings of Boards of Guardians, and institutions in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The volume containing the report consists of one thousand two hundred and fifty folio pages, six hundred and forty of which are signed by a majority of fourteen out of eighteen of the commissioners, and over five hundred by a minority of four. The two reports are the subject of much discussion, and rival associations are formed to further their respective recommendations. That more modern European systems can show many points of improvement upon the English system as a whole is obvious.
The system in Denmark is considered by many to be vastly superior to the English system, in that infinite trouble is taken to prevent any person who deserves a better fate from becoming a pauper owing to misfortune, temporary distress, illness, or accident. In England no one would ever think of applying to a poor law officer for advice, or for a loan or gift to help him over evil days, but in Denmark this is often done. At the same time those who receive poor law relief in Denmark are subject to penalties which would not be tolerated in England. In Austria and Russia great interest is taken in homes for the aged poor and the inmates always seem much brighter and happier than the average poor person in an English workhouse. In Belgium there is no poor rate, but large endowments exist. In France there are hospices civiles for indoor relief, and bureaux de bienfaisance for outdoor relief, but the relief of the poor is not compulsory except for foundlings and lunatics. The same may be said of Italy, but the charitable foundations there amount to more than thirty millions sterling. The poor laws of the United States are in many respects like the English poor laws although not so comprehensive, and they are not universally adopted in all states. Every man is entitled by law to relief from the town of his settlement, the rate being assessed on whole towns and not on parishes. These areas bear the burden of the settled poor; the unsettled poor, including Indians, are a charge upon the state. In New York one year's residence is sufficient to constitute a settlement. In some states outdoor relief is considered more economical than relief in a workhouse. The idle and the vagrant may be committed to the workhouse and forced to labour as in a house of correction. The administration is in the hands of overseers, but the counties elect superintendents, holding office for three years, who are again responsible to a Board of Supervisors. Generally the American system is marked by a high degree of classification, variety of work, special education, and liberal treatment in the matter of diet. In Canada and Australia there are practically no poor laws but many Catholic charitable institutions exist for dealing with the various forms of destitution and sickness.
The history of the poor laws in England practically had its beginning with the abolition of the monasteries by Henry VIII. A curious act of Edward VI (1551) enacted that everyone should give alms to the collectors on Sundays, and that if any one refused the bishop should admonish him. This form of "moral suasion" was not sufficient for the congregations of the new worship; and a few years later another act directed the bishop to commit those who did not give sufficient alms to the justices, who were to levy on them whatever rate they thought fair. The establishment of an official poor fund led to the establishment of an official register of the poor; and an early act of Elizabeth caused dwellings to be built, overseers to be appointed and "stuff" to be provided to set the sturdy paupers to work. In 1604 the act of 43 Elizabeth, c. 2, crystallized the whole arrangement, leaving the main administrative power in the hands of parochial authorities, annually appointed. Among other things it provided for setting to work children of parents unable to maintain them; also for setting to work all such persons, married or unmarried, who had no ordinary daily occupation to obtain a living. It provided for the relief of the lame, impotent, and blind, and those poor who were unable to work.
This and other acts were renewed in the reign of James I and made perpetual in the reign of Charles I. Each renewal saw some new development. In the eighteenth century many experimental acts were passed, some of which were completely opposite in policy. In 1772 the workhouse test was introduced and no one who refused to be lodged and kept in such houses was entitled to parochial relief. In 1782 by an act known as Gilbert's Act power was given to adjacent parishes to unite into a union and to build workhouses for combined parishes. Section 29 of this act provided that no person should be sent to the poorhouse except such as were become indigent by old age, sickness, or infirmities, and were unable to acquire a maintenance by their labour, and orphan children. For the able-bodied the guardians were ordered to find suitable employment near their own homes. Poor law expenditure was beginning to grow and by 1785 it amounted to £2,000,000. In 1796 an act (36 Geo. III, c. 23) was passed, repealing an act of 1722 which restricted out-relief. This reversal of policy encouraged out-relief to poor persons in their own homes and the cost of relief rose with frightful rapidity until it reached in 1818 the sum of £7,870,000. This was looked upon as an intolerable burden and many petitions were presented to Parliament for its alleviation.
In 1832 a royal commission was appointed to investigate the working of the poor laws and the report issued by the commissioners in 1834 presents a very unsatisfactory state of things. It was reported that funds collected were applied to purposes opposed to the letter and still more to the spirit of the law, and the morals and welfare of the people were being destroyed. It was found that in many places not only the rates due from the people were being paid from poor funds, but their house rent as well; consequently paupers became a very desirable class of tenant. In many districts it was the custom to make up the earnings of a family to what was considered a living wage, which enabled employers of labour to pay low wages, knowing the earnings would be supplemented from the poor funds. To provide employment in return for relief granted was most unusual and even where any attempt to do so was made, it was of a most unsatisfactory nature. The men were usually paid at a higher rate of wage than the independent labourer and were required to work fewer hours. Wives of independent labourers were often heard regretting that their husbands were not paupers.
The method of collecting rates for the poor fund was found to be as bad as its distribution. No general method existed: sometimes tradespeople would be called upon to pay the rates and in addition compelled to give employment where it was not required; at another time and place farmers would have to bear the burden. An instance is given of a farmer with five hundred acres having to pay ten per cent per acre and to employ four or five more labourers than he required, costing him another £100, to say nothing of the damage done by worthless labour. The evils existing in the workhouses were absence of classification, discipline, and employment, and the extravagance of allowances. Children were herded with older people and soon acquired their bad habits; particularly was this the case with young girls who were obliged to associate with the many women of evil repute who came in to recruit their health and then return to their trade; paupers were allowed to leave the workhouse one day a week and return intoxicated without punishment. Only in a very few instances were things found to be in the least degree satisfactory and these particular instances were due to the extraordinary energy and wisdom of a few individuals. It is not difficult to imagine the disastrous effect these abuses had upon all classes of the community. The independent labourers, the employers of labour, the owners of property, were all seriously affected. The foregoing evils were to a large extent due to the administrative machinery, upon which the commissioners were no less severe in their report. Overseers, assistant overseers, open vestries, representative vestries, self-appointed vestries, and magistrates, were the chief administrators of the poor funds. Some of these had to serve compulsorily without payment and much against their will; others were paid and were of a most illiterate class, many not being able to read or write, and a final appeal for the pauper against the overseers or vestries was with the magistrate, who not having the time nor inclination to go into the details of the cases brought to his notice would invariably give a wrong decision, against which there was no appeal.
One portion of the report is not without interest to Catholics, viz., that in which the commissioners refer to the large number of Roman Catholic children who were illegitimate in consequence of the priest alone having married the parents. A magistrate said that as many as a dozen of these cases had come under his notice in a single day. The remedial measures proposed by the commissioners fill two hundred and thirty-six quarto pages of close print, and the result of their report was the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (4 & 5 William IV, c. 76). The act consists of one hundred and ten clauses, the first fifteen of which deal with the appointment and duties of "The Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales", three in number, afterwards called the Local Government Board. The future administration of the poor laws power to make rules and regulations for the management of the poor, and the government of workhouses, were placed in the hands of the new commissioners. They are required to make an annual report to be placed before Parliament and to give the Secretary of State any information respecting their proceedings he may require. The succeeding sections of the act deal with the alteration and building of workhouses; the union and dissolution of unions of parishes; the number, duties, and qualifications of guardians and their elections; expenditure and assessment; qualifications, duties, and salaries of officers; making of contracts; regulation of relief to the able-bodied and their families; raising of money; audit of accounts; and apprenticeship of children. The Roman Catholic Relief Bill, passed in 1829, gave courage and hope to a certain number of Catholics, who soon began to bestir themselves in the interests of their poorer brethren in the workhouses, and the result of their efforts was seen in section 19 of the Act of 1834. This section provides that
No Rules, Orders or Regulations of the said Commissioners, nor any By-Laws at present in force, or to be hereafter made, shall oblige any inmate of any workhouse to attend any religious service which may be celebrated in a mode contrary to the religious principles of such inmate, nor shall authorize the education of any child in such workhouse in any religious creed other than that professed by the parents or surviving parent of such child, and to which such parents or parent shall object, or, in the case of an orphan, to which the godfather or godmother of such orphan shall so object: provided also, that it shall and may be lawful for any licensed minister of the religious persuasion of any inmate of such workhouse, at all times in the day, on the request of such inmate, to visit such workhouse for the purpose of affording religious assistance to such inmate, and also for the purpose of instructing his child or children in the principles of their religion.
Section 55 provides for masters of workhouses and overseers keeping a register of all relief given, and subsequent orders of the Poor Law Board provide for the entry in this register of the religious creed of those receiving indoor relief.
Although the Act of 1834 was the beginning of religious freedom for Catholics under the poor laws it was not without considerable difficulty, and in some cases legal action, before the Catholic clergy and the inmates were able to obtain the benefit of that act. Some Boards of Guardians refused to admit a priest into the workhouse even when an inmate had made a request for him to visit, and others would give him no facilities for finding those who were Catholics. The creed register was therefore instituted in 1868 by the Poor Law Amendment Act, 31 and 32 Vict., c. 122. Sections 16,17, and 19 provide for a separate register to be kept in every workhouse, district, or other pauper school, into which the religious creed of every inmate shall be entered: the religious creed of a child under twelve shall be entered as that of his father if it can be ascertained, if not, as that of his mother. The religious creed of an illegitimate child shall be deemed to be that of his mother. Should the father be a Protestant and wish his child educated as a Catholic, he is entitled to have his wish carried out, but the entry in the creed register must be that of the father's religion. Such register is to be opened to the inspection of any minister of any denomination, nearest the workhouse or school, or any rate-payer of any parish in the Union, at any time of the day between ten and four o'clock, except Sunday. Section 18. provides for any question as to correctness of entry being settled only by the Local Government Board. Section 20 provides for the minister visiting and instructing those who are of the same religion as himself. Although the act provides for the child being instructed according to the entry in the creed register, the act of William IV referred to above in some instances contradicts it. A child may be entered as a Roman Catholic, that being the religion of his father, but he being dead, the Protestant mother can object to the child being instructed in the Catholic Faith; Section 22 provides for a child above the age of twelve years altering his religion if the Local Government Board consider him competent to exercise a judgment upon the subject. Those for whom no religious service is provided in the workhouse are allowed by section 21 to attend a place of worship of their own denomination within a convenient distance of the workhouse. Many guardians have refused to allow inmates under sixty years of age to go out to Mass on Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day, but this is not legal and can be remedied by applying to the local Government Board (Order 1847, Art. 126). This right can only be stopped if abused and then the guardians must enter the cause in the minutes. The Local Government Board have permitted the appointment of a considerable number of priests, with stipends, to attend to the spiritual interests of Catholic inmates of workhouses; they cannot be called chaplains, but are known as Roman Catholic instructors; Mass is regularly said in many workhouses and in some the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Benediction is also given in several workhouses.
By the act to provide for the maintenance and education of pauper children, 1862 (25 and 26 Vict., c. 43), guardians are empowered (section 1) to send any poor child to any school certified by the Local Government Board, and supported wholly or partially by voluntary subscriptions, and to pay out of the funds in their possession the expenses of maintenance, clothing, and education. By an act of 1882 (45 and 46 Vict;, c. 58, s. 13), the rate of payment is sanctioned by the Local Government Board and it varies from five to seven shillings a week. The amount of the payment, within this limit, will be a matter of agreement between the guardians and the school.
Certified schools are inspected by the Local Government Board inspector; and guardians who have sent a child to any such school may from time to time appoint one of their body to visit and inspect; A child cannot be sent to a certified school without the consent of its parents or surviving parent, unless it be an orphan or a child deserted by its parents or surviving parent. This regulation is neither recognized by the guardians nor enforced by the Local Government Board in London; A child cannot be sent to a school conducted on the principles of a religion to which the child does not belong (25 & 26 Vict., c. 43, s. 9). Should a Board of Guardians refuse to send a child to a certified school, the course to adopt to compel them to do so is to apply to the Local Government Board. Orphan and deserted children, and children adopted by the guardians under the acts of 1889 and 1898 may be boarded out under very strict regulations compiled in the orders of 1905 and 1909, but in no case may a child be boarded out with a foster-parent of a religious creed different from that to which the child belongs. Formerly if a child were adopted and taken off the rates altogether, the jurisdiction both of the guardians and of the Local Government Board was at an end; now, however, the Poor Law Act 1899 provides that where a child maintained by guardians is with their consent adopted by any person, the guardians must, during a period of three years from the date of the adoption, cause the child to be visited at least twice in each year by some competent person appointed by them for the purpose, who is to report to them. And the guardians may, if they think fit, at any time during the three years revoke their consent to the adoption and the child must thereupon be returned to them by the person having the custody of him. Efforts are now being made to have all such children placed under the regulations of the boarding out orders. Guardians are authorized to bury Catholics in a Catholic burial ground and a Catholic priest may officiate and be paid a reasonable sum for his services.
FOWLE, The Poor Law (London, 1890); GLEN, The Poor Law Orders (11th ed., London, 1900); ASCHROTT, The English Poor Law System, Past and Present, English tr. by PRESTON-THOMAS (London, 1888); MAUDE, The Poor Law Handbook (London, 1903); IDEM, The Religious Rights of the Catholic Poor (2nd ed., London, 1910); Reprint of the Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 (London); Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, 1906-9 Report (London); SELLERS, Foreign Solutions of Poor Law Problems (London, 1904); IDEM, The Danish Poor Law Relief System (London, 1904); COWEN, The Poor Laws of the State of New York (Albany, 1887); Reports of Poor Law in Foreign Countries in Parliamentary Papers, LXV (1875).
APA citation. (1911). Poor Laws. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12254b.htm
MLA citation. "Poor Laws." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12254b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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