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The First Century of Welfare

The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, 1620-1730

Jonathan Healey
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The First Century of Welfare
    Book Description:

    The English 'Old Poor Law' was the first national system of tax-funded social welfare in the world. It provided a safety net for hundreds of thousands of paupers at a time of very limited national wealth and productivity. The First Century of Welfare, which focusses on the poor, but developing, county of Lancashire, provides the first major regional study of poverty and its relief in the seventeenth century. Drawing on thousands of individual petitions for poor relief, presented by paupers themselves to magistrates, it peers into the social and economic world of England's marginal people. Taken together, these records present a vivid and sobering picture of the daily lives and struggles of the poor. We can see how their family life, their relations with their kin and their neighbours, and the dictates of contemporary gender norms conditioned their lives. We can also see how they experienced illness and physical and mental disability; and the ways in which real people's lives could be devastated by dearth, trade depression, and the destruction of the Civil Wars. But the picture is not just one of poor folk tossed by the tides of fortune. It is also one of agency: about the strategies of economic survival the poor adopted, particularly in the context of a developing industrial economy, of the support they gained from their relatives and neighbours, and of their willingness to engage with England's developing system of social welfare to ensure that they and their families did not go hungry. In this book, an intensely human picture surfaces of what it was like to experience poverty at a time when the seeds of state social welfare were being planted. JONATHAN HEALEY is University Lecturer in English Local and Social History and Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-369-0
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. XI-XI)
  5. Preface
    (pp. XII-XV)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. XVI-XVI)
  7. Prologue: Becoming Poor
    (pp. 1-3)

    A story lies behind every entry in an account book. The story behind the series of doles given to William Bank and his son Abraham by the township of Hawkshead, however, is mostly obscure. William had been baptized in Hawkshead in 1639, his father an apparently well-off farmer who – when he composed his will in 1681 – styled himself a yeoman.² The family farm, Esthwaite Waterside, was a good one, and still stands today at the northern end of Esthwaite Water: an unremarkable but attractive whitewashed homestead, very much in the local style. We know from the parish register...

  8. Introduction: The First Century of Welfare
    (pp. 4-26)

    The English ‘Old Poor Law’ was unique. Lasting from the twilight years of the Tudor dynasty until 1834, it provided for a regular compulsory tax in every English (and Welsh) parish, the proceeds of which were to be spent on that parish’s neediest poor. Its uniqueness, at least in its earlier years, lay in the fact it was anationalsystem, as applicable – in theory – to the wilds of Northumberland as it was in the dense lanes of the City of London. Indeed, though many stimuli to its appearance were pan-European, such as population growth, rising prices, humanism,...


    • 1 Lancashire, 1600–1730: A Developing Society
      (pp. 29-54)

      In the summer of 1701, Agnes Braithwaite – a septuagenarian widow from Hawkshead – travelled to Lancaster Quarter Sessions.² We do not know whether she went on foot, as would have befitted her poverty, or whether she got a lift, perhaps with a friend or neighbour on horseback. She was, she claimed, ‘a very poore impotent person aged very neare eighty years’, so the latter seems most likely. On the other hand, one of Hawkshead’s overseers later complained of how she was not so incapacitated that she could not ‘travel to do mishcheef’, as Justices could themselves see, so perhaps...

    • 2 The Arrival and Growth of Poor Relief
      (pp. 55-81)

      Before going on to explore the lives of the Lancashire poor, we need to understand the process by which the Poor Laws became part of everyday life in the county.² This was a process in which the major steps were taken in the seventeenth century, and so this chapter will tell the story of how this dramatic development in social welfare came about. It is both a necessary backdrop to the ‘pauper tales’ to be told in the rest of the book, and a fascinating case study of how a piece of Parliamentary legislation gradually came to be accepted and...

    • 3 Pauper Tales
      (pp. 82-110)

      The operation of the Poor Law left an impressive documentary trail. Overseers kept accounts and compiled censuses, the poor themselves launched petitions for relief, JPs undertook local investigations, settlement examinations were taken and certificates produced.² Removal orders and apprenticeship indentures were lodged in parish chests across the country, while occasional references to the system pepper many diaries, letters and autobiographies. It was a system in which written documentation was critical, hence Agnes Braithwaite’s safe keeping of her relief order, and hence her difficulty in claiming her pension once it had been confiscated. As a result, the operation of official poor...


    • 4 Marginal People: Descending into Poverty?
      (pp. 113-126)

      The first question we must ask ourselves is,who were the poor? In subsequent chapters, it will be suggested that the deserving poor were those suffering certain contingencies, certain ‘crosses and losses’. But before we look at this, we must ask whether the poor were part of a distinctive group within English society, living lives of marginality across their life cycle, or whether they were ordinary people fallen on especially hard times. The answer, as it turns out, is that they could be either.

      The position of the poor within English society has been an important historiographical subtheme. Keith Wrightson,...

    • 5 Resourceful People: Survival Strategies of the Lancashire Poor
      (pp. 127-168)

      When Thomas Nailor fell seriously ill in around 1658, he did not immediately seek relief from the overseers. Instead, his first response was to draw upon the charity of his neighbours and his kin. It was their support that – initially at least – insulated him from the economic shock caused by his sickness. In other words, he ‘made shift’, and his descent into poverty was cushioned by the existence of people willing and able to help him.

      In seventeenth-century England, there was an ingrained culture of ‘making shift’. Not only the poor, but middling households drew income from multiple...


    • 6 Dependent People: Endemic Poverty
      (pp. 171-211)

      Although John Lomax had failed to convince the overseers of Bradshaw of his need, he found relief in the adjourned court of Quarter Sessions for Salford Hundred, held at Bolton in May 1679. Endorsing his petition, the Bolton justices ordered that he be provided for ‘according to his wants’. The next stage, then, is to explore the kinds of ‘wants’ experienced by paupers like Bradshaw, which were either relieved or expected to be relieved by the Poor Law. The chapter will discuss the different forms of poverty in turn using both qualitative and quantitative data from petitions (with the occasional...

    • 7 Crisis Poverty
      (pp. 212-254)

      The level of hardship in any economy will fluctuate, with certain years seeing particular prosperity, others extreme difficulty and social dislocation, and this basic truism has informed some work on poor relief. James Sharpe and Steve Hindle, for example, have highlighted the link between the social experience of the dearth and famine of 1594–97 and the Parliamentary codifications of the Poor Laws in 1598, amongst a raft of other social legislation.² Yet little work has been produced on the relationship between economic crises and the day-to-day operation of the Poor Law.³ Moreover, although there are studies of economic fluctuations...

  12. Conclusion: Worldly Crosses
    (pp. 255-257)

    In 1661, a group of petitioners from Failsworth appealed to Manchester Sessions for the relief of one of their neighbours, Elizabeth Chatterton. It had, they claimed, ‘pleased almighty godfor reasons best known to himselfe’ to lay a ‘heavy affliction’ on her, which we learn from a previous petition was lameness.² It was the uncertainty of life that this statement represents, in which the visiting of personal misfortune was the unpredictable prerogative of Almighty God, which formed the key to ‘deserving’ poverty under the Old Poor Law. The year, too, is significant, for it was one of high prices. As...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 258-298)
  14. Index
    (pp. 299-319)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 320-320)