The way we were: Strivers and shirkers

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
April 24, 2013
A 16th century "Bedlam beggar" pleads with a gentleman © Mary Evans Picture Library / Edwin Mullan Collection

The Black Death of 1348-9 led to a considerable shortage of labourers. In 1351, Edward III’s Statute of Labourers tried to establish a maximum wage and a legal distinction between those able to work and those unwilling to work:

“Because a great part of the people and especially of the workmen and servants has now died in that pestilence, some, seeing the straights of the masters and the scarcity of servants, are not willing to serve unless they receive excessive wages, and others, rather than through labour to gain their living, prefer to beg in idleness: we... have seen fit to ordain: that every man and woman of our kingdom of England, of whatever condition, whether bond or free, who is able bodied and below the age of sixty years... be sought after to serve in a suitable service... and he shall take only the wages, liveries, meed or salary which, in the places where he sought to serve, were accustomed to be paid in the twentieth year of our reign of England...

“If any man or woman, being thus sought after in service, will not do this... he shall be taken and sent to the next jail, and there he shall remain in strict custody until he shall find surety for serving in the aforesaid form.

“And because many sound beggars do refuse to labour so long as they can live from begging alms, giving themselves up to idleness and sins, and, at times, to robbery and other crimes, let no one, under the aforesaid pain of imprisonment presume, under colour of piety or alms to give anything to such as can very well labour, or to cherish them in their sloth, so that thus they may be compelled to labour for the necessaries of life.”

In 1567 Thomas Harman, a Kentish gentle-man, published A Caveat for Common Cursitors, an account of the vagabonds and “sturdy beggars” of Elizabethan England. In his dedication to the Countess of Shrewsbury he explained his purpose:

“As of ancient and long time there hath been, and is now at this present, many good, godly, profitable laws and acts made and set forth in this most noble and flourishing realm for the relief, succour, comfort and sustention of the poor, needy, impotent and miserable creatures being and inhabiting in all parts of the same, so is there most wholesome statutes, ordinances and necessary laws made, set forth and published for the extreme punishment of all vagrants and sturdy vagabonds, as passeth through and by all parts of this famous isle, most idly and wickedly... I thought it... my bounden duty to acquaint your goodness with the abominable, wicked and detestable behaviour of all these rowsey, ragged rabblement of rakehells, that—under pretence of great misery, diseases, and other innumerable calamities which they feign—through great hypocrisy do win and gain great alms in all places where they wander, to the utter deluding of the good givers.”

In 1697, following a rise in the parish poor rates (a property tax used to relieve poverty), John Locke drew up a report for the Board of Trade on “the proper methods for... making [the poor] useful”:

“The multiplying of the poor, and the increase of the tax for their maintenance, is so general an observation and complaint that it cannot be doubted of; nor has it been only since the last war that the evil has come upon us; it has been a growing burden on the kingdom these many years.”

Locke considered “the evil” was caused by the relaxation of discipline and the corruption of manners. He believed half of those receiving parish relief were able to earn their own livelihood and “are neither wholly unable nor unwilling to work, but, either through want of work being provided for them, or their unskilfulness in working, do little that turns to public account.” He recommended that working schools be set up.

King William III addressed parliament on the subject of the poor rates in 1699:

“The increase of the poor is become a burden to the kingdom, and their loose and idle life does in some measure contribute to that depravation of manners which is complained of, I fear, with much reason. Whether the ground of this evil be from defects in the laws, or in the execution of them, deserves your consideration. As it is an indispensible duty that the poor who are not able to help themselves should be maintained, so I cannot but think it extremely desirable that such as are able and willing should not want employment, and such as are obstinate and unwilling should be compelled to labour.”

A report on the working of the Poor Laws was commissioned by a select committee of the House of Commons in 1817. Hansard records note that:

“In proposing the motion Mr John Curwen, MP for Carlisle, stated that he did not attribute the evils which had arisen to the Act of Elizabeth I [the 1601 law that established the poor rates]... but to those who administered relief under it, in a way evidently foreign to the intention of the Act. That it was never designed to give a right of support to persons who by the practice of frugality, sobriety and industry might have supported themselves... That it never was intended that men should anticipate parish relief as a means of support for themselves and their families, nor that they should be exonerated from all concern about their own wellbeing... That if the same system were continued, it would swallow up the whole revenue and industry of the country.”