English Legal History and its Materials
Palmer goes into great detail on how the massive depopulation during the Black Death led to the passage the Statute of Labourers and how it was used to force the able bodied of the lower classes to work and set maximum wages and prices. (Chapter 3 pg. 14-27) According to Wikipedia the law was not repealed until 1863.

I was wondering what the public policy/moral justification for what today appears to be a manifestly unjust law? How could the law have continued to exist for such a long period of time as new Enlightenment ideals and a rising belief in the importance of the free market increased in England during the 18th and 19th centuries?

-- MichaelCoburn - 25 Sep 2014

OLD POOR LAWS 1349 through 1781

Medieval (14th Century)

The Ordinance and Statute of Laborers were two laws passed in 1349 and 1351, respectively, in response to labor shortages following the Black Death. Essentially, the workforce was significantly lessened by the large number of deaths, creating a labor shortage that poised workers to demand high wages, forcing manufacturers to increase prices to account for increased costs.

The Ordinance of Laborers froze wages at the pre-plague level by forbidding employers to offer and employees to ask for wages higher than those paid from "the twentieth year of our reign of England, or five or six other commone years next before" (1332 to 1338, note that plague was in 1348). [1] It also required the sheriff to commit to the gaol any unemployed able-bodied men and women. The Ordinance of Laborers was not very effective, and the subsequent Statute of Laborers was passed to aid its enforcement, because many workers continued to demand twice or thrice pre-plague wages. [2] The Statute of Laborers mostly contains more specific provisions of acceptable wages and and sales prices for specific workers.

At the time, the justifications for both the Ordinance and Statute of Laborers are plainly stated. Firstly, the King intended to discourage idleness, particularly because some able-bodied individuals were choosing to "beg in idleness" rather than work. [3] Indeed, the Ordinance of Laborers forbade giving alms to idle beggars to make the lifestyle of begging less profitable to potential workers and increase the safety of the realm ("many valiant beggars, as long as they may live of begging, do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometime to theft and other abominations"). [4] An important justification, however, was essentially that fixing prices and wages was for the good of the realm. [5] Of course, it bears noting that these acts were passed by the King "by the assent of the prelates, nobles, and other of his council" and perhaps therefore were more favorable to the wealthy than the poor.

As noted by Palmer, the Statute of Laborers ultimately created a perverse incentive for workers to slack on the job because "[f]orced work and wage restrictions . . . result in less motivation to work well." [6]

Enforcement of the Ordinance and Statute of Laborers was generally light, so long as prices were sufficiently high. When prices dropped, and as a result profit margins shrunk, employers looked to enforcement of the statutes to drive wages back down. Therefore, enforcement was low for the two decades following the Black Death, but re-energized in the 1370s. [7] The Peasant's Revolt of 1381 is at least in part attributable to this increased enforcement. [8] In the following century, wages naturally rose beyond the levels set by the Statute of Laborers as up-and-coming lords and emerging industries and geographical areas were willing to pay above-statutory wages for workers. [9]

Ultimately, the statute in England was repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act of 1863, the purpose of which was to "repeal[] certain enactments which have ceased to be in force of have become unnecessary."[10] Therefore, its long-term existence on the books does not necessarily reflect a long period of enforcement. Indeed, I have not encountered any evidence of enforcement beyond the 14th Century.

Additional Notes on Statute & Ordinance of Labourers:

  • Was an attempt by the government and ruling class to return the laborers to servile conditions because after the plague, many workers saw the opportunity to become freedmen.[11]
  • Additional laws passed to supplement enforcement included:[12]
    • If any man ran away from his place of employment and was recovered by his employer, he could be branded with an “F” (for “falsity”) on his forehead. (34 Edward III c. 10 (1360))
    • Decreed that children who were employed in agriculture before the age of 12 could not be put to any trade and that craftsmen may be compulsorily conscripted to help bring in the harvest. (12 Richard II c. 3 (1388))

Tudor Poor Laws (1485-1558)

  • Under Henry VII, 1495 Vagabond and Beggars Act (11 Henry VII c. 2) was passed setting forth: “Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.”

  • Historically, England relied upon churches and individual charity to provide poor relief. In many cases, the Church provided the charity, both as a result of individual obligations to provide Christian charity and the Church’s obligation to provide relief for the poor of their community.[13] Thus began the designation of the parish as the unit of obligation for poor laws, which lasted throughout the Old Poor Laws.[14] This began as early as Pope Gregory IX’s papal decree for the faithful to seek salvation “with works of great mercy.”[15]
  • In the first half of the 16th Century, many Christian countries, both Catholic and Protestants began forming institutional poor relief, probably inspired by the humanist movements of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Juan Luis Vives which professed Christian charity and moral reform.[16]
  • In 1538 and 1547, Protestant Reformation abolished monasteries and other religious institutions, as well as crippled gilds and fraternities, which had formerly provided poor relief.[17] Furthermore, the Reformation marked a national shifting of viewpoints through which philanthropy became increasingly secular, rather than meted out through the Church.[18]

  • Under Henry VIII, harsh treatment of vagabonds was continued with the 1531 “Act how aged, poor and impotent Persons, compelled to live by Alms, shall be ordered; and how Vagabonds and Beggars shall be punished” (22 Henry VIII c. 12). Under this act, vagabonds could be whipped in addition to being placed in stocks, although impotent vagabonds could be granted a license to beg legally.[19] However, these licenses to beg were mostly limited to the sick, disabled, and elderly.
    • This act is recognized as the first English statute actually aimed at providing relief, rather than punishing vagrancy because it made the local Justices of the Peace responsible for licensing the poor within their district.[20]
  • In 1536, more structure was provided to the 1531 act in the 1536 Act For Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars (27 Henry VIII c. 25). The 1536 act provided that “sturdy” vagabonds should be set to work after being punished.[21] It also provided that local mayors, bailiffs, constables, and other officers were responsible for ensuring that the poor in their parish were cared for such that they need not beg.[22] Although they could not use municipal funds not levy a compulsory tax on the parish to raise this money, they organized collections in a common box.[23] In addition, voluntary contributions to the poor other than through the common box were made illegal; the goal of this latter provision was to control discriminatory giving.[24]
    • Although this act lapsed later in 1536, its designation of the parish as the administrator of charitable giving lasted into future poor law reforms.[25]

  • In London, there was a great massing of the poor, and the Reformation threatened to eliminate some of the infrastructure used to provide for the poor. As a result, King Henry VIII consented to re-endow St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1544 and St. Thomas’s Hospital in 1552 on the condition that the citizens of London pay for their maintenance.[26] However, the city was unable to raise enough revenue from voluntary contributions, so it instituted the first definite compulsory Poor Rate in 1547 which replaced Sunday collections in Church with a mandatory collection for the poor.[27]
    • In 1555, London became increasingly concerned with the number of poor who could work, but yet could not find work, so it established the first “House of Correction” was established in the King’s Palace at Bridewell where poor could receive shelter and work at cap-making, feather-bed making, and wire drawing.[28]

  • From 1547 to 1555, additional laws were passed providing further regulation and infrastructure:[29]
    • 1547 Act For the Punishment of Vagabonds and Relief of the Poor and Impotent Persons (1 Edw. VI c. 3): Provided that vagabonds could be enslaved for two years and continued weekly parish collections for the poor.
    • 1550 Act Touching the Punishment of Vagabonds and Other Idle Persons (3 & 4 Edw. VI c. 16): Repealed the 1547 Act and reinstituted the 1531 Act requiring the licensing of impotent beggars.
    • 1552 Act For the Provision and Relief of the Poor (5 & 6 Edw. VI c. 2): Designated a specific position for “Collector of Alms” in each parish and created a register of licensed poor. Under the assumption that licensed poor would now be relieved by parish collections, begging was completely prohibited.
    • 1555 Act For the Relief of the Poor (2 & 3 Philip & Mary c. 5): Required licensed beggars to wear badges designating them as such.

Elizabethan Poor Laws (1558-1603)

  • Even before her famous reforms in 1598 and 1601, Elizabeth passed more structured, but also more humanitarian, poor laws from 1563 to 1576.[30] The 1563 Act For the Relief of the Poor (5 Eliz. I c. 3) essentially required all parish residents to contribute to poor collections (provided they had ability to pay). Those who “of his or their forward willful mind shall obstinately refuse to give weekly to the relief of the poor according to his or their abilities” could be bound over to justices of the peace and fined 10.[31]
  • The 1572 Act For the Punishment of Vagabonds and for Relief of the Poor and Impotent (14 Eliz. I c. 5) provided comprehensive reform to the treatment of the poor. Firstly, Justices of the Peace were to survey and register “aged, decayed and impotent poor” who had resided within the parish for at least 3 years and decide how much money was required for their relief, then assess parish residents weekly for the appropriate amount.[32] Those refusing to contribute could be imprisoned. Vagabonds could be whipped and burned through the ear and then set to work. It also provided that if there were too many poor to be relieved through weekly collections, beggars could be licensed.
  • It further provided that any surplus funds could be used to “place and settle to work the rogues and vagabonds.”[33]
    • Building on the 1572 Act, the 1576 Act For Setting of the Poor on Work, and For the Avoiding of Idleness (18 Eliz. I c. 3) required towns to create “a competent stock of wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff” for the poor to work on and houses of correction for those who refused to work where recalcitrant or careless workers could be forced to work and punished accordingly.[34]

  • The laws passed in 1598 and 1601 were meant to retain the effects of the 1576 Act while improving its administrability.[35] It is believed that they were passed in response to a large dearth of crops from 1594 to 1598 resulting from continuous cold and rain for many years.[36]
    • The 1598 Act for the Relief of the Poor (39 Eliz. 1 c. 3) and the 1598 Act For the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars (39 Eliz. I c. 4) (“The Vagrancy Act”) limited the role of the Justices of the Peace to make administration of the poor laws less procedurally burdensome.[37] Notably, they placed the burden of setting poor to work and assessing parish collections in the hands of churchwardens and collections overseers and allowed the churchwardens and overseers to garnish property from those refusing to contribute. However, justices of the peace could assess other parishes within the same hundred to aid parishes unable to gather sufficient collections (a “rate in aid”).[38] The Vagrancy Act also allowed parish officers, in addition to Justices of the Peace, to punish vagabonds, thus giving the Justices of the Peace a more supervisory role.[39] The 1601 Act For the Relief of the Poor (43 Eliz. I c. 2) reiterated these provisions.[40]

  • Despite the passage of these laws, it is believed that by 1601, most large towns, but only few rural parishes actually implemented the assessment of rates on residents for poor relief.[41] However, a survey in 1696 revealed that nearly every parish assessed a tax for the poor.[42] Although the money was put to many purposes, most of it was given out as a cash dole to the poor, either as long-term pensions or short-term aid.[43]
    • In conjunction with these laws, the Privy Council took a more active role in ensuring that each parish had enough food, that stock was available for the poor to work on, and that all the poor were provided for, especially by increasing its own supervision over justices of the peace.[44]
    • Specifically, the Privy Council established itself into a Poor Law Commission and in 1631 released a Book of Orders outlining how justices of the peace were to supervise collections overseers, constables, and churchwardens within their parishes and hundreds.[45] Based on parish records, the pressure from above to provide relief for the poor had a great effect on increasing collections and relief.[46]

Reform After Elizabeth I (up to 1782)

  • 1647 An Ordinance for the Relief and Payment of the Poor, and the Punishment of Vagrants and Other Disorderly Persons was an ordinance of Parliament creating a Corporation of the Poor in London.[47] It created work-houses for the poor, where both adults and children could either reside or visit daily for work.[48] However, under the Restoration of 1660, Charles II took back the properties from the Corporation.

  • 1662 Act For the Better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom (13 & 14 Car. II c. 12) (“Act of Settlement”) restored the Corporation of the Poor in London and created new corporations in other places, including Westminster, Middlesex, and Surrey.[49]
  • The Act of Settlement also codified the concept of “settlement,” which essentially means that every person had a parish to which he “belonged” and could be returned to. Under the Act of Settlement, newcomers to a parish could be removed unless they rented a house for 10 or more per year.[50] The relation of this to the poor laws is that its motivation was to prevent an influx of poor into a parish, since it was the parish members who were responsible for providing poor relief.[51]
  • Under the 1692 Act For Supplying the Defects of the Former Laws for the Settlement of the Poor (3 William & Mary c. 11), in addition to earning settlement in a parish by renting a house worth at least 10 per year, poorer migrants could earn settlement by paying local taxes for a year or by serving as an apprentice or servant for a year.[52]
    • The 1697 Act For Supplying Some Defects in the Laws for the Relief of the Poor (8 &9 William III c. 30) made it easier for those persons receiving a certificate in their former parish to obtain settlement in a new parish.
    • A flaw of the Act of Settlement was that it encouraged neighboring parishes to fight over who had responsibility for certain poor people, which created a large administrative burden and highlighted the need for a larger unit that the parish for poor relief.[53]
    • The 1697 Act also attempted to address the deficiency of work for the poor by requiring workmen to take on pauper apprentices. Recognizing that there was simply not enough money to supplement all of the poor, it also attempted shame parishes into giving more money by requiring those receiving pensions from the parish to wear outward badges.[54]

Rise of the Working Class and Corresponding Legal Changes

    • By the late 18th century, ~1 million people were receiving parish poor relief. [55]
    • During the same period, the standard of living of poor people in England declines. "“The thirty years leading up to the new Poor Law of 1834 saw continuous attempts to hold down the poor-rates, to chip away at outdoor relief, or to pioneer the new-type workhouse” [56]
    • Speaking of workhouses: “Our intention,’ said one Assistant Commissioner, ‘is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible’; and another, ‘our object… is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering’.” [58]
    • Bread Riots common until 1840s. [57] Also of note is the Great Cheese Riot of 1764, where "whole cheeses were rolled down the streets." [59] These riots peaked during the famine of 1795. [60]
    • Usually these actions were actually fairly disciplined. At least some of the time, the mob would force the farmers/merchants to sell their harvest at what was regarded as a fairer price, and let the farmer keep the proceeds. Despite their popularity, the leaders of these actions were at least sometimes hanged if they were caught.[61]
    • Between 1760 and 1810, sixty-three new capital offenses are created, primarily for property crimes. [62] These included: stealing shipwrecked goods (1753, actually), breaking into a building to steal or destroy linen (1764), food rioting, destroying a mill (1769), and forging bank notes. [63].
    • Quite frequently though, death sentences were commuted to transportation. [64].
    • "The critics of the law argued that the gibbets and corpses paradoxically weakened enforcement of the law: rather than terrifying criminals, the death penalty terrified prosecutors and juries, who feared committing judicial murder on the capital statutes." [65].
    • Really, it looks like the legal system functioned as a reactionary, and not extraordinarily effective, tool, during a period of major social and economic change--both the poor law and the criminal law were routinely amended in unsuccessful attempts at controlling the poor.
    • Further consideration relationship between criminal law and "poor law."
    • specific details of 1834 Poor Law Amendment? -- FrancisWhite


-At present, I am making some edits to add more detail and clarity to the wikipedia page on the Poor Laws, particularly regarding the late 18th/early 19th century period. I may also make some edits to the article on workhouses, although I think it's already better than the Poor Law article. -- FrancisWhite
[1] Ordinance of Laborers 1349, full text available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/seth/ordinance-labourers.asp (I always thought Prof. Moglen was joking when he started writs with "The king to the sheriff, greeting," but it actually does begin exactly that way.) [2] Statute of Laborers 1351, full text available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/seth/statute-labourers.asp [3] Ordinance of Laborers 1349 para. 1. [4] Ordinance of Laborers 1349 para. 8. [5] Statute of Laborers 1351 para. 1 (The labor shortage does "great damage [to] the great men, and impoverish[es] of all the said commonalty."). [6] Palmer pg. 169. [7] Lewis C. Vollmar, Jr., M.D., The Effect of Epidemics on the Development of English Law from the Black Death Through the Industrial Revolution, 15 J. Legal Med. 385, 394 (1994). [8] Essex Session of the Peace, 1351,1377-1379, 102 U. Pa. L. Rev. 425 (1954) [9] Vollmar, supra note 7, at 394. [10] Statute Law Revision Act of 1863, 26 & 27 Vict c 125, full text available at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u7ouAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA578#v=onepage&q&f=false [11] Sidney & Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: English Poor Law History Part 1. The Old Poor Law 24--25 (1927). [12] Webb at 26. [13] Sidney & Beatrice Webb, English Local Government: English Poor Law History Part 1. The Old Poor Law 1--2 (1927). [14] Webb at 6. [15] Gareth Jones, History of the Law of Charity 1532-1827 3 (1969). [16] Paul Slack, The English Poor Law 1531-1782 14 (1990). [17] Slack at 16. [18] Jones at 10. [19] http://www.intriguing-history.com/statute-punishment-of-beggars-vagabonds/ [20] Webb at 45. [21] Paul Slack, The English Poor Law 1531-1782 17 (1990). [22] Webb at 46. [23] Webb at 46. [24] Slack at 17. [25] Slack at 59. [26] Webb at 47. [27] Webb at 48. [28] Webb at 50. See also Act of the Common Council of February 28, 1555. [29] Slack at 59--60. [30] Slack at 60. [31] Webb at 51. [32] Webb at 52. [33] Webb at 52. [34] Webb at 53. [35] Slack at 18. [36] Webb at 61. [37] Slack at 18--19. [38] Webb at 65. [39] Slack at 60--61. [40] Slack at 61. [41] Slack at 26. [42] Slack at 26. [43] Slack at 27. [44] Webb at 66--67. [45] Webb at 77. [46] Webb at 90. [47] Slack at 61. [48] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/CityOfLondon/corporation.shtml [49] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/CityOfLondon/corporation.shtml [50] Slack at 62. [51] Slack at 36. [52] Slack at 62. [53] Slack at 37. [54] Slack at 39-40, 62. [55] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, at 147. Full text available at https://libcom.org/library/making-english-working-class-ep-thompson [56] Thompson at 522 [57] Thompson at 122. [58] Thompson at 524 [59] Thompson at 124. [60] Thompson at 127. [61] Thompson at 124-126. [62] Thompson at 117. [63] D. Hay et al., Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (1975), 20-21. [64] Hay at 22. [65] Hay at 23.

-- AllysonMackavage - 25 Sep 2014

Additional Notes from History of the Law of Charity (Gareth Jones) as it relates to the poor laws:

  • During the Protestant Reformation, laws were passed that increasingly transferred what had been religious property back to the Crown (e.g., I Edward VI c. 14 forfeiting the lands of “Colleges, Free Chapells and Chauntries . . . and of brotherhoods, guilds, and fraternities” to the Crown if they supported superstitious purposes). [i] “Piety and charity could no longer be to all Englishmen synonymous conceptions.” [ii]

The Statutes of Charitable Uses:

  • Although the Elizabethan poor laws recognized that the local communities must publicly support their poor, there was a simultaneous recognition that private philanthropy could provide relief as well and that the existing system at the time of supervision over charities in the Chancery Court was not ensuring that charitable funds were properly spent and distributed. [iii] As a result, in 1597, 39 Eliz. I c. 6 (“An Acte to reforme Deceits and Breaches of Trust, touching Lands given to Charitable Uses”) was passed and re-enacted four years later (as The Charitable Uses Act, 1601, 43 Eliz. I c. 4). [iv]
    • Commissioners within each county were to investigate breaches of trust reported by local parishioners.
    • Commissioners had jurisdiction over a broad range of charities, including city and town corporations established after 1601. [v]

[i] Jones, at 13. [ii] Jones, at 15. [iii] Jones, at 22. [iv] Jones, at 23. [v] Jones, at 38.

-- AllysonMackavage - 10 Nov 2014

-- AllysonMackavage - 20 Nov 2014

I made the following revisions to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Poor_Laws (username: "allydillo"):

  • Under "Medieval Poor Laws," added reference to 34 Edw. III, c.10 (1360).
  • Under "Tudor Poor Laws":
    • clarified limitation on licensing for "impotent" poor
    • added paragraph on poor relief / houses of correction in London during the 16th Century
    • added reference to 5&6 Edw. VI c.2 (1552)
    • added paragraph on laws passed under Elizabeth prior to her complete overhauls in 1597 and 1601.

-- AllysonMackavage - 20 Nov 2014

I made the following revisions to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tudor_Poor_Laws:

  • added info on effect of reformation
  • created reference / link to 1495 act
  • created link to 1536 act
  • added information on / linked to 1547, 1552, and 1555 acts
  • added several paragraphs on poor laws passed by Elizabeth prior to "Elizabethan" reforms in 1598 & 1601.

Additionally, I created the following pages to provide further information on relevant poor laws:

-- AllysonMackavage - 03 Dec 2014



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r13 - 03 Dec 2014 - 03:21:02 - AllysonMackavage
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