Thursday, April 4, 2013

Eighteenth Century Welfare-Parish Relief

by Diane Scott Lewis

Throughout the eighteenth century, charity was limited. The very poor had to rely on parish relief to survive. But first they had to prove they had a legal link, such as birth, a residence or employment, in the parish—the territorial area under the clerical jurisdiction of one parish priest—where they sought funds. 

People who were denied parish relief were sometimes found starved to death.

Some parishes were so small they tried to shuffle their poor into the larger neighboring parishes. The elderly and sick were turned away. A few parishes paid indigent bachelors in other settlements 40 shillings to marry their poor women to take them off the books. Overseers of the poor might interfere in a marriage between two paupers, fearing it would result in burdensome children.

To make matters worse, parish authorities were often corrupt and stingy. They’d spend the Poor Rate (the tax on prosperous citizens for the care of the poor) on themselves instead of their deserving claimants.

The poor rates were a source of constant irritation to those who had to pay them. As the population and rates rose, the richer citizens were desperate to find others to pay for their poor. Men who deserted their wives or bastard children were pursued for support. One prominent merchant was discovered to have let his mother wilt away in a workhouse—he was forced to pay for her maintenance.

For deserted children, or foundlings, wherever they were found was their settlement/parish. Self-sacrificing women often traveled to the richer parishes at the onset of labor, hoping to birth their babies in more solvent settlements. But the parish authorities were aware of this and would force these women back over the boundaries. The Parish Act of 1772 came to the aid of these women by stating: "mothers who are suddenly taken in labour will no longer be subject to be removed..." Of course, enforcing this act was another matter.

Children born in wedlock were part of their father’s settlement. If the fathers died, after the age of seven, the children became part of their mother’s parish.

Reformer Jonas Hanway—a merchant who had traveled widely (and the first Londoner to carry an umbrella it is rumored)—devoted himself to philanthropy. His efforts resulted in a Parliamentary act in 1767 to set aside funds to send urban orphans to country wet-nurses, and provided incentives for the children’s survival.

Though commissioned in the late seventeenth century, the classic eighteenth century’s solution to ending poverty and idleness was the workhouse. By the 1720’s parishes could commit any pauper who sought relief to the workhouse. Ideally a shelter, these places could never make a profit since many people were indigent because there wasn’t enough work available. 

Workhouses became the repository of the sick, elderly and mentally retarded. Infants consigned to workhouses before Hanway’s intervention were virtually sentenced to death. Hanway called one London workhouse "the greatest stink of mortality in these kingdoms, if not on the face of the whole earth."

Three substantial private charities would be formed to take the burden from the parishes. The Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, Magdalen House to reform prostitutes, and Hanway’s Marine Society to clothe and prepare pauper boys for the navy.

Parish relief was resented, underfunded, unorganized and corrupt. Along with these issues and the misunderstanding of poverty’s causes, attempts to help the poor, or at least make them less visible, were doomed to fail.


Daily Life in 18th Century England, by Kirstin Olsen, 1999
Dr. Johnson’s London, by Liza Picard, 2000


Diane Scott Lewis writes historical fiction with romantic elements.

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