Elizabethan Poor Laws

?Life for the poor in Elizabethan England was very harsh. Unemployment and rapid price inflation increased causing many villagers to leave their homes and come to the towns to look for work. However, they often could not find employment and ended up begging in the streets. Elizabethan Poor Laws, enacted in 1601, were incredibly beneficial in uniting the community to provide care and nurture for the qualifying less fortunate. These laws set a critical foundation for Britain’s welfare system and established guidelines for the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

I chose this topic because it vastly influenced our world today, not only physically, but morally. My extensive research was conducted mainly through internet resources. Thanks to online databases provided by the Public Library System I was able to find valuable primary sources such as newspaper articles. I was also able to find credible, scholarly summaries, documents, essays, and more on my topic, making it much more manageable to thoroughly educate myself and others.

Gathering so much background knowledge also provided more validity to statements I concluded and overall information included in my presentation. I personally felt an exhibit would be the most tremendous in portraying the vast research I completed throughout the History Fair process through vibrant illustrations, documents, photos and more. The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws suitably fits the Rights and Responsibilities theme. Everyone had a share – rights and responsibilities, from the Justices of the Peace, to the substantial householders, even the poor themselves.

The poor weren’t just goldenly treated out of the blue. Only the “deserving” poor were assisted. “Deserving” – classified as the “Helpless poor” also known as old folk, or children of poor families and the “able-bodied poor”- people who could work, wanted to work, and attempted at earning a living. It was the responsibilities of the poor to remain determined and avoid indolence, sluggishness, and misdemeanor or else they would be classified under the more dangerous and itinerant group of “rogues and vagabonds”(beggars and stealers) vastly targeted by the government.

Townsfolk were known to dislike beggars and treat them harshly. Their streets had become overcrowded and dirty, and the poor and beggars were accused of being scroungers and suspected of being criminals. It had then become a right, where two or more “substantial householders” were to be yearly nominated by the Justices of the Peace to serve as overseers of the poor in each parish.

The overseers were to raise “weekly or otherwise, by taxation of every inhabitant, such competent sums of money as they shall think fit,” however; one of the later complaints about the 1601 Act was that the basis of the law was that it rated land and buildings but not personal or movable wealth. Consequently it benefited the industrial and commercial groups in society who did not fall within the parameters of the legislation and so did not pay into the poor rates unless they also happened to own landed property.

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law continued with additional variations and adjustments, for example the 1662 Settlement Act, Gilbert’s Act (1782) and the Speenhamland system of 1795 — until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which ultimately formed the basis of poor relief throughout the country for more than two centuries. It was a reasonable and unbiased system run for and administered by local people at a time when the population was undersized enough for everyone to know everyone else and his/her conditions and circumstances.

Personally, the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws taught me that caring for the poor is a divine purpose in our community today, that it will remain a responsibility to the poor to guide our actions in international development to ending poverty. This act recognized that well applied, targeted, and effective aid can and should be used to achieve progress on challenges such as health, education, and substantial living in our poverties. “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of a good government,” – Thomas Jefferson

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