‘Very Idle and Debauched’


There’s a fascinating story in the papers at the moment about Simon Wright, a beggar who’s allegedly been ‘earning’ £50,000 a year. His patch is in Putney, which in fairness is a fairly affluent part of London, and he’s been blowing his income on gambling and the slotties. He’s now back in his flat, nursing an ASBO (he was, say the Met, claiming to be homeless), though perhaps a future career beckons as an ambassador for the area: ‘Come and live in Putney: even the tramps are in the top tax-band’.

History is full of similar cases: who can forget, of course, the ‘Counterfeit Cranks’ of Elizabethan England, supposedly gaining sympathy by putting soap in their mouths to feign epilepsy? In 1834 it became – effectively – state policy in England and Wales to assume that most of the able-bodied poor were ‘undeserving’, hence the Workhouses of the Victorian age.

I’ve come across quite a few examples in the research for my book. My main question has been why people received poor relief in the seventeenth century, but this also throws up an intriguing counter-question, which runs as a subtext throughout: why did some people not get relief? How did they avoid the dole through their own resourcefulness? Why were some of the poor felt to be undeserving of support?

England in the seventeenth century was a society constantly undertaking social experiments: there were projects for employing the unemployed, for plantations of Ireland (by hard-working English and Scots, of course). There were even – for a brief moment in the 1640s and ‘50s – radical projects for social, religious and constitutional change. But perhaps the most successful experiment was the creation of a national system of poor relief.

The roots of this go back to the sixteenth century, and to a long-running dialogue between Parliamentary legislation and local initiative; but the system only really became fully embedded in the seventeenth. It depended on three approaches, each tailored to a specific subset of ‘the poor’. The idle were to be disciplined – whipped in most cases; those who were willing but unemployed were to be given work; and those who were physically unable to work were to be given cash doles, paid for by taxes.

Unlike today’s welfare states it was very much a face-to-face system, based on the small local unit of the parish: you applied in person to the local officer in charge – the ‘Overseer of the Poor’ – and he (it was usually a he) made a decision as to whether you deserved support. He probably knew you well, and so made his judgement based on his understanding of your life history and your need.

But there were also avenues for appeal. If you were unhappy that your plea to the Overseer had been unfairly rejected, you could go to the local magistrates’ court (either ‘Petty Sessions’ or ‘Quarter Sessions’), and present a petition to the Justices of the Peace. This must have been a humbling experience, and the tone of those petitions that survive is one of deference rather than chippy defiance. But it was often a productive one. Justices rather enjoyed hearing petitioners appeal to their paternalist benevolence, and were frequently quite happy to order parishes to open their coffers.

Several thousand of these petitions survive for Lancashire, mostly from the 1630s to about 1710. Lancashire is by far the best documented county in this regard, and so forms the subject of my book.

But there is also a small subset of petitions which tell a rather different story. For on some occasions, Overseers felt they had been hard done by, and that they were being forced to pay money to people who simply didn’t deserve it. And so it comes to that other question: why were people refused relief? What reasons did Overseers give to deny their neighbours aid?

Troutbeck Overseers of the Poor Accounts (1640)

I’ve so far put together a small corpus of petitions against relief, asking that JPs order the end to a pauper’s dole. They for make fascinating reading.

By far the main gripe was that paupers didn’t need their dole, either because they were quite capable of earning their keep, or because they were wasting money on riotous living. Take the petition by the township of Lathom, from 1679. It complained that James Browne was getting a shilling a week, given at a time when he had a wife and ‘a great charge of children’. But the children were now ‘brought up’, and he was ‘able to take pains’ (i.e. to work); he was, however, ‘very idle and debauched’. Others in the village, complained the petition, were getting ‘extraordinary allowances’, which ‘serve only to support their riotous and extravagant expenses’.

Or take that from Blackrod, near Bolton, whose officers asked that some of their poor had their doles reduced: ‘having some of them cattle’, while others were ‘following games’, or ‘employing what they get by their labour in riotous and debauched expenses’. Or that from 1686 about Adam Scholcroft of Horwich, who – it was alleged – had brought poverty upon himself, being a ‘very litigious person’, who ‘beggars himself by unjust suits’ (lawsuits, one presumes), and ‘deserves no relief neither stands in need of any’.

The biggest scroungers, so it was claimed, were the family of William Wilkinson of Tyldesley-cum-Shakerley, which lies between Bolton, Salford and Wigan. In 1666, the Overseer complained to Wigan Sessions that the family were receiving poor relief, and yet were keeping an alehouse, that his wife had spent a shilling ‘out of her own house’ on a ‘shot’ (bar tab), that they had paid sixpence to a musician, ‘boasting that they had no need of their weekly allowance’. In fact, she was ‘a most debased swearer, slanderer and drunken person, who for her false slanders hath lately received punishment and is not thereby reformed’. Most brazenly, they had just used their dole to build an extension to their house – surely the very ultimate form of conspicuous consumption.

Occasionally paupers were accused of fraudulently claiming relief in the first place. In one case, Anne Seeds reported to have picked up a ‘habit of laziness’ and was pretending to be lame by ‘wrapping a parcel of old rags about her legs’. In another, Margaret Crooke of Euxton was accused in 1692 of getting an order for relief ‘after a surreptitious manner’, travelling to Ormskirk Sessions at a time she knew that the parish representatives wouldn’t be there.

Once in a while, more general personal failings were insinuated. Anne Smith, now a widow of Pilling, was a ‘disorderly woman’ who had ‘turned her husband out of doors, and would neither suffer him to inhabit in his own house nor allow him anything towards his subsistence’. A series of petitions at the start of the eighteenth century relating to Agnes Braithwaite, an old widow of Hawkshead, portrayed her as a drunk, who was ‘very able to relieve herself without any allowance’. Not only this, she was ‘abusive’, ‘very contentious and ill’, a ‘troublesome vexatious woman’, and a ‘troublesome person’. A petition against Henry Hesketh of Lathom, alleged in 1668 that he was quite able to look after himself, and that – moreover – his wife was a ‘great gossiper’. Jennet Kew, by 1670, had ‘denied the goodwill of the inhabitants’ of Scotforth – near Lancaster – ‘and become a great trouble to them, whereby they cannot rule her’. She ‘wanders up and down the township’, ‘like a vagrant person, to the great annoyance of his majesty’s loyal subjects’. Mary Harrison of Balderstone was ‘wicked’, ‘malicious’, and ‘vexatious’.

What is striking about these character assassinations, though, is actually their comparative rarity. In fact, in many cases they probably represented a legal tactic more than anything else: it was not necessarily a comment on the pauper’s ‘deservingness’, it was a comment on their reliability in court. In reality, the main reasons that people were denied relief seem to have been that they were considered, simply enough, not to need it. It was an economic decision.

Giacomo Ceruti – Three Beggars (1736)

This is especially interesting, because many scholars – especially those of a Marxist hue – have seen welfare systems as, essentially, means of social control. They are ways of enforcing discipline, often religious and cultural discipline such as the attendance of the right church, or the display of deference to superiors.

Now, I don’t want to argue that this was completely untrue; there are, for example, documented cases of poor law doles being given out after Sunday service, which was certainly an incentive to turn up. The process of applying for relief probably also encouraged at least an outward show of deference, though as the social historian Steve Hindle has pointed out, it’s hard to know whether this was ever internalized.

But if the system really was one of cultural control, then its administrators kept very quiet about that fact, something certainly not in the spirit of that age of bluntness. The fact they presented their arguments in terms of need suggests a very different rationale. Overseers saw the poor law as a way of relieving those who really needed help; they did not take kindly to those they felt didn’t.

Again, it is possible to see this from a Marxist perspective as a form of labour discipline. And if there is one thing that the poor law did, it encouraged people to labour. If they didn’t, they could be incarcerated or whipped. Paupers constantly framed their appeals for relief in terms of their inability to work, and there was a clear expectation that they would labour hard until they were physically unable to any longer. Hence the cases, common from the period, of people working at their trades well into their 70s and 80s.

But I don’t see this as some capitalist plot. The system was run by ratepayers rather than employers. It seems to me that it was more of a response to the challenge of non-affluence. Seventeenth-century England was not, like our own, a society with vast quantities of useable wealth sitting around. In a world in which the extreme wealth of the elite was taken for granted, everyone else had to make do with a smaller pot.

It sounds harsh, but it made perfect sense in such circumstances to make sure that no-one was idle.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Fascinating post, Jonathan. I’m really looking forward to reading about all of those petitions when your book comes out.

    I do, though, wonder about the ‘dark figure’ of unrecorded denials of relief. Surely there must have been many overseers and parish vestries that refused to relieve people, but who never recorded it, and presumably there were many poor people who didn’t have the energy, expertise or resources to appeal to magistrates. Perhaps non-economic factors played a larger role in these unrecorded face-to-face decisions?

    1. Glad you liked it! You are, of course, absolutely right about the ‘dark figure’. There will have been denials at the parish level – and we’ll never know why in most cases – and perhaps most importantly, at Petty Sessions (for which the surviving records are tiny). In the former case, denials might have led to an appeal to Quarter Sessions, where we are more likely to get a record. In the latter case this was probably the end of the process.

      It might well be the case that non-economic factors played a larger role here. There is, of course, no way of knowing. Given that the petitions against relief were launched by the same people (local officers) that were making these local decisions, we might expect them to be at least partially representative of their opinions. That said, they might have deployed different ‘voices’ to different audiences. It is, however, striking how economic the one set of petitions we have are in tone.

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