chapter  4
9 Pages

The Poor Law in Scotland

Poor relief in Scotland differed significantly from that in England and Wales. Under the Act of Union of 1707 Scotland retained its own legal and administrative systems. Separate legislation was required to reorganize relief arrangements in Scotland, and no such measure was brought forward until 1845, eleven years after the introduction of the New Poor Law in England and Wales. In England the able-bodied poor had a statutory right to relief. Poor relief in Scotland conceded no comparable right to assistance. Provision for the Scottish poor came not from local taxation, as in England and Wales, but from voluntary contributions under the management of the minister and his elders in the kirk session. English reformers of the 1830s were mightily impressed with the character-forming potential of the Scottish system compared with the pauperizing tendencies of the extravagant rate-supported system south of the border. Scottish reformers were proud to emphasize the contrast between a self-operating charitable system which strengthened the chain of sympathy between the classes and the baneful influence of a statutory Poor Law. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), the most famous of these reformers, achieved renown as the exponent of a 'natural' system of voluntary assistance in St John's, Glasgow in the early 1820s. Chalmers divided his parish into a number of small districts. Each district was placed in the care of a deacon of the church whose duty it was to visit and get to know the poor families of his district. Chalmers instructed his deacons that in cases of need they should first attempt to organize the resources of the family and its wider kin. Charitable aid should be only a second line of defence, with public relief as the very last resort [76]. His ideas, developed in The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns (1823), became a seminal text for those who believed that the abolition of a legal right to relief would prove equally beneficial in England and Wales.