chapter  2
26 Pages

Poor Law Policy in England and Wales

Poverty was understood as the normal and irremediable condition of the population. 'Poverty', wrote economist and social reformer Patrick Colquhoun, * 'is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life' [11 p. 7]. No sharp distinction separated the 'labourer' from the 'poor'. Indeed, until the eve of the Industrial Revolution the two were practically synonymous. In common parlance the term 'labouring poor' applied to all who were compelled to work for their daily bread. It was also assumed that the earnings of those so classified would be insufficient for maintenance and from time to time require supplementation from

private charity or public relief. The 'labouring poor' thus embraced the poor with the pauper, the independent with the dependent poor and the deserving with the undeserving poor. These impoverished myriads, claimed Arthur Young, constituted 90 per cent of the population. Contemporaries, though, were not alarmed. Poverty not only supplied an inducement to labour, it was widely regarded as the necessary and indispensable basis of civilization and prosperity. 'Without a large proportion of poverty', wrote Colquhoun, in 1806, 'there could be no riches, since riches are the offspring of labour, while labour can result only from a state of poverty; ... without poverty there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth, inasmuch as, without a large proportion of poverty, surplus labour could never be rendered productive in procuring either the convenience or luxuries of life' [11 pp. 7-9].