Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834

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Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834 Empty Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834

Post by AlbertCurtis on Sat Apr 02, 2011 6:56 pm

"Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834: Regulating the Working and Nonworking Poor


William P. Quigley*

I. Introduction

Like other and more famous English institutions, the making and administration of the English Poor Law was a growth, not a creation.1

Certain it is, that, on the welfare of its labouring Poor, the prosperity of a country essentially depends . . . .

Sir Frederic Eden, The State of the Poor (1797)2

The English poor laws, beginning with the Statute of Laborers of 1349-1350 and proceeding to the reforms of 1834, regulated both the working and nonworking poor.3 From feudalism through 500 years of regulation by the poor laws work and poverty journeyed hand in hand. The legislation, and its resulting legacy of principles regulating poor people, working and nonworking, is the focus of this article.

English poor laws have been a major influence on subsequent social legislation and regulation of the working poor in the United States.4 These statutes therefore deserve careful review and consideration, for there are many echoes of the themes of the English poor laws in contemporary discussions about social legislation. While a review of each and every one of the scores of acts of parliament that addressed the situation of the working and nonworking poor over this 500-year period is beyond the scope of this or any other article, the statutes that highlight major legal themes will be reviewed.

Though frequently thought of as only regulating the nonworking poor, the English Poor Laws also directly regulated poor workers.5 A review of these laws reinforces the substantial societal, economic and legal linkage of the poor who are employed with the poor who are unemployed.6"


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