Date Thesis Awarded

5-2020

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)

Department

History

Advisor

Amy Limoncelli

Committee Members

Kathrin Levitan

Deborah Morse

Abstract

The administration of the English poor laws did not happen in a vacuum, and decisions made by overseers, clerks, and trustees not only meant life or death for paupers in their parishes, but were also open to contest, negotiation, and response from the working classes themselves. On the national stage, politicians and pamphleteers observed rising poor rates and changing economic and social structures and determined that the poor laws were to blame for demoralizing large swathes of the workforce; in local arenas, parishes struggled to apply this developing ideology of poverty when confronted with the practical effects of industrialization. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century records of poverty and the poor laws illustrate the strategies developed from above and below to adapt the meaning of poor relief in the new industrial age. As parishes sought to cut costs and assert authority by changing the balance of indoor and outdoor relief, the poor responded with their own calculations of cost and benefit. Despite the increasing use of more punitive and restrictive methods of relief, the concurrent growth of working-class consciousness would have an enduring influence on social, political, and economic systems.

Together, these chapters extend E.P. Thompson’s mechanism of class consciousness to the places and people associated with the Poor Law; just as exploitative productive relations fueled antagonistic redefinitions of class interests, so too did restrictive and punitive interactions with parish authorities contributed to working-class identity. This perspective also creates opportunity to explore the intersection of class and gender as poor women, mothers, and wives sought relief for themselves and their families. The parish and charity sources from this period show an increasing concern with control over the thoughts and behaviors of paupers, and administrative involvement in the lives of vulnerable populations to assert class and gender hierarchies. These policy and ideology shifts responded to the uncertainty and upheaval of industrialization by seeking to reaffirm social and economic order according to the interests of authority. Chapter One has the closest access to the responses of paupers themselves through their letters to parish overseers requesting nonresident relief. Parishes struggled to balance financial calculations and to assert control over distance, while these pauper letters reflect the accumulation of collective knowledge which is deployed against those authorities. Chapter Two focuses on the treatment and education of children, comparing the strategies and priorities of parishes and the London Foundling Hospital as shifting conceptions of the future of work and society focused on the malleability of childhood. Chapter Three examines the institutions most emblematic of the New Poor Law, workhouses, as developed by London parishes long before 1834 in response to the financial and cultural pressures of urban change. While acting on fears of fraud and immorality among paupers, parish records reveal that, on the contrary, the administration countenanced the most mismanagement, at the expense of workhouse inmates.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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