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The Union And The Workhouse - 1. Origin of the Poor Law System
The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 imposed the obligation of providing assistance to the poor on the Parish in which they resided. This method was retained by the Speenhamland System of 1785, a system of out-door relief devised by the Berkshire Justices of the Peace meeting at Speenhamland near Newbury. This provided a sliding scale of allowances, varying with the size of family concerned and the price of bread, to be paid from the rates to supplement the wages of agricultural workers. The system was an honest attempt to deal humanely with the rising problem of pauperism. The Speenhamland System was never authorised by legislation but was adopted by most English Counties except those in the North. After the Napoleonic Wars pauperism was exacerbated by a number of factors including the collapse in agricultural prices. In 1834 the Poor Law Report proposed to transfer the burden of relief to Boards of Guardians representing a ‘Union’ of parishes and elected by the ratepayers. The funds for such relief were to be raised via the Poor Law Rate (see appendices). No able-bodied man would receive relief unless he entered a workhouse, so ending the system of out-door relief. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did not apply to Ireland.
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