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Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; and an idle soul shall suffer hunger
(Proverbs 19:15 King James Bible).
Welfare Aid in the British Commonwealth was done by means of the Poor Laws. Each home country had its unique legislation on this issue. The home countries of the Commonwealth had different Poor Laws and mechanism for identifying the needy and their relief.

The Poor Laws in England and Wales

Poor relief in Puritan Commonwealth did not change much.

In England and Wales the government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty was still based on the mechanisms of the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1597, Poor Law of 1601, and Poor Relief Act 1662. The Poor laws of 1601 classified those needing relief (deserving poor) and those not (idle) in the following groups:

  • The impotent poor (people who can't work) were to be cared for in almshouse or a poorhouse. The law offered relief to people who were unable to work: mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind"
  • The able-bodied poor were to be set to work in a House of Industry. Materials were to be provided for the poor to be set to work
  • The idle poor and vagrants were to be sent to a House of Correction or even prison.
  • Pauper children would become apprentices.

Also the 1662 legislation also created many sojourners, people who resided in different settlements that were not their legal one allowing them to be removed.

Bird's eye view of the Birmingham workhouse infirmary with a Wellcome V0012228

Birmingham model workhouse

Legislation gave parishes the responsibility for providing welfare payments to the poor. Parishes distributed land and animals and relief. The overseers of the poor, officials supervised by the justice of peace who administered poor relief such as money, food, and clothing were still the key agent. However County Commissioners (from 1662) were given the task of supervising the duties of the parishes on this issue and in some cases freeing the Justice of Peace from this task altogether. In few cases, under instructions of some enlighten County Commissioners short lived Overseers Commissions were established for a better coordination and pool of resources.

Most poor relief in the 17th century England and Wales came from voluntary charity which mostly was in the form of food and clothing. Institutionalized charities offered loans to help craftsmen to almshouses, poorhouses and hospitals.

Poor laws in Scotland

Work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind — honest work, which you intend getting done.
Thomas Carlyle
Scotland had a different Poor Law system and the workings of the Scottish laws differed greatly to those applied in England, Wales and Irelands. The main difference was that all able-bodied poor had no automatic right to poor relief and had to be made to work.

Individual parishes, rather then the Church, administered poor relief and magistrates were ordered to build correction houses or workhouses so that beggars could be made to work. The parishes were responsible for enumerating their own poor. More than merely enumerate, however, the purpose of the law was an "inquisition" into the circumstances of the individual poverty, so as to determine whether the poor were (a) able to work, (b) whether they had any other means of subsistence, and (c) whether there were other persons, family or others, who might assist them. The laws at that time codified the need to assist the poor—but at the same time as outlawing what were apparently considered public nuisances: begging and vagrancy.

As in England the Shire Guardians supervised the Parochial Boards in charge of the poor relief.

Poor Laws in Ireland

Salus populi suprema lex esto.
(De Legibus by Cicero)

Irish-stew dinners for the poor. Wellcome L0003267

Irish Soup kitchen

Due to widespread and persistent poverty in Ireland the application of poor relief was very common and a key piece of social policy. The Irish Famine of 1740–1741 (Bliain an Áir) and the Great Famine of 1845–1852 (Gorta Mór) made major changes to the system of poor relief as it also started to provide food relief. The Irish New Poor Laws, Public Works schemes, Food Relief Acts, sections of the Grain Act (Ireland) made a new and unique system within the so called paternalistic Irish Experiment (Thurgnamh Gaeilge ar).

The New Poor Laws of Ireland (1745 and 1848) provided poor relief to those who could not work regardless of their condition. The parish overseers of the poor of an agglomeration of townlands became members of the Guardian Councils that reported to a County Council of Guardians and Overseers. Each Guardian Council would pool its resources and register of the poor, unemployed and starving.

Besides providing poor relief to the incapable of work, women and children, they also provided (and in some cases mandated) work for able bodied man in a) workhouses (houses of industry), b) workers in Public Works Schemes or c) non-tenant agricultural workers. Later poor women would also qualify for laundry, textile and potter sections of the houses of industry.

Food Relief Acts also provided food and facilities for the Church of Ireland to established soup kitchens. Sections of the Grain Act (Ireland) enabled the requisition of part the harvested and imported grain for food relief under decree of the Lord Lieutenant-in-Council.


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