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Taxing the rich to feed the poor in the 17th century: the world's first welfare state

In Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, parliament took a radical decision: to force the wealthy to support their impoverished neighbours. The result, writes Jonathan Healey, was the world’s first national welfare state, releasing thousands from the grip of starvation

Published: August 8, 2019 at 7:26 am
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In the summer of 1674, Jane Shaw left her tiny hamlet of Thrang, and headed south. She passed through the green pastures of north Lancashire, skirting the edge of the sandy expanse of Morecambe Bay. Arriving in Lancaster, she trudged up the hill to the castle – a medieval fortress and prison that stood solemn guard over the ancient town. She passed through the tall, forbidding castle gates, and waited her turn. For she had come to attend court, and she had come with a petition.


She was, she said, a poor widow, left in debt by her late husband. She had five children; some were too little to look after themselves, others were unable to find work. If she wasn’t given support, she claimed, then she couldn’t maintain her family “in any comfortable manner”. Seven of her neighbours added their names.

Amazingly, Shaw’s petition survives. Although she almost certainly didn’t write it, it allows her to tell her story, or at least a version of it: a story of poverty, hardship, and the difficult life of a single mother in an unforgiving world. But she got her dole.

A note at the bottom of the petition, added by a clerk of the court, gives the details: she was to receive 12 pence a week. It was probably enough to ensure she survived.

Shattered charity

The origins of the English Poor Law, the system to which Jane Shaw turned for support, lay well before 1674. Perhaps the first piece of the jigsaw was the development of an idea, from the late Middle Ages, that the state should work to improve society – that it should have a social policy. The Reformation was another factor: the monasteries had provided charity, and the chantries and gilds (abolished under Edward VI) had supported hospitals, schools and almshouses. It’s been estimated that half of these foundations collapsed as a result of the Reformation – an irreversible shattering of the medieval landscape of charity.

Worse was to come. In the 16th century, the English population started to grow. In 1500 it was around 2.2 million. By 1600 it had topped 4 million.

This was a disaster for the poor. They were squeezed in the vice-like grip of rising rents and food prices, and falling wages. The 1590s was one of the most difficult decades to be English and impoverished. Many took to the roads, tramping towards the towns, squatting in dirty suburbs, demonised by the press. When the harvests failed, many starved – or ended their lives at the end of a rope for theft, victims of a brutal criminal code that operated to protect the property-owners.

For the first time in recorded history, a state had created a national system of tax-funded poor relief

And yet, there were also calls for charity. People listened. Even many fairly humble folk, with little to give, remembered the poor in their wills. For the wealthy, the bequest of land, property, or even the foundation of an almshouse was a way to display virtue. In Winchester, the merchant Peter Symonds left money to create Christ’s Hospital, for the poor, at his death in 1586. His family argued over the will, but the almshouse finally went up in 1607. It even used bricks (visible today) from the nearby Hyde Abbey: a neat allegory for the passing of responsibility from monasteries to private almshouses.

Such charities remained important, but gradually the 16th century saw more direction from the state, and more emphasis on compulsory poor rates. Towns were in the vanguard. At Norwich, for example, under the direction of local Puritans, there were attempts to stamp out drunkenness and other vices, combined with a massive drive to relieve the needy poor and provide employment and training for their children.

But it was parliament that played the decisive role. At first, it encouraged voluntary charity, but this proved insufficient, so gradually it introduced compulsory taxation, with statutes in 1563 and 1572. It was a drastic solution – wealthy parishioners were to be forced (not encouraged, forced) to support their poorer neighbours. The crucial legislation came in 1598, ordering each parish to appoint “overseers of the poor” who would ensure those who needed work would be employed, and those who couldn’t work would get cash. The system that evolved from the Tudor statutes was both deceptively simple, and startlingly radical. For the first time in recorded history, a state had created a national system of tax-funded poor relief, at least on paper.

By 1600, this system was fanning out across the countryside. In Hampshire there is a surviving document that shows poor rates being collected in the tiny parish of Micheldever in 1599. By 1605, a survey of much of north Hampshire shows rates were nearly universal there, and this was probably typical of the rural south (where, as the historian Marjorie McIntosh has shown, some parishes had been collecting rates well before 1598). In the north, things were slower. In Rochdale, for example, rates only started in 1626; in much of what’s now south Cumbria, they were only fully adopted in the 1630s.

The wheels, though, nearly came off during the first Civil War (1642–46). Sometimes parish governments stopped meeting, sometimes the overseers were simply all dead. In any case, by 1646 there were complaints that the poor were no longer getting support. What’s worse, England was beginning to slip into famine. While political revolution gripped the nation, in the background, England was hit by a series of terrible harvests. This had happened before: in 1623, harvest failure in the north had led to a huge surge in mortality. But the crisis of the late 1640s had the potential to be much worse, not least because there was now a massive army circling London, sucking away its food.

The response was a nationwide effort to kick the system back to life. Where it had faltered, rates were re-instigated and overseers re-appointed. Where it had survived, rates were increased. In the end, it worked. The years 1646–49 saw bad harvests, but there was no famine; the one that struck in 1623 was to be England’s last.

Hard luck stories

Three paupers who fell on the state’s mercy

Three pecks of oatmeal

Ralph Standish, a collier from Anderton, asked for relief in 1691, saying that although he was only 27 last May it had “pleased God to visit him with a sad distemper in his knee and leg”. He could no longer walk, and despite spending all his means getting help from doctors, he could no longer earn a living, bringing him into “great poverty and want”. Despite the fact he’d been of “good government and carriage”, all the overseers had given him was three pecks of oatmeal and a shilling in cash. He asked for “some reasonable relief”.

A carer’s crisis

Thomas Rothwell of Blackley, near Manchester, asked for help in 1654. He was known locally as ‘Tom Cook’, and this reflected one of his three occupations: he was a cook, a gardener and a farmer. But he was getting old. He was now 73 and losing his sight, while his wife was “lunatic and distracted”, and needed constant care. He had spent all his previous earnings trying to avoid calling on the overseers, but now, he said, he had no choice.

The abusive neighbour?

Agnes Braithwaite of Hawkshead (now Cumbria) waged a long battle with the overseers for a dole in the first decade of the 18th century. She was an old widow, probably in her late 70s, but her neighbours alleged that she was idle, drunken, abusive and litigious, and in any case was fit to work. Several times her dole was reduced, but the overseers were never able to stop it completely, and she died in receipt of a parish pension.

Pensions for the poor

As the Civil War receded into memory, the Poor Law entered something of a golden age. The law of ‘settlement’ had now been codified, ensuring that every English man, woman and child had a parish to which they had the right to apply for relief.

It is from this period that the accounts of overseers of the poor start to survive in large numbers: incredible lists of England’s poor, together with information about their support from the parish purse. Some got pensions, others had their rents paid, or received various doles for occasional expenses, such as medical care, fuel, even house repairs. Using these, historians have shown that many of the poor were either old or in families with lots of children. Others were ill or had long-term disabilities.

We also have petitions. Lancashire, in particular, has an astonishing collection of several thousand. In it are sad stories of poverty and hardship that would otherwise be lost – lives of struggle and survival. Like George and Catherine Horner of Claughton, who in 1680 described themselves as having “been very laborious in all their time but are now grown old and decrepit and reduced to much poverty and indigence”. The Claughtons added proudly that they “never (as yet) was in any ways troublesome to the parish wherein they live”. Or Anthony Higgenson of Priest Hutton, who had made a living by catching foxes, badgers “and other devouring creatures”, until old age and sickness intervened in 1656. Or Thomas Somester of Chadderton, a linen weaver, who in 1676 said that his wife had been sick, and that some of their eight children also suffered from “the fever”. Worse, two years ago, when things had been “hard and dear”, they’d had to sell most of their goods, and now they were poor.

The Poor Law wasn’t designed to give total support to those who had fallen on hard times. The evidence we have shows clearly that the poor also used various means to scratch a living: they were helped by family and neighbours; they did little bits of work; they sold their household goods, even the clothes off their backs. They gathered sticks, turf, reeds and stones; they collected nuts, berries and shellfish. They might graze a pig or even a cow; or they might fish in rivers, lakes and fens. In extreme circumstances, they might even succumb to the temptations of petty theft. They lived, in the beautifully evocative phrase of the historian Olwen Hufton, in an “economy of makeshifts”.

The strong helping the weak

Yet the role of the Poor Law was definitely growing. Its costs were rising as more people got relief, and doles got bigger. Whereas the normal pension was about sixpence a week in the 1630s, by the 1690s it was about 12 pence. Parish accounts usually show gradual increases. Slimbridge in Gloucestershire spent under £59 on the Poor Law in 1635, rising to nearly £87 in 1690. At Cerne Abbas in the Dorset downs, costs rose from just over £24 in 1632 to nearly £100 in 1695. All told, expenditure across England probably at least tripled in the second half of the 17th century, and since the population was flat, this meant real improvements in the lives of the poor.

Critics claimed that too much was being spent on poor relief, and that this encouraged idleness

Not for nothing did the later 17th century see some of the earliest complaints that, now, too much was being spent. Critics argued that this would encourage idleness, or would discourage ratepayers from giving voluntary charity. On a local level, there might be complaints about individual paupers. Sometimes these related to moral failings on the pauper’s part: Agnes Braithwaite of Hawks-head was said to have become an “idle, abusive, drunken woman” thanks to her dole. More often, they were simply said not to need support, like Mary Ashton of Hest Bank, who was “a woman of an able body and fit to work for her own maintenance”, she having just one child “who is able to work for himself”.

Ultimately, though, there was a growing assumption that – if you were destitute enough – you should be relieved by your parish. At some point, indeed, people started to believe they had a right to poor relief. Historians have debated when this belief arose; some prefer the late 18th century. But there are signs it was emerging much earlier.

Perhaps the last word can be left to Jane Shaw, or at least to the person who actually wrote her petition. It asks that relief be granted, because “the strong should help the weak, the rich should help the poor”. This was not, of course, a completely new sentiment. What was different was that now this duty could be enforced by the state.

Jonathan Healey is associate professor in social history at Oxford University. He is author of The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire (Boydell, 2014)


This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


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