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

Dire straits: Beggars are depicted in a woodcut. In the 16th century, waves of crop failures persuaded the government to place poor relief on the statute book. (Image by Bridgeman)

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.

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