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Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1870

Author(s):Green, David R.
Reviewer(s):Boyer, George R.

Published by EH.NET (November 2010)

David R. Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1870.? Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010.? xviii + 279 pp. $115 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-7546-3008-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by George R. Boyer, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

Recent decades have witnessed a large amount of research on the English Poor Law at the local level.? Little of this research has been devoted to London, largely because of the ?peculiar? nature of poverty and pauperism in the metropolis.? Historian Steven King contends that London?s poverty problem was ?so unlike that even in other major cities that we must regard it as something of an oddity? (Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850, 2001, p. 13).? David Green?s detailed analysis of the administration of poor relief in nineteenth-century London, therefore, fills a large gap in the literature on the Poor Law.

The book?s first two chapters deal with the period before the adoption of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834.? Green compares the administration of relief in the metropolis with that elsewhere in England and shows that London?s expenditures per pauper were quite high, largely because it relieved a far larger share of its paupers in workhouses than did any other region.? Chapter 2 shows how population growth and shifts within London led to increasing divergences in relief administration and expenditures across parishes.? Eastern parishes such as Bethnal Green gained working class residents and lost middle class taxpayers over time, which increased pressure on their financial resources and forced them to adopt stricter relief policies.?

Green contends in Chapter 3 that the widespread opposition to the implementation of the New Poor Law in London parishes was not over methods of relief, but rather due to political issues.? Local officials opposed the merger of parishes into Poor Law Unions and the adoption of plural and proxy voting for local relief administrators.? Despite their opposition, those parishes that remained outside the jurisdiction of the Poor Law Amendment Act ?to all intents and purposes implemented policies that were identical to those which prevailed in parishes that had adopted? the Act (p. 113).? Chapter 4 examines the construction of London?s workhouse system.? The metropolis lagged behind other regions of England in building new workhouses after 1834, due in part to the high cost of constructing workhouses, but also because economies of scale enabled London unions to combine to construct specialist institutions such as poor law schools and lunatic asylums.? The schools reduced overcrowding in existing workhouses and kept London unions from having to construct new and larger workhouses.? Chapter 5 examines the negotiations over relief that went on between the poor, local poor law officials, and magistrates.

The book?s concluding chapters 6 and 7 deal with the increasing problems that London working class unions had in financing poor relief in the 1850s and 1860s.? Parliament?s adoption of the Poor Removal Act of 1846, which reduced the ability of parishes to remove non-settled applicants for relief to their parish of settlement, further increased the tax burden in poor southern and eastern districts — by 1860 these districts had poor (tax) rates that were ?three to four times higher than most western and suburban districts? (p. 211).? Their inability to cope with the sharp increases in demand for relief in the crises of 1861 and 1867 led to the adoption in 1867 of the Metropolitan Poor Act, which ?recognized once and for all the collective responsibility of metropolitan districts to provide relief for the poor? (p. 23) by creating the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund (MCPF).? The MCPF effectively transferred money from wealthy London districts to poor eastern unions, which ?significantly reduced the rate burden in poorer districts? (p. 239) and led to a convergence in poor rates across London unions.? The book ends rather abruptly, with Green devoting two pages of text and four figures to the ?profound? long-term effects of the MCPF.?

Contemporaries and historians have debated the extent to which regional differences in poor relief expenditures can be attributed to differences in economic conditions or differences in welfare culture.? Green shows convincingly that London?s high Poor Law expenditures were not evidence of a lax administration of relief.? Indeed, London parishes were leaders in the adoption of the deterrent workhouse test — the share of paupers relieved in workhouses was higher in London than in any other region of England throughout most of the nineteenth century.? Local officials made use of expensive workhouse relief in an attempt to reduce the demand for public assistance by the city?s ?permanent glut of unskilled and casual labour? (p. 196).??

The book provides a detailed discussion of the significant differences across London parishes (before 1834) and Poor Law unions (after 1834) in the demand for and administration of poor relief.? There are, however, a few frustrating omissions.? For example, Green presents calculations of the extent of the divergence in poor rates across London districts for 1870-90 (measured using the coefficient of variation; see Figure 7.6, p. 243), but he does not present similar calculations for the crucial decades of the 1850s and 1860s, during which time the divergence in poor rates increased significantly.? Nor does he provide the data that would allow readers to do such calculations.? I found myself at various points wanting to see the data that were used to construct the book?s numerous figures.? It would have been useful if somewhere in the book, perhaps in an appendix, Green had presented tables of annual data on the numbers of paupers, relief expenditures per capita, share of paupers relieved in workhouses, and the poor (tax) rate for several if not all London unions from 1849 to 1890.? Such tables would have shed additional light on the divergence in pauperism and poor rates across unions.
Finally, I wish Green had devoted more space to the long-run effects of the adoption of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund.? The number of paupers receiving outdoor relief declined sharply in the 1870s, so that by the early 1880s the majority of London paupers were relieved in workhouses.? Green attributes this change in method of relief to the shifting of financial resources from rich to poor unions instituted by the MCPF — poorer districts now had the resources to expand their workhouses and impose ?much stricter conditions on the receipt of relief? (p. 244).? This is a plausible explanation, but Green offers little evidence to support it.? Did those poorer unions that benefited from the MCPF significantly expand their workhouses in the 1870s?? Was the decline in outdoor paupers more pronounced in the poor eastern districts than elsewhere in London?

These are minor quibbles.? Pauper Capital is an excellent introduction to the changing administration of poor relief in London from the 1790s to 1870.? It should be read by anyone interested in understanding the regional differences in relief administration and spending in nineteenth century England.

George R. Boyer is Professor of Labor Economics and International and Comparative Labor at Cornell University?s ILR School.? He is the author of ?Insecurity, Safety Nets, and Self-Help in Victorian and Edwardian Britain,? in David Eltis, Frank Lewis, and Kenneth Sokoloff, eds., Human Capital and Institutions: A Long Run View (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and, with Timothy P. Schmidle, of ?Poverty among the Elderly in Late Victorian England,? Economic History Review (May 2009).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century