|Author(s):||Lees, Lynn Hollen|
|Reviewer(s):||Boyer, George R.|
Published by EH.NET (May 1, 2000)
Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and
the People, 1700-1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii +
373 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-57261-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by George R. Boyer, Department of Labor Economics, School
of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.
This book presents a broad overview and interpretation of the English poor
laws from the late seventeenth century up to the early twentieth century. In
the introduction Lees states that, despite the large literature on the poor
laws, “we know relatively little about how such institutions operated, how
their practices changed over time, and how they were regarded by ordinary
people” (p. 9). Her book is a very good first step toward filling that gap in
The book is divided into three roughly equal parts. Part One (Chapters 1-3)
deals with poor relief up to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. While most of
the discussion is based on secondary sources, Lees nicely summarizes the recent
literature on the poor law, and offers her own well-reasoned interpretations of
the role of poor relief in the lives of the poor. Lees contends that, at least
before 1800, the legitimacy of the poor laws was accepted both by recipients
and by local taxpayers. Members of the working class might not have liked
applying for relief, but they often were forced to turn to the poor law during
bad times, and they strongly defended their right to public assistance. And
while taxpayers, then as now, grumbled about the level of their taxes, they saw
the payment of poor relief to the unfortunate of the community as a duty.
Sometime around 1800, however, the middle class began to question the
legitimacy of poor relief and to view applicants for relief as undeserving.
According to Lees, this change in opinion largely was a result of the sharp
increase in relief expenditures and numbers on relief that began in the late
eighteenth century, and it was accelerated by the writings of Thomas Malthus
and other classical economists claiming that the poor laws actually created
pauperism. The middle class began to feel that the role of the poor law was not
simply to relieve the poor but also to discipline and reform them.
Part Two deals with the early years of the New Poor Law, from 1834 to 1860.
Chapter 4 contains a discussion of the activities of the Royal Poor Law
Commission, its condemnation of current welfare practices, and its
recommendations for implementing the New Poor Law. Chapter 5 examines the
responses of the poor to the New Poor Law. While the middle classes had come to
view acceptance of relief as a sign of moral failings, the working class
continued to regard public relief as an important form of social insurance.
Lees rejects the argument of some historians that workers hated the poor laws,
noting that it is necessary “to distinguish between the rejection by the poor
of specific welfare institutions [such as the workhouse] and their adamant
insistence upon their own entitlement to parish relief” (p. 165). Chapter 6, on
the local administration of poor relief from 1834 to 1870, is the best chapter
in the book. Lees convincingly shows that the official statistics of poor
relief for this period do not accurately measure the incidence of relief or the
type of relief recipients. She calculates that between 1850 and 1870, 10 to 13
percent of the population of England and Wales received poor relief each year;
over a three-year period perhaps a quarter of the population received
assistance. Despite a boom in the construction of workhouses, most paupers
continued to receive outdoor relief. In order to determine the composition of
the “pauper host,” Lees studied the settlement examinations for three London
parishes and six towns — Bedford, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Shrewsbury,
Southhamption, and York — for the years around 1850. While her sample of
provincial towns is not representative of urban Britain in 1850 — it includes
no large cities and no northern industrial towns — the data she collects
provide a more detailed, and almost certainly more accurate, picture of
applicants for and recipients of relief than do the official statistics. She
finds that large numbers of prime-age males continued to apply for relief in
the provincial towns during the 1840s, and that a majority of those assisted
were granted outdoor relief. Adult females were more likely to get relief in
counties where the demand for their labor was relatively high, and yet few
unemployed women appear in the account books Lees examined. She concludes that
women who applied for relief told overseers stories that were likely to produce
assistance, stressing widowhood, desertion, sickness, or pregnancy rather than
lack of work.
Part Three covers the period from 1860 until the official repeal of the poor
laws in 1948. Lees maintains that the late nineteenth century saw a decline in
the legitimacy of the poor laws in the eyes of both the middle and working
classes. The crusade against outrelief in the 1870s led to a sharp decline in
numbers on relief, as cities throughout Britain refused outdoor relief to both
able-bodied and non-able bodied paupers, and large numbers of applicants for
relief refused to enter workhouses. Lees’s discussion of the crusade against
outrelief and the Charity Organization Society in Chapter 8 is disappointing.
She has little to say about the causes of the crusade, and she ignores the
important work on the subject by Mary MacKinnon and Robert Humphreys. Aside
from a brief discussion of case records for Stepney, in East London, for
1876-89, there is no detailed examination of relief practices at the local
level to match her study of settlement examinations in 1850. In Chapter 9, Lees
argues that by the end of the nineteenth century public assistance had become
more avoidable as a result of rising incomes and the availability of private
insurance through trade unions and friendly societies. As the demand for
assistance declined, workers came to see poor relief as stigmatizing. Chapter
10 examines the decline of the poor law after 1906, and its replacement first
by social insurance and then, after World War II, by the welfare state.
While the analysis of late nineteenth century poor relief needs to be
supplemented by other sources, there is much to be commended in this book.
Especially noteworthy are Lees’s discussions of the extent to which the precise
methods and generosity of relief were determined by “welfare bargaining”
between applicants for relief and local poor law officials, and of the changing
attitudes of the working class toward poor relief. Lees also significantly
extends our knowledge of how female-headed households were treated under the
poor laws, and how the comparative treatment of male and female relief
applicants changed over time. Overall, The Solidarities of Strangers
provides an excellent introduction to the changing nature of the English poor
laws over three centuries.
George Boyer is author of An Economic History of the English Poor Law,
1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and of “The Historical
Background of the Communist Manifesto,” Journal of Economic
Perspectives, Vol. 12 (Fall 1998).
|Subject(s):||Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|