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The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948

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 literature.

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
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII