Poor Law Act 1601 in England

Background of Poor Law 1601

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws builds on various acts in the 1500s that set policies to collect poor taxes, defining who was "deserving" and "undeserving" of relief distributed across local parishes by a justice of the peace set punishments for vagrants.

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The 1601 Law established a poor rate that was required and collected from property owners across parishes, created the position of overseers to collect and distribute relief and made requirements for work by the poor and punishments to meted out to those who did not follow the Poor Laws. The 1601 laws allowed for "indoor relief" in the form of workhouses and poorhouses that would be developed throughout the 1600-the 1700s and more intensely into the 1800s.


Before 1601, various acts were passed to collect taxes to fund poor relief and punish vagrants and paupers in the 15th century. Before the 15th century, monasteries and charities were available for paupers in England. The feudal system in England required that local landowners (masters) and communities or parishes were responsible for providing some care for those that could not care for themselves: people with disabilities, the sick, old, and orphaned children.


Before the Reformation, it was considered a religious duty for all Christians to undertake the seven corporal works of mercy. These were deeds aimed at relieving bodily distress: following the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 25 vv. 32-46), people were to

  1. feed the hungry
  2. give drink to the thirsty
  3. welcome the stranger
  4. clothe the naked
  5. visit the sick
  6. visit the prisoner
  7. bury the dead


History of Legislations related to Poor Law

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, many of the old values and moral expectations disappeared. Hence, it became necessary to regulate the relief of poverty by law. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a spate of legislation was passed to deal with the increasing problem of raising and administering poor relief.

1552 — Parish registers of the poor were introduced so that there was an official record of those who fell into the category of 'poor.'

1563 — Justices of the Peace were authorised and empowered to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor and, for the first time, the poor were put into different categories

a) those who would work but could not: these were the able-bodied or deserving poor. They were to be given help either through outdoor relief or by being given work in return for a wage.

b) those who could work but would not: these were the idle poor. They were to be whipped through the streets, publicly, until they learned the error of their ways.

c) those who were too old/ill/young to work: these were the impotent or deserving poor. They were to be looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were to be given a trade apprenticeship so that they would have a trade to pursue when they grew up.

1572 — the first local mandatory poor law tax was imposed, making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility

1576 — the idea of a deterrent workhouse was first suggested, although nothing was done at this point

1597 — Justices of the Peace once more were authorised and empowered to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor, and the post of 'Overseer of the Poor' was created. The position continued after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

1601 — the 'Elizabethan Poor Law' was passed


Elizabethan Poor Law categories

The laws essentially distinguished three significant categories of dependents: vagrants, involuntary unemployed, and the helpless. The laws also specify how and what to do with each dependent type. Most importantly, the laws established the parish (i.e., local government) as the administrative unit for enforcing the law through an overseer of the poor appointed by local officials. The main three categories of poor are: 

a) Able-bodied poor or deserving poor: the parish would provide the means for them to work in a place provided by the parish: a Workhouse.

b) Idle poor: Vagrants and Beggars. Subject to punishments including Prison.

c) Impotent poor: Those who cannot work. For these, relief would come in the form of an almshouse or poorhouse, depending on the circumstances.

d) Poor children. Were to become apprentices.


Provisions of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601

It [43 Eliz I Cap. 2] consolidated all the previous legislation into one massive law and made provisions for

a) a compulsory poor rate to be levied on every parish

b) the creation of 'Overseers' of relief

c) the 'setting the poor on work.'

d) the collection of a poor relief rate from property owners

The law required each parish to elect two Overseers of the Poor every Easter: those who were elected were unpaid and often were unwilling appointees who acted under the supervision of the JPs. However, the means of poor relief did provide a way of controlling the 'lower orders' and reinforced a sense of social hierarchy. The Elizabethan Poor Laws were appropriate for the society of the time.


Relief Structure of Poor Law 1601

Under the Old Poor Law, relief could take on one of two forms– indoor relief, relief inside a workhouse, or outdoor relief from outside a workhouse. This could come in the form of money, food or even clothing. As the cost of building the different workhouses was significant, outdoor relief continued to be the main form of relief in this period.

Outdoor relief: the poor would be left in their own homes and would be given either a 'dole' of money on which to live or relief in kind - clothes and food, for example. This was the norm.

Indoor relief:

a) the poor would be taken into the local almshouse

b) the ill would be admitted to the hospital

c) orphans were brought into the orphanage

d) the idle poor would be taken into the poor-house or workhouse where they would be set to work


Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so-called "impotent poor", was in the form of a payment or items of food ("the parish loaf") or clothing, also known as outdoor relief. Some aged people might be accommodated in parish alms houses, though these were usually private charitable institutions. Meanwhile, able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in Houses of Correction (indoor relief). However, provision for the many able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was relatively unusual, and most workhouses developed later. The 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for each other – elderly parents would live with their children.

The 1601 Poor Law could be described as "parochial" as the administrative unit of the system was the parish. There were around 1,500 such parishes based on the area around a parish church. This system allowed greater sensitivity towards paupers and made tyrannical behaviour from overseers possible. Overseers of the Poor would know their paupers and so be able to differentiate between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. The Elizabethan Poor Law operated when the population was small enough for everyone to know everyone else, so people's circumstances would be known, and the idle poor would be unable to claim on the parishes' poor rate.


The act levied a poor rate on each parish which Overseers of the Poor were able to collect. Those who had to pay this rate were property owners, or rather, in most cases, occupiers, including tenants.

The 1601 Act sought to deal with "settled" poor who had found themselves temporarily out of work – it was assumed they would accept indoor relief or outdoor relief. Neither method of relief was at this time in history seen as harsh. The act was supposed to deal with beggars who were considered a threat to civil order. The act was passed at a time when poverty was deemed to be necessary as it was thought that only fear of poverty made people work.

In 1607 a House of Correction was set up in each county. However, this system was separate from the 1601 system, distinguishing between the settled poor and "vagrants".


Duties of Overseers

An overseer of the poor was an official who administered poor relief such as money, food, and clothing in England and various other countries which derived their law from England, such as the United States.

  1. work out how much money would be needed for the relief of the poor and set the poor rate accordingly
  2. collect the poor rate from property owners
  3. relieve the poor by dispensing either food or money
  4. supervise the parish poor-house

Part of the 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for each other, so elderly parents were expected to live with their children. However, everyone in need was looked after at the parish's expense, which was the basic unit of poor law administration. There were 15,000 parishes throughout England and Wales, each based on a parish church. However, no mechanism was introduced to enforce any of the measures stated by the 1601 Act, and the operation of the poor law was inconsistent. The legislation did not set down any administrative standards, so parishes were at liberty to interpret the law in any way they wished. There were significant differences between parishes that varied between extreme laxity and extreme stringency in the interpretation of the law. Some towns, such as Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool, obtained local by-laws that established corporations of the poor: their responsibilities extended over several of the urban parishes within their jurisdiction.


The Elizabethan legislation was intended to help the 'settled' poor who found themselves out of work (for example) because of illness or during a brutal winter or a trade depression. It was assumed that these people would accept whatever position or relief the parish offered, whether indoor or outdoor relief. Neither method of assistance was seen as punitive or harsh. It was intended to deter or deal with the 'sturdy beggars roaming the roads, robbing travellers and generally posing a threat to civil order. The increase in the number of beggars was probably the historical background to the nursery rhyme.

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!

The beggars are coming to town: 

Some in rags, some in tags 

And one in a velvet gown

The first adaptation of the 1601 Act came in 1607 and provided for the setting up of Houses of Correction in each county. Here, work was provided for the unemployed at local pay rates; work could be forced on the idle and on vagabonds. The Houses of Correction were not part of the Elizabethan system of poor relief and were totally separate from the poor parish houses because the law made a clear separation between the settled and 'wandering' poor.


The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law continued with further adaptations — for example, the 1662 Settlement Act, Gilbert's Act (1782) and the Speenhamland system of 1795 — until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and formed the basis of poor relief throughout the country for over two centuries. It was a fair and equitable system run for and administered by local people when the population was small enough for everyone to know everyone else and their circumstances. This meant that the idle poor were known as such and would be given short shrift at the hands of the Overseers of the poor.
One of the last complaints about the 1601 Act was that the basis of the law was that it rated land and buildings but not personal or movable wealth. Consequently, it benefited the industrial and commercial groups in society that did not fall within the parameters of the legislation. It did not pay into the poor rates unless they also owned landed property.


Significance of Poor Law Act 1601

Given the present discussion over welfare reform, it's worth noting that the Elizabethan Poor Law's legacy is still evident and pervasive in our political and social welfare systems. "For the relief of the destitute and infirm, and for the punishment of vagabonds, rogues, and stout beggars," the government began offering public assistance through restraint and regulation in 1601.

During Elizabeth's reign, the problem of assisting or dealing with the destitute became more pressing. In 1601 a Poor Law was enacted to address the issue. The Elizabethan Poor Law had two types of relief: indoor and outdoor. The poor law established the jurisdiction of local Justices of the Peace to charge a tax for poor relief and aid.

The law provided assistance to those who were not disabled, blind, or elderly, by way of workhouses and work materials for the able-bodied unemployed. The control of the labour force was ceded to justices, who set the wage rate. Punishment in correctional facilities was meted out to those who refused to work. The Poor Law established a precedent for government-administered public assistance. It established the principle that local governments were responsible for organizing and financing poor relief for their residents, providing sustenance for the unemployed and children, and providing work for the able-bodied.

The link between social instability and economic insecurity has been unchanged from 1601. Relief has always been inextricably linked to the urge to constrain, as rulers feared vagabonds before pitied the poor. The Poor Law ideology of minimal help, restrictive controls, and recipient social rejection is evident as it was nearly 400 years ago in England.


Was the Poor Law 1601 Successful?

Elizabeth's reign was marked by peace and prosperity for the first 30 years, but as the population grew, so did poverty and troubles, particularly in towns. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, a slew of new laws for the poor had been enacted, which would last for the following 200 years. They performed a vital role in assisting the destitute and signalled the state's first foray into welfare, but they did not alleviate poverty; in fact, private charity continued to provide more relief money.

The Elizabethan poor law of 1601 was the Tudor dynasty's most comprehensive attempt to alleviate poverty and unemployment. To what extent do you concur with this assertion?


The Elizabethan poor law of 1601 played a critical role in reducing poverty, particularly in rural areas; it served as a unifying piece of legislation that brought together a variety of poor relief efforts. However, this particular law was intrinsically idealistic, most notably in the regent's assumption that employment could be provided to anyone in need. Additionally, the statement implies that previous attempts to alleviate poverty during the Tudor period were ineffective; however, the work of Henry VII and Henry VIII in employing JPs to work in local communities to alleviate poverty, as well as the series of laws enacted under Edward VI categorising the potent and impotent poor, were seminal pieces of poor relief legislation. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the originality of the Elizabethan poor law of 1601 and determine whether or not it was merely an amalgamation of previous monarchs' and governments' laws.


The poor law of 1601 was enacted in response to England's precarious financial situation, exacerbated by inflation, population growth, and the lingering effects of coinage debasement. The relative effectiveness of this law was due to its ability to consolidate all of these disparate efforts to alleviate poverty into a single unified piece of legislation that addressed the root causes of poverty while also providing employment opportunities for those living in it. However, Elizabeth maintained the tradition of categorising the poor to prioritise those in need of assistance; the terms "deserving poor" and "undeserving poor" served to reinforce Tudor England's changing attitude toward those in need. The latter title, "undeserving," succinctly summarises the 1601 law's problems; by expunging large segments of society and declaring them criminals and vagabonds, JPs and local judges could significantly reduce the relative effort required to eradicate poverty. On the other hand, this simple measure appears to have been inherited by Elizabeth's successors and elucidates the reasons for Tudor England's growing financial precarity and impoverishment. The Tudor monarchs were sufficiently belligerent to accept the magnitude of poverty and acknowledge that consistent failures within the royal government, most notably demands for extraordinary taxation and resources for war, exacerbated the problem.


Elizabethan Poor Law and Social Welfare Today

In 1601, England was amidst a catastrophic economic downturn, with widespread unemployment and starvation. The English Poor Laws were established by Queen Elizabeth to maintain order and contribute to the kingdom's overall benefit. Only minimal revisions were made to these statutes over more than 250 years. The statutes basically distinguished three dependents: vagrants, involuntary unemployed people, and the helpless. The laws also specify how each kind of dependent should be dealt with. Most importantly, the statutes established the parish (i.e., local government) as the administrative entity for enforcing the legislation through an overseer of the poor nominated by local officials.


The poor laws provided local governments with authority to increase taxes as needed and use the proceeds to build and maintain almshouses, offer indoor relief (i.e., cash or food) for the elderly, crippled, and other deserving poor, and supply the equipment and supplies needed to hire the unemployed. Parents were expected to provide financial assistance to their children and grandkids. Similarly, children were accountable for the care of their parents and grandparents who were unemployed. Children whose parents could not support them were compelled to participate in compulsory apprenticeships. They had no legal standing to protest the remuneration or interference with their child-rearing operations. Vagrants and anyone who refuses to labour could be sent to a correctional facility or fined.

In 1662, a punitive Law of Settlement and Removal was created in England in response to worries that dependent persons would transfer to parishes where financial aid was more substantial. Local governments might use the law to force people and families to leave a town and return to their home parish if they were financially dependent. This statute permitted a local government to limit funding to just "residents" and their families.

The Elizabethan Destitute Laws and the Law of Settlement and Removal model governmental help for the poor in the American colonies and state governments.

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