The English Poor Law, which dated from 1601, was structured round the Church of England parish as a nation-wide unit of administration, managed by ratepayers and paid or elected officials. Although the Anglican church existed to promote the Christian religion, the Poor Law did not necessarily reflect Christian values of ... (Show more)
The English Poor Law, which dated from 1601, was structured round the Church of England parish as a nation-wide unit of administration, managed by ratepayers and paid or elected officials. Although the Anglican church existed to promote the Christian religion, the Poor Law did not necessarily reflect Christian values of charity and generosity: indeed, it was frequently criticised for the reverse.
Despite sustained interest in the Old and New Poor Law, and interest in pauper perspectives, little attention has been paid to children’s positionality and treatment. The exceptions, by Alysa Levene (2012) and Alannah Tomkins (2006) focus on London, or towns such as Shrewsbury and Oxford. Jane Humphries’ (2013) focus was on workhouse experiences rather than a whole community. This paper will analyse the ways children and young people experienced Christian poor relief within a semi-rural community in the London hinterland, drawing on a rich cache of manuscript parish records.
The first part will review the provision of parochial poor relief for children and young people, from the founding of parish workhouses in 1723 and 1742 to the implementation of the New Poor Law in 1836 and 1840. There were also numerous endowed charities: indeed, in the 1820s, Walthamstow parish was criticised by the Charity Commission for supplementing the poor rate from charity funds. The paper will document the fluctuations of domiciliary relief, so that in 1826, a family of eight received only a sack of potatoes. Apprenticeship patterns will also be documented. Thus, evidence of seeking children’s perspectives on their placements, without the presence of masters and parents, suggests a determination to avoid abuse, as Honeyman (2007) argued.
The second part will consider the relationship between the Poor Law, as a moralising agent, and the family (or families), and attempts to keep “deserving” families together. Whereas London servants might go into the workhouse, have babies, and disappear (Hitchcock, 1997), news travelled fast in a smaller community, and in the 1750s and 1760s, parish officials ejected a single mother from the workhouse, and refused to maintain children there whose absent father was earning an adequate wage. Another single mother was allegedly left to starve to death in the 1810s, while from 1826, all the families receiving poor relief in Leyton parish had to attend church. Yet, some parents paid the parish to support their children in the workhouse, and homeless and “deserving” families might be accommodated in the almshouse. About one third of orphaned children receiving out-relief in the early nineteenth century were placed out with relatives.
The third section will also consider how exposure to Christian teaching might provide access to literacy skills, with religious books being made available to paupers, education in workhouse schools, and pauper children being taught to sing in church.
Overall, the paper will demonstrate an eco-system of different patterns of care and their limitations. It will thus enhance knowledge of the intersections of the history of children, poor relief, and the Church of England and attempt to recover children’s voices within these systems. (Show less)