In 1833, Shelford farmer Peter Grain was interviewed by an investigator from the Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry into the Poor Law. He painted a very stark picture. He described the labourers of the parish as “idle, dissolute, good for nothing, and the real masters of the parish”.
So what was this all about?
Well, the first thing I have to tell you about is the Poor Law.
The Poor Law
was a venerable institution, dating back to the days of the Tudors. It was our original “welfare state”, and it sought to provide care for the needy poor: the aged, the widowed, the mentally and physically disabled, the orphaned and the sick. It also struggled with the problem of the unemployed. Throughout the centuries, unemployment has risen in the bad times and men have found themselves unable to provide for their families. Clearly some help was required. But whenever society has grappled with the problem of relief, it has had to grapple with two problems. How do you help without creating a culture of benefit dependency? How do you help the needy without the shiftless and the unscrupulous exploiting the system?
The Old Poor Law, or 43rd Elizabeth, was enshrined in a law of 1601 which made each parish responsible for care of the needy poor. In Shelford and throughout the country, two Overseers of the Poor were elected annually by the parish. They levied a local rate, “the poor rate” which was to pay for poor relief. Over the years there came into being the notion of indoor and outdoor relief. Outdoor relief would be paid to you while living at home. Indoor relief meant admitting you to an institution – a hospital, or workhouse (literally, a place where you would be put to work). This was how poor relief worked for over 200 years. The middling sort of people, those who were comfortably off but not rich, would be Overseers, with the ratepayers – anyone who was well enough off to pay rates – looking over their shoulders. The Overseers would know who was who in the parish: the deserving poor and the wasters.
Over the years, changes were implemented. Chief of these was the Act of Settlement which enacted that to get poor relief, you had to belong to a parish. Settlement was designed to prevent people travelling to places where the poor relief was generous, and was born out of a period of ratepayer resentment. It was to cause mayhem. Parishes would go to enormous lengths to prove you weren’t “one of theirs”. And if you weren’t, you would be shipped off to where you came from. Employers who helped newcomers from the labouring classes to establish settlement could make themselves very unpopular. The Settlement Laws, like bureaucracy of any sort, were full of loopholes and ridiculous rules which had to be adhered to. You gained a settlement by being born somewhere. If you moved, you needed to take your certificate of settlement showing where you came from, until you had worked in the new place long enough to gain a settlement. The poor were treated like cattle.
Some parishes, where one landowner had tight rein over parish affairs, managed to control who got settlement in the parish and kept it populated by the deserving and industrious. But Shelford wasn’t like that. There were too many small landowners, and the biggest landowners, the colleges, didn’t take much interest in these affairs.The next thing I need to explain is about the class structure.
The Class Structure
Great Shelford had no aristocratic or even gentry landowners. In this it was like a lot of Cambridgeshire villages. Instead most of the land belonged to Cambridge colleges: St John’s, Gonville and Caius, and Jesus. The most significant people in the village were the farmers, chief among them at this time Peter Grain, but also the Headlys, Thomas Stacey and a few more besides. Then there were various tradesmen and shopkeepers. And below that, the labourers, who made up the bulk of the population. These were the men who did all the physical work of the parish – cultivating the fields, digging ditches, maintaining roads. In a society with little machinery, there was a lot of labouring to be done, and they worked long and hard. At this time there were 75 able-bodied labourers and their families in the village.
And now, let us return to the interview with Peter Grain
was clearly a rich man. He owned one third of the cultivable land in the parish (500 acres out of 1,500), and also farmed another 900 in a neighbouring parish (which? most likely Stapleford). Don’t think high taxation is a new phenomenon. He paid 10s per acre poor rate (£250 per annum), and he was pretty disgruntled about it.
In fact, he was disgruntled about everything. He felt that the poor relief paid to the Shelford labourers had done no more than create benefit dependency. He saw the parish drowning in a rising tide of paupers (as those in receipt of poor relief were called).
He felt that the balance of power in the parish had shifted towards the labouring class. Instead of the deferential, hard-working labourers he would have liked to deal with, he perceived a class of men who apparently knew their rights and traded on them. They subsisted comfortably on their poor relief rather than showing a proper spirit of independence. They expected charity from him and his fellow farmers, but showed little gratitude. And he was angry about the women who had bastard children by a string of different fathers and expected the parish to support them. Does any of this sound familiar?
Let me quote some of what he said.
Of the 75 labouring families in Shelford, 45 “are all that are necessary for a thorough cultivation of the soil” and “there is a surplus of 30 families”. Obviously, the other 30 families were supposed to clear off and stop cluttering up the parish and expecting to be paid from the poor rate.
But they didn’t. The labourers would not take jobs elsewhere:
“they know they have a right on the parish, and must be maintained; they will hardly do anything for themselves. Sometime ago I offered a man who works for me, and is a good man enough, with a large family, an acre rent free. I said, You have large family coming on, and if an acre will be of any service to you for a garden, and to keep a pig or two, you are welcome. But he would not take it.
He said, Thank’ye, sir, I should like it; but I should not like to give up my privilege on the parish. I said, Why, if you have an acre rent free, you must not expect the parish to allow you what it does now. Then he said, he would rather not have it.
I am not aware that they ever feel grateful for any thing. Whenever they are ill, they send their basins here for soup, or any other little delicacy they may want; and not to me only, but the other gentlemen and farmers are just as willing as I am; and we go to visit them and assist them, but they never seem grateful, or behave better. They think everything is their right”.
He felt that generous poor relief was having a demoralising effect on the workmen “for this reason: that they receive as much for doing comparatively nothing on the parish account as they do from the farmers for working hard for perhaps for 12 hours, which, in my opinion, destroys the industry and independence of the labourer”.
He went on to complain about the “Lower orders marrying without thinking or caring how they are to maintain a family, as they know, however large it may chance to be, it will be maintained by the parish”.
The over-population of Shelford “arose about 40 years ago, when several little shopkeepers gave settlements to servants, and as the poor were well attended to by my father and the other occupants and owners in the parish, none would ever quit it, and they have gone on increasing, till they have become what they are now, idle, dissolute, good for nothing, and the real masters of the parish”.
Grain himself employed 4 or 5 men more than he needed for the work on his farm, while the Shelford farmers in general tried to employ men with large families so they did not have to claim poor relief. About 6 men who were in employment, all with large families, received a top-up from poor relief.
He was frustrated, then, by a situation of which he was not in control, in spite of being the most socially important person in the parish. In his own eyes he showed consideration and humanity to his labourers, and received little gratitude in return. He did not respect his labourers, found them sullen and idle, and an intolerable burden.
The memorial to Peter Grain in Shelford Church.
So that is one side of the story. Now let’s consider the poor.
History is rarely written by the lower orders. The labourers left little trace of their passing on the planet. Few even left a gravestone. So you won’t find much evidence of what they thought. And if you think there’s little about labouring men, there’s even less about the women of the labouring class. But here’s how I see their situation.
If you were a labouring man you were expected to work a 12-hour day, 6 days a week. You were employed, usually, by the day. You did not get sick pay, and you certainly didn’t get holiday pay. You did not earn enough to save, so your only resource when you were too old and exhausted to work (which tended to be early for labouring men, because of their hard life) was parish relief. Most labouring men had huge families that their wages were inadequate to support. If you went off to try your luck working elsewhere, it was at your own risk, and it was risky. You were only entitled to poor relief in your own parish. So, while poor relief was not generous in Shelford (in spite of Peter Grain’s complaints), it kept the wolf from the door. The fact is that labouring men didn’t have too many options – it was “better the devil you know”. That’s why they stayed in Shelford. Besides, it was home.
However, as it happens, we do have a couple of clues as to how the labourers felt, and Peter Grain himself refers to them. The Poor Law interviewer suggested that the solution to the stalemate might be to make poor relief less agreeable. The reply was:”if that were attempted, the paupers would soon make it disagreeable to be a resident”. He spoke of “a fire by which, some months before, the barns of the tithe lessee (that is, Rectory Farm) had been destroyed by an incendiary well known, but yet protected by the sympathy of his fellows”.
But that is another story, which you can read about under the The Shelford Arsonist.
He is also questioned about the agricultural riots which swept across Southern England in late 1830. These were known as the Captain Swing Riots.
And finally, the bigger picture
One of the biggest problems with the Poor Law was that it never really recognized the concept of unemployment. Unemployment rises and falls. In good years, there is plenty of work; in bad years not so much. Further, in the 18th and 19th centuries the population of Britain rose very rapidly, so that there were too many labourers for the number of jobs. Shelford was typical in this respect – its population in 1801 was 570; by 1831 it was 812.
In the late 18th century, poor relief was relatively generous. There were various systems tried of sharing out the work and topping up the wages with poor relief, or payment of poor relief in bread. After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s economy went into depression. The farmers, who paid the bulk of the poor rate became very resentful of their payments, as the price of corn fell, much as Peter Grain did. Eventually, the government took action. A new system of poor relief was introduced in 1834 with the Poor Law Amendment Act which ushered in the New Poor Law and the infamous Union Workhouse. The consequence of this series of events was that, in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, the countryside was the scene of a subterranean class war, manifesting in the sort of sullen ingratitude of which Peter Grain complained, and which occasionally erupted into open warfare.
If you wish to read Peter Grain’s interview for yourself, it can be found at Cambridge University Library in the Parliamentary Papers 1834 XXXIV Appendix A – Report of Assistant Commissioner.
There is also a question and answer section about Great Shelford in Parliamentary Papers 1834 44 vol XXX Appendix B(1)1.
If you want to read a good summary of the Poor Law, try The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, ed David Hey.