The price of food, which had remained static in the 15th century, rose six-fold in the 16th, then stabilised in the 1630s. Meanwhile, wages rose less than prices: real wages in the seventeenth century were half those of a century earlier. The ordinary cottager, whose wages had perhaps doubled as against the five- or six-fold increase in prices, was having a hard time of it. While the rich grew richer, this was no time to be an agricultural labourer, still less out of work.
A succession of Poor Laws, starting in the reign of Queen Elizabeth in 1597 and 1601, had established the principle that parishes were responsible for looking after their own paupers, and for levying the money to meet the costs. The Law of Settlement and Removal of 1662 defined the distinction between settled and vagrant poor. “Settlement” defines the care the parish should provide to those who could prove residence in the parish. “Removal” was the fate awaiting vagrants who dared look for work outside theirs. Thus, the poor were divided into two categories. Those who could demonstrate that they had been born in the parish or had been employed there for a year were deemed to be ‘settled poor’ and the early modern period saw the creation of a prototype welfare state, in which parishes were required to raise Poor Rates from its better-off residents and to administer the monies in support of its resident paupers. ‘Vagrant poor’, on the other hand, who could not prove that they ‘belonged’, were remorselessly hunted and driven outside the parish boundaries.
The “Removal” clauses in the 1661 Act required the Overseer of the Poor to evict migrant paupers who roamed the country, most of them looking for work. Some built shacks on waste land and tried to establish residency. The better-off parishioners who were obliged to pay Poor Rates were keen to see that their money was well spent, and the Vestry required Overseers to root out the vagrants before they could do so. Another responsibility of the Overseer was to track down the fathers of babies born to young women who could not afford to keep them, obliging them to support their offspring. Paupers, both men and women, also worked in the fields. Gilbert White described the situation in Selborne, not ten miles away, in a letter written in 1781: “Besides the employment from husbandry, the men work in hop gardens, of which we have many, and fell and bark timber. In the spring and summer the women weed the corn; and enjoy a second harvest in September by hop-picking. Formerly, in the dead months, they availed themselves greatly by spinning wool.”
In 1589, an act was passed entitled ‘An act against erecting and maintaining cottages’ was passed; under James I, the Privy Council passed a series of Poor Laws which confirmed the duty of the parish vestry not only to appoint Overseers of the Poor and raise the Poor Rate but to enjoin constables to repress vagrancy, prevent cottages being built with fewer than four acres of land, to prosecute parents of bastard children. Ale houses were believed to be the source of disorderliness among the poor.