Our first welfare state
Michael Blakstad, for Meon Matters November 2016
In 17thand 18thcentury England, there was a huge gap between the rich and the poor; aristocrats and large landowners such as the Bishops of Winchester, who owned the manors of East Meon, were worth millions of pounds in today’s money, while the poor were unable to feed, warm, or house themselves even if they could find work. Yet villages took very good care of their poor.
Their own poor, that is: life was much tougher for those who had been forced to migrate in search of work outside their own villages. The Privy Councils of Queen Elizabeth and the two King Jameses handed the job of local government to parish ‘vestries’, the equivalent of today’s parochial parish councils but with vastly more responsibilities. Among other duties, the vestry was required to raise the Poor Rate from those in the parish who could afford to pay it, and to appoint Overseers of the Poor who would spend the money looking after those in need. Two Overseers were appointed each year, usually well-respected yeoman farmers who received no payment for their hard work.
Those who paid the Poor Rate resented their money going to anyone who did not belong in the parish, and one of the jobs of the Overseers was to hunt out and drive away the ‘vagrant poor’. For country people, farming was the only form of employment, work was seasonal and agricultural labourers were employed on the equivalent of zero hours contracts: in bad years they would be forced to take their tools and families on the road to seek employment in other parishes. They often built shanty huts on waste land in the hope that they could remain unmolested for six months, after which they would qualify as residents of that parish. Thomas Turner, a 17thcentury Overseer of East Hoathly in Sussex wrote a vivid account of his efforts to track down and evict migrant labourers this included arranging shotgun weddings for single pregnant women, to prevent them giving birth to babies in the parish who would thereby qualify for relief.
Meanwhile, the ‘deserving poor’ were well looked after. The account books of East Meon’s Overseers record the purchase of ample food, soap, candles, beer and work tools on behalf of the poor; medical expenses were provided and most paupers were housed either with relatives or in accommodation provided by the parish. Those who could were expected to work – and the Overseers’ accounts show that most poor women did spinning, while the men were put out to do farm work. In the 1780s, Gilbert White wrote about nearby Selborne: ‘we abound with poor; many of whom are sober and industrious, live comfortably in good stone or brick cottages, which are glazed and have chambers above stairs… Besides employment from husbandry, the men work in hop gardens … and fell and bark timber … the women weed the corn’.
Selborne does not appear to have had a workhouse, while East Meon’s was built in 1727. It appears to have been a humane and caring establishment; births, marriages and deaths are recorded there, and the cost of paupers’ coffins and burials are recorded in the accounts. It wasn’t until the 1830s that poverty was labelled a social evil and a burden on society; responsibility for local government was taken away from parishes and given to town and district councils, village workhouses and overseers were abolished and East Meon’s poor were moved to the Union workhouse in Petersfield.