Poverty, Gender and Life-Cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760-1834

Poverty, Gender and Life-Cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760-1834

Samantha Williams


Royal Historical Society



Examination of welfare during the last years of the Poor Law, bringing out the impact of poverty on particular sections of society - the lone mother and the elderly.
Social welfare, increasingly extensive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was by the first third of the nineteenth under considerable, and growing, pressure, during a "crisis" period when levels of poverty soared. This book examines the poor and their families during these final decades of the old Poor Law. It takes as a case study the lived experience of poor families in two Bedfordshire communities, Campton and Shefford, and contrasts it with the perspectives of other participants in parish politics, from the magistracy to the vestry, and from overseers to village ratepayers. It explores the problem of rising unemployment, the provision of parish make-work schemes, charitable provision and the wider makeshift economy, together with the attitudes of the ratepayers. That gender and life-cycle were crucial features of poverty is demonstrated: the lone mother and her dependent children and the elderly dominated the relief rolls. Poor relief might have been relatively generous but it was not pervasive - child allowances, in particular, were restricted in duration and value - and it by no means approximated to the income of other labouring families. Poor families must either have had access to additional resources, or led meagre lives.

Samantha Williams is a university lecturer in local and regional history at the Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge, and a Bye-Fellow in History, Girton College, Cambridge.


204 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series
Paperback, 9781843838661, September 2013
Hardback, 9780861933143, November 2011
Library eBook
Royal Historical Society
Boydell Press
BISAC HIS037030, HIS054000, HIS015000
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Table of Contents

People, place and poverty
Policy and paupers
Paying for poverty
Gender, life-cycle and the life-course
Work, unemployment and the makeshift economy


Carefully researched and generally well written. The book is important and further aids our understanding of the intricate workings of the poor law at a micro level. JOURNAL OF RURAL HISTORY

(A) finely researched book ... makes a very significant contribution to poor law history. ... (It) is a very fine piece of scholarship. ENGLISH HISTORICAL REVIEW

This interesting study adds to our knowledge of how the old Poor Law operated in practice and makes a welcome addition to the considerable literature on the subject. LOCAL HISTORIAN

A thorough dissection of how the poor law actually operated. (Its) great strength is its combination of well-conceived and nuanced serial analyses with carefully selected and highly appropriate examples to personify broader trends. AGRICULTURAL HISTORY REVIEW

A very readable book (that) adds substantially to our understanding of the final decades of the old poor law. (...) The book will prove a pithy and significant read for anyone with even a cursory interest in the history of poverty in England. CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

An important book. It is difficult to imagine a focused microhistory for these crisis decades of the old poor law that will match its thoroughness and enormous array of findings. JOURNAL OF BRITISH STUDIES

Makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the nature of the old poor law. (...) Only Williams's careful, forensic approach allows her to defiantly make such claims. For this alone, the book has to be essential reading for all poor law specialists and welfare historians. REVIEWS IN HISTORY

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