March 2022 meeting: Club news and Poor Law in crisis

At our meeting on 14 March, members recorded their thanks to Charlie Milward for his stalwart service as Treasurer since 2015, and to Colin Orr Burns for agreeing to take over the task.

Colin reminded members of the importance of oral history. Collecting it requires care and skill: from personal experience of mis-remembering when he had heard a particular song, Colin could attest that memories can be unreliable. The Club’s Oral History Group’s current interviews are focusing on Radley residents’ memories of life during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Deborah Hayter then spoke about Poor Law in the 18th century. Poor Law had been codified by the Act for the Relief of the Poor, 1601. This empowered voluntary church officials in each parish to collect rates for the relief of the parish’s sick, elderly, orphaned, ‘unable’, or ‘impotent’ poor. A few parishes set up workhouses, providing ‘indoor relief’. More commonly, the poor received ‘outdoor relief’ of food and clothing. The officials ‘moved on’ vagabonds.

In the 18th century the cost of poor relief hugely increased, in some places beyond ratepayers’ ability to pay. There was growing disquiet about the ‘undeserving’ poor. In 1771 Arthur Young, agricultural reformer, wrote that ‘Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.’

In 1795 the magistrates in Speenhamland (near Newbury) devised a scale for linking benefits to the price of bread. This was widely copied, but growing disquiet about its cost led to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which instituted nation-wide, and deliberately prison-like, workhouses.

Reports of previous meetings