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It is impossible to foretell what changes may be in store for the Church at home, especially as to the number and position of the episcopal order, and what changes may in consequence be made in the Cathedral clergy. Whether changes take place or not, I cannot better conclude this paper than by joining in the prayer contained in the Charters of the Cathedrals founded by Henry VIII, which has already been used in a similar place by her Majesty's Commissioners for enquiring into the Cathedral Churches in England, that Capitular Foundations may ever maintain the worship and promote the glory of ALMIGHTY GOD; that Christ's Holy Gospel may be diligently and purely preached, and the
sacraments of our saving religion rightly administered by "learned and grave men, who, after the example of the primi" tive Church, may assist the bishop as his presbytery in all
weightier matters ; that the youth of the realm may be trained “ up in sound learning, the old and infirm suitably provided “ for;" and that from each Cathedral Church, as the spiritual metropolis of the diocese, “all works of piety and charity may
be abundantly diffused to the glory of Almighty God, “and the common advantage and happiness of the subjects
of this realm.”
ON THE ENGLISH POOR LAWS, WITH SOME
SUGGESTIONS FOR THEIR AMENDMENT.
By William Rees Esq., Districi Auditor.
[READ 18TH FEBRUARY, 1864.]
In proposing to read a paper upon the “Poor Laws, with
suggestions for their amendment," I had certain definite objects in view which, I candidly state to you, I hoped by means of the Historic Society to press upon the attention of that larger body, society at large. They are objects intimately connected with social science, and therefore properly coming within the range of the Scientific Section of this Society. And I may say that I have a strong claim to be heard upon the subject of the Poor Laws, not as having taken them up as a favourite study, but because from my official position I have a considerable amount of practical knowledge of their operation.
It would be impossible, within the limits of a paper of reasonable length, to go deeply into the history of the Poor Laws of England; but, before stating the particular topics which I propose to discuss, I will just take a cursory glance at the origin and progress of our legislation on the subject and the prominent causes leading to the necessity for legislating.
The decline of feudalism rendered legislation of an effectual character possible, but, on the other hand, the decline and extinction of the feudal system contributed largely to the letting loose upon the country of wandering bands of retainers—men who had no honest means of earning their bread. There were at all events in that transition period such
bands preying upon the well-to-do classes. The generic name of Poor comprised this class, described in the days of Henry VIII and the reigns immediately succeeding, as "valiant and sturdy
beggars; ” the class of old and infirm; and the class of sick and impotent; besides a mixed multitude of men and women who were destitute simply because they were idle. Early legislation contemplated no relief save through the house of correction for the first class, and for such of the last as refused the work provided for them by the overseers.
It may be asked how, in the ages preceding the period referred to, the poor had been relieved, seeing that poor there doubtless were always. No doubt the chief means was the dole of the monastic houses. The Reformation put a stop to this source. The means available formerly had passed for the most part into the hands of laymen, who recognised no obligation to bestow any of their goods to feed the poor. They gladly laid hold (as a most convenient theory), upon the text, “If any will not work, neither shall he eat," a text which too many
find a comfortable one when their consciences demand an excuse for spurning the beggar from
The necessity of providing means for meeting and correcting the evil, which every year forced itself with increased urgency upon public attention, produced contrivances of a varied description, which experience proved to be utterly inadequate. The first requirement was money. Steps were taken to draw from the wealthy in each parish voluntary contributions for the relief of the indigent. As the selfishness of the opulent neutralized this contrivance, compulsory poor rates were resorted to ; and the officers termed Overseers of the poor, and for a time, Governors of the poor, were appointed to manage these matters. There were two objects to be gained, one being the relief of the really poor, the other the punishment of the wilfully idle and the forcing them to work. For the latter the most obvious means
suggested were public whipping and the house of correction. Various modifications of the law were effected year by year, until the last years of the reign of Elizabeth, when the system was organised upon which all subsequent legislation has been based.
There are four recognised elements in the subject matter of poor relief, viz. :
4. Lunacy. By the first, probably more than by any other, a provision for poor relief was forced upon men's attention. At home the door was daily beset with wandering beggars. Abroad there was no stirring without falling in with noisy mendicants supplicating or demanding money. Nobody likes this annoy
It affects now, and did in those days affect, more than reports of unseen-sickness and starvation. It was, however, impossible effectually to mitigate this evil without having regard to the condition of the old, the sick, the infirm.
Again, with the progress of civilization and luxury came also disregard to moral conduct. There was from some cause an increase in the number of illegitimate children. For these, with their wretched mothers, it became necessary to provide.
As to the case of Lunatics, the crass ignorance which prevailed, and which only the enlightenment of a very recent period has served to dissipate, hindered any care being bestowed upon them. And we accordingly find that it was not until the year 1744, in an act known as the Vagrant Act, that provision was made for the taking custody, by public officers, of this class of persons. By the 20th section of that act the justices were empowered to “ direct constables, churchwardens “and overseers of the poor to apprehend lunatic and insane
persons, and cause them to be locked up in some secure place, and, if the justices deem it necessary, to be there
chained.” I imagine that few persons could be found in our day to regard such an enactment with any degree of favour.
I now come to another branch of my subject, namely, the persons to whom the legislature has, in its wisdom, consigned the duty of providing for vagrants, beggars, the sick, infirm and idle, mothers of illegitimate children, their offspring, and lunatics, together with sundry other duties, all of which taken
ogether must suppose the possession, by the persons so charged, of administrative abilities of a very high order indeed.
Provision for the subsistence of the poor was at first (I mean in post Reformation days at least), committed to Churchwardens (see 27 Henry VIII, cap. 25). The whole community consisted or was supposed to consist of Christian people-members of the Christian Church. Churchwardens represent and are a vestige of the ancient order of deacons-. that order upon which, by apostolic decree, devolved the care of the poor, but which for centuries existed as an office in name only.
To assist churchwardens substantial householders designated “Overseers of the poor” were appointed. To these were added, in certain large towns,"collectors and governors of " the poor” (see 18th Elizabeth, cap. 3). It appears, however, that between the Justices of the Peace and the Overseers and Governors of the poor, the poor were so badly cared for in the reign of Charles I, that a commission under the great seal was issued " for putting in execution the laws for the “relief of the poor." So that the poor-law commissioners, of whom we have heard so much in our days, are not the first body of the kind known in England. They issued orders and directions which evinced much wisdom; but their own existence was temporary, and the abuses which they endea