A BRIEF HISTORY OF POVERTY
By Tim Lambert
Poverty in the Middle Ages
Not much was written about poverty in the Middle Ages. The poor were not considered important. Much more was written about the rich and powerful.
However in the Middle Ages poverty was common. England was basically a subsistence economy where each village made most of the things it needed and most of the population were subsistence farmers. They grew as much food as their families needed (if they were lucky).
Surprisingly, perhaps, examining Medieval skeletons shows that most people had an adequate diet, except in times of famine.
However life must have been very hard for the disabled. There were many disabled beggars in Medieval towns.
The Church tried to help the poor. The Church taught that it was a Christian duty to give to the poor. In monasteries a monk called an almoner gave alms to the poor. However in the Middle Ages fearful poverty was an inescapable part of life.
The Church also ran the only hospitals in the Middle Ages.
The site of a Medieval hospital in Chichester
Things did improve after the Black Death of 1348-49. In England about one third of the population died. Afterwards there was a shortage of workers so wages rose. In the 15th century wage labourers were better off then in the 13th century.
Poverty in the 16th Century
With the rise in population during the 16th century jobs were not always easy to find. In Tudor times there were thousands of people without jobs wandering around looking for work. There were also disabled beggars. There were also people who pretended to be mad or disabled in order to beg. Tudor governments tolerated people who were disabled begging. However they did not tolerate able-bodied people without jobs wandering around. They saw such 'sturdy vagabonds' as a threat to law and order.
Since the 14th century there had been laws against vagabonds but in 1530 a new law was passed. The old and disabled poor were to be given licences to beg. However anyone roaming without a job was tied to a cart in the nearest market town and whipped till they were bloody. They were then forced to return to the parish where they had been born or where they had lived for the last 3 years.
A law of 1547 said vagabonds could be made slaves for 2 years. If he ran away during that time he was branded and made a slave for life. This terrible law was abolished in 1550.
Poverty in the 17th Century
At the end of the 17th century a writer estimated that half the population could afford to eat meat every day. In other words about 50% of the people were wealthy of at least reasonably well off. Below them about 30% of the population could afford to eat meat between 2 and 6 times a week. They were 'poor'. The bottom 20% could only eat meat once a week. They were very poor. At least part of the time they had to rely on poor relief.
By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for. The overseers were meant to provide work for the able-bodied poor. Anyone who refused to work was whipped and, after 1610, they could be placed in a house of correction. Pauper's children were sent to local employers to be apprentices.
A law of 1697 said that paupers (people supported by the parish) must wear a blue or red 'P' on their clothes.
On a more cheerful note in the 17th century in many towns wealthy people left money in their wills to provide almshouses where the poor could live.
17th century almshouses in Alton, Hampshire
Poverty in the 18th Century
In the 18th century probably half the population lived at subsistence or bare survival level.
In the early 18th century England suffered from gin drinking. It was cheap and it was sold everywhere as you did not need a license to sell it. Many people ruined their health by drinking gin. Yet for many poor people drinking gin was their only comfort. The situation improved after 1751 when a tax was imposed on gin.
In the 18th century craftsmen and labourers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.
However despite the improvements in farming methods during the 18th century food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them meat was a luxury. They lived mainly on bread, butter, potatoes and tea.
During the 18th century the Poor Law continued to operate. However a law of 1723 allowed parishes to build workhouses to house the destitute. Still conditions in 18th century workhouses were generally less harsh than in Victorian ones.
An 18th century Poor house in Petersfield, Hampshire
Poverty in the 19th Century
We know more about poverty in the 19th century than in previous ages because, for the first time, people did accurate surveys and they made detailed descriptions of the lives of the poor. We also have photographs and they tell a harrowing story.
The worst thing about poverty in the 19th century was the callous attitude of many Victorians. They were great believers in 'self-help'. That is they thought everyone should be self-reliant and not look to other people for help. They also believed that anyone could become successful through sheer hard work and thrift. Logically that meant that if you were poor it was your fault. Many Victorians (not all) felt that the poor were to blame for their poverty.
At the end of the 19th century more than 25% of the population was living at or below subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even basic necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness).
If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse. The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. In workhouses you could not wear your own clothes. You had to wear a uniform. Husbands and wives were separated and children were separated from their parents. Inmates had to do hard, unpleasant work such as breaking stones or pulling apart old rope. There were also many strict rules. However in the late 19th century workhouses gradually became a little bit more humane.
At the end of the 19th century attitudes to poverty were changing. In 1865 William Booth formed the Salvation Army, which did much good work among the poor (and still does). Also in some places in the 1890s teachers began providing poor children with a free breakfast of bread and jam and a mug of cocoa. (Maybe not a nourishing meal but better than nothing). Many poor children were malnourished and teachers realised it was no use trying to teach pupils who came to school hungry.
Furthermore in the 1890s boot funds were formed. The boot fund was a charity that provided free boots or shoes for poor children. (In the 19th century and early 20th century poor children often did not have footwear and just went barefoot).
It is horrific that so many people were very poor in Victorian Britain. However things had always been that way. In the 18th century perhaps half the population lived at subsistence level or below it. Before the 20th century dire poverty was accepted as a fact of life.
Poverty in the 20th Century
At the beginning of the 20th century surveys showed that 25% of the population were living in poverty. They found that at least 15% were living at subsistence level. They had just enough money for food, rent, fuel and clothes. They could not afford 'luxuries' such as newspapers or public transport. About 10% were living in below subsistence level and could not afford an adequate diet.
The surveys found that the main cause of poverty was low wages. The main cause of extreme poverty was the loss of the main breadwinner. If dad was dead, ill or unemployed it was a disaster. Mum might get a job but women were paid much lower wages than men.
Surveys also found that poverty tended to go in a cycle. Workers might live in poverty when they were children but things usually improved when they left work and found a job. However when they married and had children things would take a turn for the worse. Their wages might be enough to support a single man comfortably but not enough to support a wife and children too. However when the children grew old enough to work things would improve again. Finally, when he was old a worker might find it hard to find work, except the most low paid kind and be driven into poverty again.
In 1900 some women made their underwear from bags that grocers kept rice or flour in. Poor children often did not wear underwear. Some poor families made prams from orange boxes.
A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and they made some reforms. From that year poor children were given free school meals. In January 1909 the first old age pensions were paid. They were hardly generous - only 5 shillings a week, which was a paltry sum even in those days and they were only paid to people over 70. Nevertheless it was a start.
Also in 1909 the government formed wages councils. In those days some people worked in the so-called 'sweated industries' such as making clothes and they were very poorly paid and had to work extremely long hours just to survive. The wages councils set minimum pay levels for certain industries.
In 1910 the first labour exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up.
Then in 1911 the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefit for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. In 1920 unemployment benefit was extended to most workers although it was not extended to agricultural workers until 1936.
Things greatly improved after the First World War. A survey in 1924 showed that 4% of the population were living in extreme poverty. (A tremendous improvement from the period before 1914 when it was about 10%). A survey in Liverpool in 1928 found that 14% of the population were living at bare subsistence level. (That figure may not apply to the whole of Britain as Liverpool was a poor city). In 1929-30 a survey in London found that about 10% of the population were living at subsistence level.
A survey in 1936 found that just under 4% were living at bare survival level. Poverty had by no means disappeared by the 1930s but it was much less than ever before.
Pensions and unemployment benefit were made more generous in 1928 and in 1930. In 1931 unemployment benefit was cut by 10% but it was restored in 1934. Furthermore prices continued to fall during the 1930s. By 1935 a man on the 'dole' was about as well off as a skilled worker in 1905, a measure of how much living standards had risen.
However even in the 1920s in the poorest areas children played barefoot because they couldn't afford boots or shoes. There was a charity called the Boot Fund which provided shoes for poor children and by the end of that decade children normally wore them.
Even so in 1939 many children from cities were evacuated to the countryside to be safe from bombing. Many of them had never seen the countryside before. Worse some of them were used to sleeping in their parents bed or even under it. Some poor children were not used to sleeping in a bed at all.
After 1945 things improved when child benefit was introduced. By 1950 absolute poverty had almost disappeared from Britain. Absolute poverty can be defined as not having enough money to eat an adequate diet or afford enough clothes.
However there is also such a thing as relative poverty, when you cannot afford the things most people have. Relative poverty in the late 20th century and it increased in the 1980s. That was partly due to mass unemployment and partly due to a huge rise in the number of single parent families, who often lived on benefits. During the 1980s the gap between rich and poor increased as the well off benefited from tax cuts.
A timeline of poverty in the UK
A history of rich people
A history of unemployment
A history of English Society
Last revised 2012