Operation of the Poor Laws - 1834

by Jon Malings

From Jackson's Oxford Journal, April 26th 1834

First Report of D. O. P. Okeden, Esq.



Copied from the Appendix to the Reports on the Poor Laws

just laid before Parliament 

My Lords and Gentlemen, 

   I beg leave to submit to you my Report on the practical operation of the Poor Laws in that part of Oxfordshire west of the Great Canal.  In conformity with your instructions, I have always attended the Petty Sessions, or have convened a meeting of the Magistrates and Overseers of the division.  About 24 years ago the payment of head money, by a scale, was introduced into all these divisions, and continues in full operation with all its varieties of roundsmen, billet system, &c. &c. The Magistrates decide upon the sum, which is in their opinion necessary, for the support of a man and his wife and children, and by a scale order the Overseers to make up the man’s low wages to that sum from the parish. This scale system is so complete that the history of one of the parishes is, in fact, the history of all.  I will, therefore, lay before you a general statement of the working of this scale process throughout the western divisions of the county of Oxford. 

   There is a trifling variation in the scale in some districts, but so small as hardly to deserve notice.  One system, therefore, pervades all the districts, and all the parishes are governed precisely in the same form, only varying at times from the better or worse management of the Overseers.  The results of this system (of its illegality I need not speak) are now become apparent.  The first and most prominent is that from neglect of single men, and the lower place to which they have been and are forced on the scale, a series of early marriages has ensued, for the avowed purpose of increasing income, until a generation of superfluous labourers has risen up, all demanding work or pay from the scale.  If this system continues, in ten years more another generation will be hastening on.  The present race, which this illegal perversion of the poor laws has created, are playing the game of cunning with the Magistrates and Overseers; give them ten years and they will convert it into the dreadful game of force.  My humble opinion is, that if some measure be not adopted to arrest the progress of the evil, a fearful and bloody contest must ensue.  But, besides the first result of this scale system, namely, the creation of a generation of superfluous labourers, two others accompany it: one is the equalization of industry and idleness—the other that of honesty and dishonesty.  I asked every Overseer of the hundred and four parishes, the condition of which I investigated, whether due regard was paid to character and industry, in granting relief?  Every one openly and shamelessly avowed that no attention was paid to either; but that all were relieved according to the scale.  I put the strongest possible case, that of a man who, by repeated thefts and rogueries, had actually flung himself out of employ, so that no farmer would permit him to enter his premises; the answer was still the same, “We should relieve him and his family from the scale.”  The odium of the part of the scale process the Overseers seem inclined to fling on the Magistrates, and I believe with reason.

   So much for the placing honesty and knavery on a level.  With regard to the equalization of industry and idleness—when the honest industrious labourer sees by his side on the road or in the field a notoriously lazy fellow, dawdling over his work, what must be the consequences?  He reasons the case over in his mind, finds that his idle companion, with the deduction of only two-pence a day, receives as much as himself, and of course he relaxes in his work; and indifference and lazyness succeed to vigour and industry.  The industry of the labourers is every where decidedly diminished; agricultural capital is on the wane; parochial relief is always given in money.  Loans to the poor under 59 Geo. IlI. ch. 12, sec. 29, are almost unknown.  I met with one instance where the practice was tried and failed, as few repayrnents took place.  The allowance on bastardy orders throughout the districts I have visited in Oxfordshire, in general, is 1s. 6d. for laborers per week.  The annual loss of every parish on those orders, I never found less than one half.  I must say, however, that I never witnessed any neglect equal to that of the Oxfordshire Overseers, in demanding the bastard money of the fathers.  The demands are rarely made more than twice a year, at Midsummer and Christmas.  Select Vestries are rare.  Assistant Overseers are generally appointed, whose salaries vary according to the site of the parish and number of inhabitants, from £20 per annum to £80.  I consider an Assistant Overseer indispensable in a large parish.  Poor-houses or work-houses are very rare. What used to be a workhouse is now only a collection of parish houses, under one roof, for the lodging of the aged poor, and a few bastard or orphan children.  Some times they are fed and clothed by the parish, at the average rate of 3s. 10d. for food, clothing, and bedding, the week, or 2s. 4d. for food only.  I have universally found the parish accounts, though ill arranged, simply, regularly, and methodically kept.  A page has been given to the usual expence, and another to extras; the receipts of rates, bastard money, &c. have all been brought up and balanced in a very business-like manner at the close of the year.

   A custom prevails in these districts very burdensome to parishes, and of which I never heard before.  The Overseers make a regular charge for attending every Petty Sessions, which amounts some times to 11s. for one attendance. 

   The present wages may, throughout all the districts, be averaged at 9s per week.  In harvest a hard-working man will gain by piece-work 10s. per week, and beer and bread and cheese.  The servants are frequently changed from a fear of establishing a settlement.  I think the special constables may be depended on in the towns.  In the villages the regular constables are represented as a bad set of men.  There is a full and efficient yeomanry.  Emigration is not common.  I will notice the places where it has been practised.  Cottage rents are on an average from £2 10s. to £3 per annum.  None belong to the poor.  The rents are often paid by the parish.

   Having now finished my general remarks on those districts have visited, I will proceed to make particular places, which, while they state a fact, will throw some light on the general working of the scale system.  I must add that the Poor Rates of every parish are steadily and invariably on the increase.  The average on the rack rent is about 6s. in the pound. 

   At the parish of Boddicot, in the district of Bloxham, a printed form is given to those who apply for work.  The labourer takes this to the farmers in succession, who, if they do not want his labour, sign their names.  The man, on his return, receives from the Overseer the day’s pay of an industrious labourer with the deduction of twopence.  The same system takes place in other parishes.  In the parish of Sibford Gower, in the same district, where the Poor Rates are under £650 per annum, £114 was paid last year in six months to men who did not strike one stroke of work for it.

   At Deddington, during the seven winter months, about 60 men apply every morning to the Overseer for work or pay.  He ranges them under a shed in a yard.  If a farmer, or any one else wants a man, he sends to the yard for one, and pays half the day’s wages; the rest is paid by the parish. At the close of the day the unemployed are paid the wages of the day, minus twopence.  I could multiply instances of this application of the scale to the superfluous labourers, but to do so would only waste your time. 

   Emigration has taken place from a few parishes.  The largest number went about six years ago from the parish of Hook-Norton; it consisted of about 175 persons, reckoning the men, women, and children : it answered well.  About five returned; the rest remain, and write word that they are quite contented.  Deddington sent to North America about 50 last year, but their fate was melancholy, and damped the spirit of emigration in the district. They formed a part of the crew of the Brutus, of Liverpool, the major part of whom died of cholera.  A few have been sent as emigrants from different parishes at the expense of individuals who posses the parish; and, upon the whole, there appears no disinclination to the emigration system.

   I need not to you, my Lords and Gentlemen, offer any more suggestions on the scale system.  In these districts it is so perfectly organized, that the poor regards its allowance as a right; and it is called sometimes “the county allowance,” sometimes “the Government allowance,” some “the Act of Parliament allowance,” and always “our income.” 

   No effort has been made to got rid of the scale.  Its whole train of evils is occasionally palliated by the active intelligence of some resident Clergyman or landholder, and by none more than by the Rev. W. Gordon, in his parish of Dunstew.  I should say that throughout the whole of the divisions the paupers overawed both the Magistrates and Overseers; and that the latter, from fear, endeavoured to put upon the former all the odium of such refusals as they found it necessary to give to applications.   Hence arises one constant interference of Magisterial interference with the making up of wages from the Rates. 

   I now submit to you my report on that part of Oxfordshire west of the Great Canal.  I hope soon to lay before you a report on the part of Wiltshire, entrusted to my investigation; and when I make my final report, which will comprehend the county of Dorset, I shall presume to offer to you a few general observations, which I hope may not be wholly undeserving of your consideration. 

   I have the honor, &c. &c. 

       D. O. P. OKEDEN.