Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 11. The Problem of Pauperism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 11. The Problem of Pauperism

In the Elizabethan period, attempts were also made to substitute public organisation for private benevolence in the relief of the poor. By seeking to take over the care of the poor, the state may be said to have condemned the spasmodic efforts of personal charity as insufficient, and to have attempted organised relief which rendered them unnecessary. The problem of pauperism had assumed enormous proportions both in town and country, in the early part of the sixteenth century; and the dissolution of the monasteries and the breaking up of religious houses had, at all events, helped to render the evil more patent. The Supplication for the beggars is an instructive picture of the variety of mendicants who were to be met with before affairs reached their worst. The drastic measures of Edward VI were insufficient; but it appears that the administration of Elizabethan laws, coupled with the efforts that were made to introduce new industries, and especially with the wide diffusion of spinning as a domestic art, caused an enormous improvement in many parts of the country before the civil war broke out. There is much interesting writing in this period on the causes of poverty and on the best means of meeting it. We hear both from Devonshire and Wiltshire of fluctuations in the clothing trade as the main causes of distress, while there was also a tendency to attribute it to the introduction of pasture farming and the enclosure of commons; others urged that the squatters on the commons were the most usual source of mischief, and that greater stringency in dealing with them was essential if the problem was to be tackled. The charitable spirit, indeed, was not dead, and, during the early part of the seventeenth century, a very large number of parochial benefactions were founded for the teaching of children, for apprenticing boys or enabling them to start in business and for the care of the aged. But, on the whole, the relief of the poor was coming to be thought of more and more as a duty that was to be exercised through public channels and not by personal gifts. How far this machinery could have continued to serve its purpose may be doubtful; but, at all events, the disorder which was caused by the outbreak of the civil war put an end to the centralisation on which its efficiency depended; many years were to elapse, and many local abuses to arise, before the various factors could be once more co-ordinated in the pursuit of a common policy throughout the realm.