There was no concern at all in Regency Britain about people being poor; it was considered a natural state. Poverty encouraged social order – it was believed that people could escape the worst of their condition by sobriety, obedience and constant hard work. People could be as poor as they could bear, and they were obliged by God to bear it. It only became a problem when the people became indigent – unable to survive without help. The key question was, and perhaps is; how do we help the poor, and who gets that help?
The first principle in the Regency was the simple, brutal, and universally held belief that the lower orders in their natural state were idle, would not work at all if they could get away with it, and would do something far worse if they had the spare time. William Hutton, a dissenting bookseller from Birmingham and no particular enemy of the poor, put this comment in his diary (1795): If a man can support his family with 3 days of labour, he will not work six … “If the body is unemployed, it becomes a nursery of disease. If the mind is unemployed, a languor commences, and a man becomes a burthen to himself “.
All attempts to alleviate the poor had this idea in the forefront. Idleness was far more dangerous than poverty. That’s why it was though the a cure for poverty was to encourage the poor to save. During the Regency period there was a rush of new saving banks for the poor, usually run by the rich charitable gentry of the town. This may seem to us to be a paradox; one strong definition of poverty is that it involves having no money. So how could they save?
We need a Regency view of the poor to answer this question. The second principle was to avoid giving the poor money; they would waste it. A correspondent to Stamford Mercury in 1816, says no to “ pecuniary aid”
The legal claim of the poor to support from the parish was an encouragement to bad habits. These bad habits that lead to poverty. Poor habits are further encouraged by the certainty of aid and the poor become unthankful. It is, therefore, the bad habits that are the root of poverty, and the poor continuing to drink, smoke and try to live a life while poor is a moral weakness. The correspondent is correct that the number of people on poor relief had reached a crisis level in 1816, but the real roots of poverty are ignored- high bread prices due to protectionist trade policies, a fall in government spending after the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of income tax for higher earners and the imposition of austerity to pay the £800million national debt.
So the root causes of poverty were moral weakness; not just gin and beer but the belief that the poor were naturally idle; and only the danger of starvation kept them working.
The role of the savings bank was to encourage “industry, economy and sobriety” and allow the surplus created by good habits to be banked. In times of good employment, money should be saved for the bad times to come. Most workers, it suggested, could save 2 shillings a week if they behaved better. A Manchester weaver would be earning 10 shillings a week, so even a paragon of virtue would be unlikely to achieve this.
A new Act was passed in 1816 to promote savings banks and therefore keep people away from the Poor Law. All the MPs seem to have an anecdote about a poor person they knew who had the necessary good habits. One MP said this;
Many of the banks set up would include the word “INDUSTRIOUS “ in the title and appeal to young unmarried men; many opened on Saturday night, or the normal day of payment of wages, to stop the money being spent in the public house. Another real advantage of the savings banks is that the proceeds were held in Bank of England notes and other securities, while the poor who had savings were likely to hoard £1 or £2 notes from their local bank. If these went broke, their hard-earned savings became worthless pieces of paper.
Many of the establishment tried to dissuade the poor from joining Friendly Societies, which seem at first glance to do the same as the Savings Banks-but the charitable gentlemen found unsettling differences. Firstly, the Friendly Societies often had some imput from the poor themselves; they would often meet in public houses. Some Friendly Societies members drank too much beer; and the fact that some societies had rules about how many drinks you could have “ proved” that they were irresponsible, although exactly the opposite case could be made.
Friendly societies also had a fixed subscription that could not be altered upward if the poor person was doing well and wanted to save more -the savings bank was a vehicle for individual advancement while the Societies were a collective help organisation, so much so that many the of the ruling class( rightly) thought that they were really Trade Unions. Savings banks were not designed to solve the general problem of poverty; they were designed to solve the problems of the deserving individual.
The Friendly Society would support people who were out of employment, thus, the words of the Stamford Mercury correspondent “the discharged workmen had been enabled in nearly all cases to carry out their unjustifiable demands”.
Some of the comments about the Societies were reasonable; unlike the payment of interest, the payment of benefits for unemployment, illness and death were not predictable and could lead to the bankruptcy of the organisation- but his was due to the precariousness of the life of the poor when faced with economic changes that nobody could influence. This was this cause of poverty that the rich refused to acknowledge.
One form of moral weakness was the “improvident marriage” (literally a marriage that had not been adequately provided for). This moral weakness becomes financial when children were produced. You were meant to save before marriage; newspaper correspondents suggested that if you save from the age of 10 ( the start of the working life in the Regency) you might be able to marry around 25. The real average of first marriage for a man was a little higher than this (about 28)and was done without the unrealistic level of savings suggested by well healed men writing to newspapers.
Some things have not changed in 200 years. We still seem fixated on solving poverty for the individual “deserving poor”; we blame poverty on morality, not economics; and we do not deal with the causes because we still (mostly) believe that poverty is still a natural state……
More like this in my new book-all different material. but with the same philosophy!
Three minute YouTube Video
One thought on “The Regency View of the Poor. How much has changed?”
I enjoyed your article. It reminds me of Samuel Johnson’s “Idleness: An Anxious and Miserable State” in which he states, “There is nothing more common among this torpid generation than murmurs and complaints; murmurs at uneasiness which only vacancy and suspicion expose them to feel, and complaints of distresses which it is in their own power to remove.” Though Johnson takes aim at all idlers, one can easily see how this attitude influences social policy. I agree with you that this view is too much with us even today.