In doing a course on line from Cambridge about Queen Elizabeth I, I had occasion to look at Elizabethan poor laws. This led me to put on the following note.
‘This woman (Queen Elizabeth I) for me stands for leadership and tolerance. The first is in very short supply, and the second was brutally attacked in various parts of the world (including mine) last year. The other thing that struck me again was how much more rigorous was the education provided back then to those who would prefer to watch Shakespeare than to read Phantom comics or watch Days of Our Lives. (That last comment really shows me as an old fogey.)
But I am now engaged in reading Dickens’ novels for the second time. I have just finished Bleak House again, and I recalled that poor Jo appeared to die from poverty. The poor were always before Dickens. What about in the time of Queen Elizabeth I?
I recalled my amazement about thirty years ago when I was hearing tax cases, and I had to hear my first case about whether a body was a charity.
Where do I find the law on that?
If the tribunal pleases, you look to find the spirit and intendment of the preamble to a statute of Queen Elizabeth I.
The First Elizabeth? Are you serious?
Counsel was – the act is 43 Eliz. c 1 (1601). The act’s preamble contained a list of purposes or activities that the parliament believed were beneficial to society, and for which the nation wanted to encourage private contributions. That list then formed the foundation of the modern definition of charitable purposes, which was developed through case law. The ‘relief of the aged, impotent, and poor’ stand high in the list in the preamble. Poor Jo would have been a proper object of bounty.
I recalled this old law – which still very much underpins the relevant law where I live – when I was looking at what Lloyd George said in introducing the People’s Budget.
These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood, are problems with which it is the business of the state to deal.
Was he quite mad? Was he really saying that ‘it is the business of the state’ to deal with the sick and the unemployed? Had this little Welsh son of a cobbler forgotten what happened to the first man who said that the meek shall inherit the earth?
Well, Churchill and Lloyd George got the budget through, but only after persuading a reluctant king to threaten to create enough peers to force it through. The aristocracy thought that this move was revolutionary – and it may have looked like pure heresy across the Atlantic – but once again, the British aristocracy pulled back and avoided revolution – and kept itself alive.
But now I think it was not revolutionary to say that it was ‘the business of the state’ to deal with the poor. In my view, the English had come to that position more than three centuries ago. In the Oxford History of England (J B Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603, 2nd Ed., OUP, 1959, 265), I find this:
The official attitude to the whole fraternity of vagabonds had always been, and still was, one of fear driven ferocity: they were the true ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’ who ‘lick the sweat from labourers’ brows. But the impotent poor, the poor by casualty, who were poor ‘in very deed’, were acknowledged to be a charge on public benevolence.’ The vital question was what form this public maintenance should take. Slowly and painfully the state was being driven by the colossal dimensions of the problem to the conviction that responsibility in the matter could not be left to the conscience of the individual, but must be enforced by law on everyone.
The author points to a prior act of 1563 acknowledging the need for a compulsory levy for the maintenance of ‘impotent, aged, and needy persons.’
Now, these Elizabethan conceptions and laws do not look small to me now. We still have debates about vagabonds – often called ‘dole bludgers’ here – but it does look like some nations may now regret not having done enough for their ‘poor by casualty’ who, at least in the eyes of some, have recently succumbed to snake oil salesmen and false gods. The various categories of vagabonds of Elizabeth – or Dickens – still look familiar. They could be the leading lights of a major Australian political party. (You can raffle that one.)
But whatever else the Puritans took with them on the Mayflower, it was not the idea that the poor were acknowledged to be a charge on public benevolence. The Puritans were long on the individual and covenant, rather than on status, and they never let spirituality stand between them and Mammon. Never. The attitudes to the business that the state has with the sick and poor are very, very different in the U S compared to England, Europe or my country.
And the English and European response is not driven by Christian charity, but by a political view of the integrity of the community. Charity has been secularised – that is, made the business of the state. These laws were made in the light of hard experience, as is the English wont, and they cannot be upheld or cast down by the pronouncing of some theory or nostrum or label. And if you want to know one thing about Oz politics, it is that the simplest form of suicide here is for a politician to even hint at reducing health benefits or pensions, the ‘entitlements’ derided by those who won’t ever need them. Australians follow the English in distrusting theory and rejecting ideology. The question is simpler. What kind of community do you want to live in – one that stops to pick up those who have tripped up, or one that doesn’t?
So, a common historical stock can produce very different fruit. Perhaps it’s just as well, and inoculates us from boredom with changelessness. How you see it depends on where you stand. I am hopelessly prejudiced. I was born here and raised here. Last year I was diagnosed with an illness that is frequently terminal. After many rounds of tests, examinations, diagnoses and treatments from some of the best doctors, surgeons and technicians with the best facilities in the world, the issue is well under control and not life threatening. I have not seen anything like a bill – except for drugs – and I now suspect that that protection against becoming ‘poor by casualty’ goes back not just to the Welfare State, or to the People’s Budget, but to the poor laws and laws of charity and the good sense of the parliaments of Queen Elizabeth I.
I’m sorry this got so long, but you may sense some bêtes noires being aired.’
The tutor, Dr Andrew Lacey, reminded me that the Puritans thought that poverty was a sign of disfavour in the eye of God – how un-Christ like does that sound? – and that therefore the poor could therefor look after themselves. He also reminded me that the poor laws went backwards in Victorian England. Poor people were given no favours. They were more likely to be punished. That is why Dickens wrote so much about them, and why Lloyd George and Churchill were involved in a secular revolution. The governance of England was much more civilised about the poor in 1570 than it was in 1870.
The question is what kind of community do you want? And labels and ideologies – ‘nanny state’ or ‘socialism’ – are just so much bullshit. So is the old Left/Right distinction, or IPA nonsense about ‘soaking the rich.’ If you swallow that nonsense, does it follow that the poor must suffer to save the rich? And what kind of person allows ideology to kill kindness?
Judging by the homeless on our streets, our kindness level here is currently pitched somewhere between that of England at one time or other between 1570 and 1870.
Volume 2 of Passing Bull – Items 51 – 100 – is now available on Amazon Kindle.
The small man, being ignorant of the decree of heaven, does not stand in awe of it. He treats great men with insolence and the words of the sages with derision.