In 1601, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an "Act for the
Relief of the Poor" was passed, which required every parish to levy
local taxes for poor relief. If their parents could not support them,
children over the age of seven were to be put out to work as
"apprentices". All able-bodied men could be compelled to work
and freedom of movement from place to place was removed.
It may surprise many readers to know that the men and women returning
home after the end of World War 2 in 1945 found their countrymen
still subject to the same Act of Parliament. It had been amended in small details over
the centuries but its effect was much the same as in the original
version and it was not until 1950
that it was finally repealed.
There are plenty of people still alive who remember the old
Workhouses and the stigma attached to those who were forced to go to
live there. But the Union Workhouses were not the beginning and they
were not the worst of the shelter provided for the sick and the needy -
before them came Poor Houses.
The winters of the early 1830s had some of the severest weather ever
recorded in the British Isles. After the Christmas break during one of
these winters, a family of four - man, woman and two children - were
discovered dead in a village Poor House. They were all naked, having
sold the last of their clothing for bread just before the holiday; they
had no fuel and the building had no windows or doors - four starving
people had frozen to death. For the agricultural labourer, these were
extremely hard years and the villagers charged with caring for this
hapless family were little better off themselves but public conscience
was at last stirred into some activity; parishes were amalgamated into
Unions and funding was provided from central sources so that this could
never happen again.