Speenhamland System Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The county magistrates of Berkshire, England, modified an existing system to help poor farmworkers. They linked the amount of money given to the poor to the price of bread, so workers would automatically be given more money as bread became more expensive. Such “index-linking” schemes became widely adopted and remained in place until a new Poor Law was enacted in 1834.

Summary of Event

By the end of the eighteenth century, there had been a poor law in England since late in the reign of Elizabeth I (1601). A “poor law” is legislation designed to aid the poor, whether their poverty arises from disability, unemployment, or low wages. The Elizabethan Poor Law Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) raised money for such aid from local parish rates (taxes), which were supervised by local magistrates. [kw]Speenhamland System (May 6, 1795) Poverty and government Poor laws, England Agricultural Revolution;farmworkers [g]England;May 6, 1795: Speenhamland System[3210] [c]Economics;May 6, 1795: Speenhamland System[3210] [c]Agriculture;May 6, 1795: Speenhamland System[3210] [c]Government and politics;May 6, 1795: Speenhamland System[3210] [c]Social issues and reform;May 6, 1795: Speenhamland System[3210] Gilbert, Thomas Whitbread, Samuel Pitt, William, the Younger

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the system was beginning to break down in certain, mainly rural, areas. As a result of agricultural reforms, landowners were enclosing land, thereby preventing farmworkers from grazing animals on “common” land. Nor did all farmers supply their workers with housing that included yards in which animals could graze. From 1760 onward, the pace of enclosing land increased. It is reckoned that 95 percent of enclosure legislation injured the poor, as the increase in the number of completely landless laborers increased the level of poverty. Poverty was also exacerbated by increases in seasonal unemployment. Contemporary observers demonstrated that it was no longer possible for an agricultural worker to subsist on the wages he earned.

Some politicians, for example Member of Parliament Thomas Gilbert, saw the need to reform the Poor Law to take account of these changes. He had been a land agent for the second earl of Gower—the future marquess of Stafford and one of the nation’s wealthiest landowners—and he had seen for himself the effects of enclosure. In 1765, he began a campaign for the better organization of parish relief and for more accountable oversight. His efforts were consistently defeated until 1782, when he introduced three bills into Parliament. The first two bills passed and became law, enabling local parishes to supplement low wages from the rates and to create work for the unemployed. Infirm paupers were to be kept in workhouses. Guardians were to be appointed to administer relief.

The Gilbert Act Gilbert Act (1782) helped the British poverty level, but it did not fix a national system of supplementing income. In the north of England, agricultural workers were paid better than in the south or the Midlands, because there was a shortage of such workers in that area. The Industrial Revolution was beginning, and the mills and factories that had begun springing up and draining the potential labor pool were centered in the north. Industrial rates of pay were typically higher than rural wages, so northern farms had to increase their wages to compete. Elsewhere, though, wages were kept low, despite the beginnings of the Napoleonic Wars in 1793 and a series of bad harvests, which drove up food prices. Taxation also rose sharply. Food riots occurred in 1795 to protest the growing disparity between wages and prices.

In the county of Berkshire in the south of England, eleven local magistrates—five landowners and six clergymen—met at the Pelican Inn in the village of Speen, near Newbury, on May 6, 1795, to consider the plight of the farmworkers and to discuss the problem of parish relief. They decided to set a standard for the amount of relief, or supplemental wages, to be paid to poor workers out of parish funds. They based their standard on the assumptions that a man consumed twenty-six pounds of bread per week and a woman or child consumed half that amount.

The magistrates agreed to fix the index at the cost of a “gallon loaf” of bread, that is, one weighing eight pounds and eleven ounces, made of second-grade-quality flour. Thus, if such a loaf cost one shilling, then each laborer in the county was to receive a total income of three shillings a week plus one and one-half shillings each for his wife and children. If the price of bread rose to one and one-half shillings per loaf, then the total minimum income would increase to four and one-quarter shillings per laborer and two shillings per dependent (wife or child). The difference between a worker’s actual income and his minimum permissible income according to the index was to be paid to each household from money raised through the parish rates.

This payment of supplemental wages based on the price of bread came to be known as the Speenhamland system. It was a practical solution arrived at by local authorities, not a piece of legislation, and there were other systems already in practice elsewhere in England. Indeed, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger opposed any further government intervention in the form of national poor laws or wage regulation. In 1796, Samuel Whitbread, the son of a millionaire brewer, attempted to introduce a parliamentary measure for a minimum national wage, and it failed in the face of Pitt’s opposition. In the absence of such a national measure, most parishes in the south and the Midlands of England quickly adopted the Speenhamland system.

The system did not prevent further unrest: Food riots took place in 1796, 1800, and 1801. Moreover, larger landowners tended to profit by the system. Although they contributed more to the rates, their workers also received more from them. Smaller farmers had less need of laborers, but they still had to contribute substantially to the parish rates. For example, a farmer in 1816 holding three hundred acres of land had to pay £380 per annum in rates and taxes, plus one-tenth of his income as a tithe to the Anglican Church. A number of smaller farmers went bankrupt.

The price of wheat fluctuated enormously as a result of poor harvests and the wars, rising from a little more than fifty-two shillings per quarter in 1794 to 119.5 shillings per quarter in 1801. The restrictive Corn Laws of 1791, 1804, and 1815 kept the price of wheat high, so the Speenhamland system became increasingly difficult to budget for and expensive to operate. Farmers refused by and large to raise wages. A typical farm laborer’s wage was twenty-six pounds per annum (ten shillings per week), while women and children would only receive five shillings and three and one-half shillings per week, respectively. After the Napoleonic Wars, taxes shifted from direct to indirect, so the tax burden fell disproportionately on the poor, as many necessary items for living came to be taxed. In the 1830’s, a series of riots called the Swing Riots broke out in the southern counties, as living conditions there deteriorated even further.

Significance

The success of the Speenhamland system is hard to assess. Some social historians believe it worked against the working classes Working class;and poor laws[poor laws] by keeping wages low, by demoralizing them, and by keeping them dependent upon handouts. Under the system, however hard a man worked, he ended up receiving the same amount of money each week. Other historians, however, believe the Speenhamland system prevented starvation and revolution in a time of massive social change and in fact acted in the same way as a minimum wage.

During the period in question, there was a change away from the eighteenth century philosophy of patronage and humanitarian duty on the part of the landowning classes to a nineteenth century philosophy of laissez-faire economics. Proponents of the new economics suggested that the Speenhamland system encouraged large families and thus rural overpopulation, while it prevented market forces from operating properly. There was general contemporary agreement that if the laboring classes were not kept fractionally above the starvation level, they would not work hard. Even enlightened reformers like William Wilberforce subscribed to such views. Thus, ideological opposition to the system grew.

In addition to theoretical and philosophical opposition, there was growing dissatisfaction with the system on a practical level. The amount spent nationally on poor law relief was growing dramatically. For example, in 1784, £2 million was spent annually; by 1813 this figure was £6.5 million; and in 1818 it had reached £8 million. The result was that in 1832 a royal commission was set up to look into the workings of the Poor Law, under the able direction of Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick. The commission’s eight-thousand-page report was published in 1834, and in that year Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) setting up a nationally administered system and bringing the Speenhamland system to an end. Thus, the system could best be seen as an evolutionary transition in social reform, as local parishes moved to take action in an arena that would later be seen as the necessary purview of the nation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyer, George R. An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A very full account of the old and new poor laws, fully indexed. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chambers, J. D., and G. E. Mingay. The Agricultural Revolution, 1750-1880. London: B. T. Batsford, 1966. Links the plight and fortunes of agricultural workers with wider aspects of the Agricultural Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, J. L., and Barbara Hammond. The Village Labourer, 1760-1832. Reprint. London: Longmans, 1978. One of a classic series of studies on the British working classes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, J. D. The Old Poor Law, 1795-1834. New York: Macmillan, 1968. The fullest study of the fortunes of the Speenhamland system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neeson, J. M. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Focuses on the effect of the various enclosure acts. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rule, John. The Vital Century: England’s Developing Economy, 1714-1815. New York: Longman, 1992. Sets the system in the wider context of English economic history. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snell, K. D. M. Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A full and modern overall history of the agricultural worker. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. 2d ed. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982. Argues the disadvantages of the Speenhamland system.

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