restricted access The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, 1620–1730 by Jonathan Healey (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Healey. The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, 1620–1730. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2014. xvi + 319 pp. ISBN 978-1-84383-956-9, $29.95 (paper).

The stories are sad, even startling: the wife whose husband absconded, having sold the property from under her; the lame petitioner alone and unable to rise from a bed that had become sour from his soiling; the blind elderly couple who raised children to care for them in the difficulties of old age, now abandoned. These are some of the accounts found in Jonathan Healey's examination of the "first century of welfare" in Lancashire from 1620–1730. They are from those seeking support under the national system of poor relief established near the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1598–1601). Healey's study is explicitly not a "top-down" analysis of the Old Poor Law and its administration, a subject that has already produced a lively historiography. Instead, he has written a "history from below" recovered largely from 3,169 Quarter Sessions petitions by paupers in Lancashire who appealed the denial of relief by their localities. Their cases, filtered through the hands of scribes and legal convention, describe the struggle of paupers who lost their footing in the hurly-burly of economic life. Throughout the book, Healey uses both qualitative and quantitative evidence to explain why some of the poor fell into destitution, arguing for the convergence of two factors. The first was structural: the existence of a stratum of the poor who were at risk because they had only minimal savings. These marginal households or individuals might ordinarily "make shift" in various ways described in the book until they experienced adversities such as a serious disability, accident, or economic dislocation that would leave them destitute and in need of poor relief (25–26).

While making these arguments, The First Century of Welfare investigates several key problems in the social history of the poor that have been established by Keith Wrightson, Steve Hindle, Steven King, Craig Muldrew, and others. In particular, the book presents a more detailed examination of the life cycle challenges of the poor than family reconstitution methods have permitted. The "bottom-up" perspective also illuminates the much-discussed early modern makeshift economy. This involved ad hoc means, including temporary work, cottage gardens, and kin networks, by which many of the poor gathered and husbanded enough resources to survive. Finally, Healey is able to contribute to the historiography on the micropolitics of poor relief, continuing to qualify the interpretation of the Poor Law as an instrument of "social control" over vagrants and the impoverished (24). While Samantha Williams and others have explored these problems for southern England, [End Page 470] Healey adds a welcome northern perspective on the economic context within which the Poor Law was experienced.

The book has a clear, tripartite structure. The opening section establishes the geographic and institutional contexts beginning with a survey of Lancashire, a county palatine in northwest England of vast moorlands and thin populations. Long one of the poorer regions of England, Lancashire was rising as a center of economic dynamism in the eighteenth century as Manchester and Liverpool emerged as leading cities of the Industrial Revolution. In this section, Healey also contributes an analysis of the workings of the system of poor relief in the county and examines the process of local negotiation between large parishes and smaller townships over administration. The micropolitics of petitioning are also discussed from the perspective of the poor themselves, who turned to the Quarter Sessions magistrates after being rebuffed by their townships and constructed their appeals to garner sympathy. Healey reports that petitioners rarely went away empty-handed.

The second section delves deeper into the experiences of the marginal poor. Their economic existence was particularly fraught with uncertainty as they "made shift" in order to survive. Only after all their other resources, including sympathetic neighbors and kin, were exhausted did individuals find themselves destitute and forced by necessity to seek poor relief. Healey sharpens the outlines of this group with an analysis of the demographic composition of paupers petitioning for poor relief. Surprisingly, for example...