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  • Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780–1850 by Samantha A. Shave
  • Richard Smith
Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780–1850. By Samantha A. Shave (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017) 300 pp. $110.00

In this book, Shave advocates a re-emphasis of the need to invest more effort in understanding the administrative processes of the Old Poor Law's last fifty years and the New Poor Law's first twenty years (c. 1780–1850). She views scholars' recent focus on the experiences of those in receipt of poor relief, particularly that making exclusive use of overseers' accounts, as inclined to neglect what she terms the "policy process." She seeks to remedy this neglect through focused consideration, in Chapters 2 and 3, of two sets of enabling Acts of Parliament and their manner of adoption by parishes. The intent behind Thomas Gilbert's Act of 1782 was to move vulnerable sections of the population (children and the elderly) within those parishes that adopted it to a workhouse for employment while focusing outdoor relief on the able-bodied poor. The Sturges Bourne Act of 1819 permitted parishes to employ an assistant overseer to collect the poor rates and distribute relief and to appoint a select vestry to make policy decisions regarding relief to individual claimants.

Chapter 4 effectively focuses on the multiple ways in which parish officials before 1834 utilized local networks in the search for knowledge about how to administer these Acts, suggesting considerable "bottom up" involvement in the policy process. This chapter also highlights elements of similar procedures after 1834 in the Boards of Guardians and Assistant Commissioners; the more centralized and potentially top-down framework for policy implementation was constrained by local reactions and knowledge networks.

Chapter 5 treats two notorious scandals, both in the New Poor Law era. The one in Bridgewater Union specifically involved medical policy, and that in Andover Union involved workhouse employment practices in crushing animal bones to make fertilizer. In this chapter, Shave is at pains to emphasize how the New Poor Law policies that emerged subsequent to the scandals reflected both the accountability of local authorities to a [End Page 496] centralized welfare authority and the central welfare authority's accountability to the State.

Shave devoted her research to the agrarian counties in the south of England (Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, and West Sussex). Through this regional choice, she concludes that many more parishes, either individually or in unions, adopted Gilbert's Act than previously supposed. Furthermore, she reports that the manner in which individuals were accommodated in the workhouses that the Act created varied considerably. In many cases, the motivation for adoption of the Act was to reduce costs, particularly in phases with rising relief bills.

Certain of her conclusions about the effect of Gilbert's Act rest heavily on a detailed analysis of the Easebourne Union workhouse in West Sussex, formed (atypically) by sixteen participating parishes in 1792. Although children and the elderly formed the majority of the inhabitants, the number of males admitted between the ages of fifteen and fifty-nine (able-bodied?) surged in the years following the conclusion of the Napoleonic War, apparently reflecting a use for the workhouse hardly compatible with Gilbert's original aims. Shave argues that the increasing number of parishes appointing select vestries and hiring assistant overseers after 1819, during years of acute economic strain, suggests that the implementation of this particular legislation was not unlike that of other parish relief strategies under the Old Poor Law. She inclines to the view that these tendencies reveal much about the adopters' intentions, particularly in the case of the Sturges Bourne Act. The sharpening distinction that she perceives in select vestries after 1819 between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor further supports her contention that the adopters were looking to reduce expenditure on poor relief.

It is not always clear how well Shave's evidence represents policy per se as opposed to the mere recording of actions in vestry minutes or the admissions of individuals to workhouses. Readers may want to know more about the outcomes of policies, particularly given Shave's claim that many measures aimed at cutting costs. Parish...


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pp. 496-498
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