Cholesbury and the Poor Laws

Cholesbury has made its own, albeit modest, contribution to the social reforms of the country.

Background to the Poor Laws

As early as 1572 Elizabeth I imposed a national levy on local property owners to support the poor in their locality. Soon after, local parishes were required to find work for the poor in return for which they received what became known as ‘relief’. During the next 100 years up to one fifth of the population benefited at one time or other from this relief. Towards the end of the 18th century it was decreed by Parliament that local authorities should pay a minimum amount of relief to those in need. Over the next 25 years the level of tax on local property owners increased eight-fold and resulted in a growing sense of unfairness and refusals to pay up. Far worse the incentive to work diminished as the level of poor relief for the average labourer either exceeded wages or was paid as a supplement to wages. Idleness also led to widespread drunkenness, riots and destruction of property.

The impact on Cholesbury

In the early part of the 19th century life in the Chilterns, and in particular the villages which now fall within Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards, was particularly harsh. Farming was at a subsistence level and work for labourers was unpredictable and seasonal. Whilst in the summer for example, the brickyards in Buckland Common might provide work for some, in winter there would be little or no paid employment. Rents to property owners from these labourers went unpaid which impacted on the ability to pay the parish levy. In addition to local taxes landowners also had increased taxes to pay for the Napoleonic Wars.

The Cholesbury vestry (the parish council of the day), was responsible for levying a rate for property-holders which would go towards the ‘relief’ which the vestry also administered to the poor out of work labourers and destitute of the parish. But in the late 1820’s few owners of property could afford to contribute at the required rate. Although over the years such rates might raise between £60 and £200 per annum. Weekly pay-outs in the early 1830’s exceeded £6. Expenditure for the period June to the end of October 1832 was over £100, income collected by the overseer John Batchelor during this period was a mere £15.

The Parish faces bankruptcy

The consequence was that in November 1832 the village became unable to pay the relief and was in effect forced into bankruptcy. The Rev Henry Jeston the curate at the time lent the parish money but without support from neighbouring parishes e.g. Drayton Beauchamp and Aston Abbotts, the effect could have been even more severe.

Jeston is recorded as saying at the time that the impact of the poor laws was to create:

“… so much dependence and improvidence among them (the poor) that if, for a few weeks only, when the funds are exhausted, they are deprived of parish aid, they incur debts, and become behind with their rents… Thus a spirit of recklessness and dishonesty is promoted, detrimental to the moral character… I confess I now see no prospect whatever of the parish being relieved from its present degraded and impoverished state.”

It was however, much down to Jeston that over the following seven years that financial security was restored. Able-bodied labourers were given allotments of land from which they were able to pay rents out of the sale of produce.

The reform of the Poor Laws

One of the great social commentators and reformers of the 19th Century, Herbert Spencer, recorded how the plight of parishioners in Cholesbury influenced his thinking on how to improve the lot of the poor, particularly those living in rural areas. In 1884 he wrote how the Poor Law Commissioners took evidence from Rev Jeston which was included in their report to Parliament in 1833 on the inadequacy of ‘poor relief’.

The difficulties experienced by the parishioners of Cholesbury as reported by the Poor Law Commissioners of the time are summarised by Spencer[1] as follows,

“… At Cholesbury, in Buckinghamshire, in 1832, the poor-rate suddenly ceased in consequence of the impossibility to continue its collection, the landlords having given up their rents, the farmers their tenancies, and the clergyman his glebe and his tithes.

The clergyman, Mr Jeston, states that in October 1832, the parish officers threw up their books, and the poor assembled in a body before his door while he was in bed, asking for advice and food. Partly from his own small means, partly from the charity of neighbours, and partly by rates in aid, imposed on the neighbouring parishes, they were for some time supported.

… the benevolent rector recommends that the whole of the land should be divided among the able-bodied paupers: hoping that after help afforded for two years, they might be able to maintain themselves. These facts, giving colour to the prophecy made in Parliament that continuance of the old Poor Law for another thirty years would throw the land out of cultivation, clearly show that increase of public burdens may end in forced cultivation under public control.”

During the rest of the 19th Century successive Parliaments passed amendments which had the effect of reducing the incentive to receive relief. For those that remained destitute the law required their entry into the workhouse (as often described by Dickens) in return for the payment of relief. It was not until the early years of the 20th Century that the Poor Laws were repealed in favour of more socially enlightened legislation.

1] Extract from Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State written in 1884. Supplementary information from Hilltop Villages of the Chilterns by David and Joan Hay.