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Response to Review of Poverty, Gender and Life-Cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760-1834

In her review Shave argues that ‘what Campton adds beyond nuance and methodological inspiration to the regional, let alone, national, understanding of poor law practice, policy and effects is illusive’. Yet I believe that links between parish, region and nation are clearly made. Campton-with-Shefford was chosen for the comparisons that could be drawn out – and the differences are documented in the book – between the rural, agricultural community of Campton and the contiguous market town of Shefford. Furthermore, these communities were embedded within two broader ‘regions’. The first was the large and overlapping areas dominated by the trades of lace-making and straw-plaiting, which encompassed the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Essex and Suffolk. The second region was that of the ‘Speenhamland counties’ identified and mapped by Mark Blaug using evidence from the 1824 Select Committee on Labourers’ Wages. It was believed by contemporaries and recent economic historians to be one of those counties supplementing liberally the inadequate wages of labourers in line with their family size and/or the price of bread or, indeed, replacing the wages of the unemployed entirely with parish allowances. The issue of Speenhamland links the parish and region to the nation and national politics. The Poor Law Commissioners were obsessed with able-bodied labourers and used evidence of such ‘abuses’ of the system to re-write poor law policy in 1834 in an attempt to direct local practice thereafter. Their understanding of ‘national poor law practice’ under the old poor law, however imperfect, had radical implications for national poor law legislation in the form of the Poor Law Amendment Act. The book also engages with ‘national’ intellectual understandings of poverty put forward by Thomas Malthus, who was of profound significance and whose influence pervades the Poor Law Report, Bill and Act. Indeed, according to Blaug, this was the generation ‘drunk on Malthusian wine’. One of the most important findings of my research is that a ‘system’ of allowances is yet another myth of the old poor law. Shave states that ‘it is now realised that such systems were commonly used to allocate relief by parish officials throughout the midlands and south of England’, but my book finds that allowances were not commonly used in Campton and Shefford. If only sporadic evidence of Speenhamland can be located in a hard core ‘Speenhamland county’, then how useful is this concept? Family allowances could not be driving population growth and were not responsible for escalating expenditure. Instead, the bulk of expenditure went to the elderly and female-headed households. Local and national politics are linked yet again in Campton and Shefford in the form of Samuel Whitbread, who was JP of the locality, MP for Bedford Borough, and prominent at Westminster. Furthermore, he was in direct, and oppositional, correspondence with Malthus. Whitbread used his experience of locality to inform his wider agenda on national reform.

Shave finds the approach – of linkage between poor law account books, ratepayer books and family reconstitution in order to recover the actual family circumstances of paupers and ratepayers (thereby generating 90,000 records and creating over 1,000 pauper biographies, of weekly payments for almost 70 years) – ‘far from novel’. Yet the distinctiveness of this approach has broader implications for our understanding of the life-cycle and life-course aspects of poverty, and ratepaying, which cannot be extracted or measured through any other means. Shave argues that ‘the proportion of the Bedfordshire population receiving any form of relief [10 per cent] was, compared to other southern and eastern counties, relatively low’, yet the purpose of this research was to also reveal the ‘hidden dependants’ of recipients and such an exercise (only possible with this approach) shows that up to 46.2 per cent of the population, or 63.8 per cent of families, could be beneficiaries of poor relief at particular moments of hardship (p. 54). Such an approach requires work at the level of the local community which is time-consuming and exacting. This is certainly microcosmic to use Postan's famous term. The historians who awarded an early version of this work the Economic History Society’s T. S. Ashton Prize must have thought that it is indeed possible to ‘extrapolate conclusions from the study of one parish’.

Quite clearly the findings from Campton and Shefford cannot be extrapolated to all 15,000 old poor law parish administrations. But they do have implications beyond the parish bounds – upon wider, overlapping and differing notions of region, upon contemporaries’ and historians’ notions of prevalent poor law practice, upon the links between locality and national politics and, indeed, the very ‘creation’ of Westminster politics and the poor law reform agenda.