In 1834 parliament passed the infamous Poor Law Amendment Act. Historians have debated the causes and impact of this piece of legislation for decades but few would argue that it was either popular or beneficial to the poor. It established the principle that anyone seeking relief from poverty should enter the workhouse, thereby deterring all but the most desperate from applying.
Its intention was therefore partly to deter idleness and encourage thrift but also to protect the pockets of the middle class ratepayers who paid for poor relief.
The act is a long document; running to 110 clauses it would bear comparison with a modern EU directive for its complexity and attention to detail. Amongst its stipulations is this one, number 57 which reads:
And be it further enacted, That every Man who from and after the passing of this Act shall marry a Woman having a Child or Children at the Time of such Marriage, whether such Child or Children be legitimate or illegitimate, shall be liable to maintain such Child or Children as a Part of his Family, and shall be chargeable with all Relief, or the Cost Price thereof, granted to or on account of such Child or Children until such Child or Children shall respectively attain the Age of Sixteen, or until the Death of the Mother of such Child or Children ; and such Child or Children shall, for the Purposes of this Act, be deemed a Part of such Husband’s Family accordingly.
This might seem fairly uncontroversial; a man was to take on the responsibilities of looking after the children of the woman he’d married if she’d had them before he married her.
What is interesting is that is seems that poor law unions were practising a form of cost-cutting in the years before and after the new Poor Law that involved persuading local men to marry mothers whose children had fallen chargeable to the parish. Moreover, this ‘persuasion’ involved a cash incentive it seems, as this case from the Guildhall Police Court in the City shows.
An unnamed ‘young man’ came to the court to ask Sir Chapman Marshall’s advice. He explained to the alderman magistrate that he had been asked by the beadle of St Bartholomew the Great to marry a young woman who had become ‘burdensome’ to the parish.
He alleged that the parish official had promised him £5 if he married the girl and said that as soon as he produced the certificate proving the union he would get his money, a sort of parochial dowry so to speak. The beadle visited the newlyweds and pressed a paper bill into the bride’s hand, insisting that she didn’t look at it until he had left. When the note was examined the couple were disappointed to discover that it was for £2 10s, just half the amount that had been promised.
As a result the unhappy groom had approached the magistracy seeking a summons to bring the beadle to book for his dishonesty and breach of contract. The paper made a point of saying that the ‘amendments of the poor laws have not removed the incitements to bring about pauper marriages’, and clearly disapproved of the practice.
Sir Chapman presumed that the young man was the father of the child anyway, but this was refused. No, the infant’s father was dead he was told, and it ‘belonged’ (all paupers belonged in the 1800s) not to St Bart’s but to Shoreditch, which lay outside of the City. The man was obliged, as the terms of the act above set out, to support the child regardless of whether he had fathered it, and he wanted the rest of his money.
There was nothing the magistrate could do for him however, as this didn’t fall under his jurisdiction as a magistrate. He recommend instead that the man took his case before the Court of Requests, which dealt with disputes over small debts. The beadle was liable, the magistrate declared, as he’d entered into a contract and hadn’t fulfilled it. The husband thanked him and said he would certainly take his advice.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 02, 1836]