The Price of Poverty

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The old Poor Laws put responsibility for the maintenance of destitute people firmly on each Parish. Administrators of "Parish Relief", as it was called, met regularly to dole out small sums of money and goods like bundles of firewood and bread. Many hard-working parishioners, on tight budgets themselves, saw the poor as shiftless idlers and scroungers, and perhaps a few of them were. But the vast majority were victims of low wages, sickness, accidents and devastating circumstances like the death of the breadwinner and the subsequent loss of a home.

A practice, virtually unknown outside Devon in the early 19th century, was carried out for many years, of using the children of those "on the Parish" to reduce the amount of money given to their parents as relief. These children were hired out under so-called *Apprenticeship Indentures until they were 21, or in some cases, even until they were married. They were not paid a wage but were to be provided with food and occasional gifts of clothing by their masters. The theory was that they would learn a trade and acquire the habit and discipline of working so that they would never become paupers themselves. In practice, local farmers acquired what was virtually slave labour (with few questions asked about the treatment of the children or the conditions in which they lived and worked), and the Parish was spared the expense of supporting them.

Some parishes offered premiums to masters who would take a child off their hands. This led to even worse abuse because, often, small farms did not have enough work to justify taking on an apprentice. In such cases, farmers sometimes took the view that no work meant no food, so through no fault of their own, children were left to starve. They could not be returned to their home parish because that would have meant returning the premium as well.

Children as young as 5 were apprenticed out to drive cows, fetch water, feed pigs and so on and it was the growing public awareness of the extreme youth of these farm workers, coupled with stories of death, beatings, malnutrition and general lack of care that gradually leaked out, that eventually led to the end of the Parish Apprenticeship system. In 1843, the Poor Law Commissioners reported to Parliament. The bulk of their findings originated with adults who had been Devon Apprentices and who were invited to give first-hand accounts of their childhood years under this system. The Report makes chilling reading and from this date, the system ceased to exist.

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005