Speenhamland system

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The Speenhamland system, also known as the Berkshire Bread Act [1] was a form of outdoor relief intended to mitigate rural poverty in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century and during the early 19th century. The law was an amendment to the Elizabethan Poor Law. It was created as an indirect result of Britain’s involvements in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). [2]

After the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601), outdoor relief was the kind of poor relief where assistance was in the form of money, food, clothing or goods, given to alleviate poverty without the requirement that the recipient enter an institution. In contrast, recipients of indoor relief were required to enter a workhouse or poorhouse. Outdoor relief was also a feature of the Scottish and Irish Poor Law systems.

Rural poverty refers to poverty in rural areas, including factors of rural society, rural economy, and rural political systems that give rise to the poverty found there. Rural poverty is often discussed in conjunction with spatial inequality, which in this context refers to the inequality between urban and rural areas. Both rural poverty and spatial inequality are global phenomena, but like poverty in general, there are higher rates of rural poverty in developing countries than in developed countries. Eradicating rural poverty through effective policies and economic growth remains a challenge for the international community

Napoleonic Wars series of wars between Napoleons French Empire and the 2nd to the 7th coalition of European powers

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).



The system was named after a 1795 meeting at the Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, Berkshire, where a number of local magistrates devised the system as a means to alleviate the distress caused by high grain prices. [3] The increase in the price of grain may have occurred as a result of a poor harvest in the years 1795–96, though at the time this was subject to great debate. Many blamed middlemen and hoarders as the ultimate architects of the shortage.[ citation needed ]

Speenhamland is an area within modern Newbury, Berkshire, which gave rise to the Speenhamland system of poor relief in the early 19th century. Its name is probably derived from Old English Spen-haema-land, "land of the inhabitants of Speen", with "Speen" perhaps being formed on a Brittonic root deriving from Latin spinis, "thorns".

Magistrate officer of the state, usually judge

The term magistrate is used in a variety of systems of governments and laws to refer to a civilian officer who administers the law. In ancient Rome, a magistratus was one of the highest ranking government officers, and possessed both judicial and executive powers. In other parts of the world, such as China, a magistrate was responsible for administration over a particular geographic area. Today, in some jurisdictions, a magistrate is a judicial officer who hears cases in a lower court, and typically deals with more minor or preliminary matters. In other jurisdictions, magistrates may be volunteers without formal legal training who perform a judicial role with regard to minor matters.

The authorities at Speenhamland approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. Families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread. For example, if bread was 1s 2d (14 pence) a loaf, the wages of a family with two children were topped up to 8s 6d (102 pence).

£sd pre-decimal currency system of the pound, shilling, and penny

£sd is the popular name for the pre-decimal currencies once common throughout Europe, especially in the British Isles and hence in several countries of the British Empire and subsequently the Commonwealth. The abbreviation originates from the Latin currency denominations librae, solidi, and denarii. In the United Kingdom, which was one of the last to abandon the system, these were referred to as pounds, shillings, and pence.

The first formula was set at a time of high prices and possible over-charging, minimum wage inflation was deliberately muted compared to price rises. If bread rose to 1s 8d (20 pence) the wages were topped up to 11s 0d (132 pence). In this quoted example in percentage terms, a 43% price rise led to a 30% wage rise (wages fell from 7.3 to 6.6 loaves).

The immediate impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse funded through parish unions. Eventually pressure due to structural poverty caused the introduction of the new Poor Law (1834).

Workhouse place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment

In England and Wales, a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term workhouse is from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon reporting that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke".

Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 poor law UK parliament act of 1835

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (PLAA), known widely as the New Poor Law, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Earl Grey. It completely replaced earlier legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601 and attempted to fundamentally change the poverty relief system in England and Wales. It resulted from the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws, which included Edwin Chadwick, John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. Chadwick was dissatisfied with the law that resulted from his report. The Act was passed two years after the 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to the middle classes. Some historians have argued that this was a major factor in the PLAA being passed.

The Speenhamland system appears to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was a means of allaying dangerous discontent among growing numbers of rural poor faced by soaring food prices, and to have died out in the post-war period, except in a few parishes. [4] The system was popular in the south of England. William Pitt the Younger attempted to get the idea passed into legislation but failed. The system was not adopted nationally but was popular in the counties which experienced the Swing Riots during the 1830s.

William Pitt the Younger 18th/19th-century British statesman

William Pitt the Younger was a prominent British Tory statesman of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He became the youngest British prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24. He left office in 1801, but was Prime Minister again from 1804 until his death in 1806. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of his time as Prime Minister. He is known as "the Younger" to distinguish him from his father, William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, called William Pitt the Elder or simply "Chatham", who had previously served as Prime Minister.

Swing Riots uprising by agricultural workers

The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural workers in southern and eastern England, in protest of agricultural mechanisation and other harsh conditions. It began with their destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Kent in the summer of 1830, and by early December had spread throughout the whole of southern England and East Anglia.


In 1834, the Report of the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws 1832 called the Speenhamland System a "universal system of pauperism". The system allowed employers, including farmers and the nascent industrialists of the town, to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers' low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidised the farmers.

Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws 1832

The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was a group set up to decide how to change the Poor Law systems in England and Wales. The group included Nassau Senior, a professor from Oxford University who was against the allowance system, and Edwin Chadwick, who was a Benthamite. The recommendations of the Royal Commission's report were implemented in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.

Thomas Malthus believed a system of supporting the poor would lead to increased population growth rates because the Poor Laws encouraged early marriage and prolific procreation, which would be a problem due to the Malthusian catastrophe (where population growth would exceed food production); [5] however, food production actually steadily grew by a third between 1790 and 1830 albeit with a smaller section of the populace able to access it due to mechanization, [6] and the population growth that actually happened was due to growing demand for child labor and not Speenhamland. [7]

David Ricardo believed that Speenhamland would create a poverty trap, where the poor would work less, which would make food production fall, in its turn creating the space for a revolution; [8] however, the poverty that existed back then was not caused a supposed Speenhamland "poverty trap", as "wage earners were permitted to keep at least part of their allowances when their earnings increased", but instead was the result of price hikes resulting from England returning to the gold standard, a policy Ricardo himself had recommended. [9]

There was also no unrest resulting from the adoption of the Speenhamland system; this was the result of the adoption of the gold standard and industrialization, which equally affected all the populace in areas with or without Speenhamland. [10]

This system of poor relief, and others like it, lasted until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which prohibited Boards of Guardians supplementing the wages of full-time workers. This was not always implemented locally as Guardians did not want to separate families in workhouses, and it was often cheaper to supplement wages than operate larger workhouses. [11]

Evidence in the last thirty years shows that the bread scale devised during the Speenhamland meeting in 1795 was by no means universal, and that even the system of outdoor relief which found one of its earliest, though not the first, expressions in Speenhamland was not completely widespread. Allowances, or supplements, to wages were used generally as a temporary measure, and the nature of their execution changed in various regions. Mark Blaug's classic 1960 essay The Myth of the Old Poor Law charged the commissioners of 1834 with largely using the Speenhamland system to vilify the old poor law and create will for the passage of a new one. However, historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have argued the old poor law was still damaging by subsidising employers, and heightening dependency of workers' incomes on local aristocrats. [12]

Historical interpretations

Speenhamland appears to have been one among many systems of bread scales, but it most likely owes its notoriety to Frederick Eden's The State of the Poor (1797). Eden attacked the system as an impediment to agricultural progress. Though some of Blaug's more drastic assertions may be ill-founded or overly polemical, it appears evident that Speenhamland was by no means a household name, and that since the practice was by January 1795 (the famous meeting was in May) being used in various villages, usually in conjunction with other means of relieving the poor. Because of failed attempts to reform the existing poor law at a national level, the scarcity of 1795 was largely dealt with by innovations in a haphazard way at the local level, and it seems improbable that a national and uniform policy existed.

See also


  1. Hammond, J L; Barbara Hammond (1912). The Village Labourer 1760-1832. London: Longman Green & Co. p. 19.
  2. Polanyi, Karl, and Robert Morrison MacIver. The great transformation. Vol. 5. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. p.168
  3. Page, William; Ditchfield, P.H., eds. (1924). "Speen with Speenhamland, Bagnor and Benham". A History of the County of Berkshire. Victoria County History. 4. pp. 97–110.
  4. Phillis Deane (1965) The First Industrial Revolution Cambridge: Cambridge Press. p144. ISBN   0-521-29609-9
  5. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Another clergyman, Thomas Malthus, drew out Townsend’s ideas. In 1798, he described 'the great difficulty' on the road to progress, 'that to me appears insurmountable'. His premise was twofold: (1) humans need food to survive, and (2) the passion between the sexes is ineradicable. Conclusion: population growth will always exceed food production.


    "But the Speenhamland system apparently encouraged people to marry as fast and procreate as prolifically as possible. Malthus was convinced England was teetering on the brink of a disaster as terrible as the Black Death, which wiped out half the population between 1349 and 1353.
  6. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Fears of declining food production were baseless as well. Agricultural production experienced a steady upward trajectory, increasing by a third between 1790 and 1830.

    "But while food was more plentiful than ever, a decreasing share of the English population could afford it. Not because they were lazy, but because they were losing the race against the machine.
  7. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. The population explosion that so worried Malthus was attributable chiefly to the growing demand for child labor, not basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system].
  8. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Economist David Ricardo (a close friend of Malthus) was equally skeptical. He believed basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system] would create a poverty trap: the poor would work less, causing food production to fall, fanning the flames of a French-style revolution.
  9. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Ricardo’s analysis was equally faulty. There was no poverty trap in the Speenhamland system: wage earners were permitted to keep at least part of their allowances when their earnings increased. And the rural unrest that so worried Ricardo was actually a result of price hikes caused by England’s return to the gold standard (which he recommended), not basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system].
  10. Bregman, Rutger (May 5, 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved October 30, 2018. Recent scholarship also highlights a mismatch between adoption of the policy and unrest; villages with and without the policy rioted in 1830.

    "All English peasants suffered from the return to the gold standard, along with industrialization in the north and the invention of the threshing machine. Threshers (which separate the wheat from the chaff) destroyed thousands of jobs in one fell swoop, depressing wages and inflating the cost of poor relief.
  11. Grover, Chris (September 2015). "Understanding changes to Tax Credits: historical and policy dimensions of wage supplements in Britain". Lancaster University. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  12. E Hobsbawm and G Rudé, Captain Swing (1969) 50-51. E McGaughey, 'Will Robots Automate Your Job Away? Full Employment, Basic Income, and Economic Democracy' (2018) SSRN, part 3(1)

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