In the shadow of speenhamland: social policy and the


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These gaps in both stories are enough to make us suspicious, but a close examination of the historical evidence is even more devastating. First, the Speenhamland system that allegedly produced significant work disincentive effects turns out to have been far less common than earlier believed. When properly defined as strictly limited to a bread scale that provided different levels of support depending on family size, it becomes apparent that Speenhamland could not have produced the effects that have been attributed to it. Second, there is strong evidence against the decline in rural productivity that both stories have claimed to have been one of the effects of Speenhamland. Finally, when we look more closely at what happened to the rural standard of living across the period from 1790 to 1834, it is very difficult to resist the conclusion that rising poor law outlays were a response to the loss of established forms of family income.

1. The Limited Pervasiveness and Episodic Nature of the Bread Scale.

Speenhamland is itself a contested term. Some have used it to cover the full range of relief policies in which able bodied individuals and their families received assistance, while others have used it more narrowly to refer to the specific use of a bread scale in allocating assistance.

Precisely because of the need to differentiate items number 1 and 2 from our list on pp. 8-9 from the various forms of employment creation, we will define Speenhamland strictly as the use of a bread scale to determine assistance by the size of the family and the cost of wheat.6 While the Royal Commission Report takes pains to condemn all forms of assistance to the able bodied, its initial focus is on the allowance system and it differentiates between parishes that occasionally provide allowances.

"In others it is considered that a certain weekly sum, or more frequently the value of a certain quantity of flour or bread, is to be received by each member of a family. The latter practice has sometimes been matured into a system, forming the law of a whole district, sanctioned and enforced by the magistrates, and promulgated in the form of local statutes , under the name of Scales. (Royal Commission 1834, p. 21.)

This is immediately followed by the printing of a number of representative examples of such scales, including one particularly impressive table from a parish in Essex that provides precise allowances for more than twenty different wheat prices ranging from 1 to 7 shillings per peck. Much of the report's subsequent fury is then directed against this "allowance system".

Yet few of the indictments of Speenhamland hold up against the evidence. The claim that the use of the bread scale starting in 1795 was unprecedented is simply wrong. Wage_price indexing for the able_bodied goes back to the 1349_51 Ordinance and Statute of Labourers and was most elaborately spelled out in the famous 1563 Tudor Statute of Artificers (5 Eliz c 4). (Tawney and Power, 1924 I, pp. 338_50; Tawney 1972, pp.37_92; Lipson 1943, III, p.253; Somers 1993, 1994). Moreover, bread scales were used in years of high wheat prices at other times in the second half of the 18th century (Henriques 1979, Neuman 1982).

Another misperception is the belief in Speenhamland as a steady forty year entity with territorial and temporal uniformity. This idea was first called into question when Mark Blaug's pathbreaking research challenged the geographical uniformity of its application (Blaug 1963, 1964). Blaug showed that the use of the bread scale was not geographically universal even in wheat growing areas. Neuman (1982, p. 160) in a sample of sixteen parishes in Berkshire County itself found none that used the Speenhamland scale in the whole period up to 1834. Poynter (1969 ), Baugh (1975), Huzel (1989), Lees (1998), and King (2000) also stress the limited use of the bread scale. Baugh (1975) suggests that it was much more common for parishes to respond to years of very high grain prices by using poor relief funds to purchase grain that was then redistributed to households. In others, the farmers sold wheat to their employees at below market prices or, as had happened in earlier famine years, extra charitable efforts by the rich provided some of the poor with food.

Even so, it is useful to think of the use of bread scales in certain parishes in 1795 and subsequent famine years as the first Speenhamland episode. In 1795, in 1802_1803, and still again in 1812, a confluence of several factors created the kind of calamity that forced many parishes to take action. In each case, two bad harvests in a row coincided with wartime limitations on agricultural imports from the Continent. The dramatic and severe upward spike in the price of wheat that followed placed this dietary staple well beyond the reach of most agricultural, rural_industrial and even urban working people (The best account of these famine years is Wells 1988; see also Tilly 1995, pp. 228-232). Moreover, as the poor shifted their demand to coarser but cheaper grains, their prices spiralled upwards as well. The consequence was severe distress and the outbreak of food riots in which protesters seized grain from middlemen and bakers. In 1795, these riots occurred against the backdrop of revolutionary events on the other side of the English Channel, so that local elites had strong incentives to respond to the threat of famine and revolutionary disorder. The claims of Speenhamland's critics notwithstanding, the use of the bread scale as a response to famine was a very logical method to respond to these immediate crises without permanently altering wage rates or long_term relief patterns (It is consistent with Amartya Sen’s argument that famines are rooted not in absolute shortage but in problems of entitlement to food. See Sen 1982.) As soon as the price spike passed, most households would no longer be eligible for assistance because the standard wage would purchase a sufficient amount of bread.

There are two striking features of this first Speenhamland episode. First, there is very little difference in the trend of poor law outlays between those parishes that adopted the bread scale and those that used other means to distribute food to the hungry. Baugh (1975) analyzed data from more than 700 parishes in Essex, Kent, and Sussex and showed that poor relief outlays very closely tracked the fluctuations in the price of wheat. Sokoll (1993, p. 138) extensively analyzed Ardleigh, a parish in Essex that did not adopt the bread scale in this early period, and he shows that its outlays also rose and fell in parallel with the other agricultural parishes in Essex that Baugh examined. (Figure 2 here ) Second, as Sokoll (1993, p. 1420 emphasizes these patterns undermine one of the core claims of Royal Commission Report--that allowances have a kind of addictive and self-expanding effect.

"Profuse allowances excite the most extravagant expectations on the parts of the claimants, who conceive that an inexhausible fund is devoted to their use, and that they are wronged to the extent of whatever falls short of their claims." (Royal Commission 1834, p. 49.)

But in this episode, whether parishes used the formal mechanism of the bread scale or other methods of distributing relief, what is so striking is that outlays fell virtually immediately as the price of wheat fell.

The second discrete Speenhamland episode occurred in the years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and was not related to famine conditions. With the end of the war7 , there was a period of severe economic contraction marked by a dramatic decline in wheat prices. (See Figure 1 and Table 2) There was some downward adjustment of wage rates in this period, but this adjustment was much smaller than the sharp fall in prices. As a consequence, some farms simply went out of business and other agricultural employers sharply reduced their employment levels both during the growing season and particularly during the winter months. Assisted by the introduction of threshing machines --the proximate trigger of the famous 1830 Captain Swing riots (Hobsbawm and Rude 1968, Fox 1978) that further reduced the demand for labor in the critical months after the harvest, all these processes significantly increased rural unemployment and distress and accounted for the sharp rise in poor relief outlays after 1813.

There is strong consensus in the recent literature that the post- 1813 renewal of Speenhamland measures was catalyzed by a structural shift from inflation to structural transformation in employment opportunities, leading primarily to radically new patterns of seasonal unemployment (on the change from inflation to unemployment see especially Blaug 1963, 1964, Baugh 1975, and Snell 1985). The period was also marked by the decline of women's farm labor income and an accelerated decline of rural crafts that had provided employment for women (Gash 1935; Berg 1985; Valenze 1995; Snell 1985; Levine 1985).

But while the bread scale returned, its meaning nonetheless shifted in an important way. In the earlier period, employed farm workers would receive an income supplement, contingent on family size and the wheat price, to help them get through the period of high food prices. In the later period, the bread scale was used primarily to determine the amount of relief that seasonally unemployed farm workers were entitled to, given the size of their families.8 The importance of this seasonal dimension of poor relief is amply supported by data showing that poor relief outlays were often two or three times higher in the winter months than in the spring or summer (Emmison 1933, Snell 1985, Boyer 1990, Reay 1996). As Boyer (1990) has argued extensively, there were strong reasons for parish authorities to provide relief in the winter for unemployed farm workers. Employers were constantly worried by the threat of outmigration which would mean labor shortages during the summer months and severe shortages at harvest time. Without such relief, levels of outmigration whether to the north or to urban areas would have been much higher.

This second phase of Speenhamland is exemplified by events in Ardleigh–the Essex parish that has been closely studied by Sokoll (1993). The parish had no earlier history of the use of the bread scale, but a formal bread scale was instituted in September of 1823 followed in 1831 by another Speenhamland statute. This late adoption of the bread scale by parish officials is especially notable because it occurs after decades in which Speenhamland had been denounced for its horrible consequences. This suggests that there was widespread skepticism at the time with the anti-Speenhamland rhetoric and that local officials were undeterred by the rhetoric because they were simply trying to find the best practical way to deal with the crisis presented by high levels of unemployment.

2. Trends in Productivity and Wages.

The standard Speenhamland stories insist that rural productivity collapsed in the face of the corrosive impact of the Poor Law. The available data provides no support for this claim. Total wheat production increased substantially between 1790 and 1834; Fairlie's estimate (cited in Johns 1989, pp. 1054-1055) shows that wheat production fluctuated sharply between 1791 and 1811 and then more than doubled by 1834. This increase was facilitated by an expansion in acreage; Holderness (1989, 128-129) estimates that acreage increased from about 2.45 million acres in 1801 to 3.4 million in 1836--an increase of almost 39%. But it wasn't only increased acreage; Holderness (1989, p. 140) suggests that yields per acre might have risen by 33% between 1790 and 1830; Overton (1989) suggests that the increase was 15% between 1801 and 1831.

Unfortunately, the early censuses did not ask about employment, so estimates of the size of the agricultural labor force between 1801 and 1831 in the Southeastern counties are little more than guesswork, but the labor force seems to have grown substantially more slowly than either wheat output or acreage. Wrigley (1986, p. 332) estimates that for the whole country, the number of adult males employed in agriculture increased from 910,000 in 1811 to 981,000 in 1831--growth of only about 8%. Since the wheat growing counties were home to a large portion of English farm workers, it is unlikely that labor force growth in these counties was substantially faster than national growth. Given the doubling of wheat output between 1811 and 1834, there can be little doubt that output per worker rose in this period. Overton (1996) suggests quite substantial increases in labor productivity in agriculture across the whole period from 1800 to 1850. Moreover, even Clark (1991, 1999) who has been most outspoken in criticizing the idea of a productivity increasing "agricultural revolution" in the first three decades of the 19th century acknowledges that labor productivity was either constant or increasing slightly in this period.

Since the available data on productivity in the wheat growing regions is sketchy at best, a number of analysts have supported the Speenhamland thesis by arguing that agricultural wages fell sharply in this period and that it is reasonable to see wages as a reliable proxy for productivity. Influential historians writing in the first half of the century such as Hammond and Hammond ([1911] 1966) , Webb and Webb (1927), Mantoux ([1928] 1962) have insisted that wage levels fell dramatically during the Speenhamland period.

However, most of the available data series that we have that trace rural wages in this period reveal the same basic pattern. Rural weekly wages for men rise from 1790 through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there is then a sharp decline during the agricultural depression, followed by a recovery and a slightly rising trend from the early 1820's through to 1834. The first systematic series on agricultural wages was developed by Bowley at the end of the 19th century (cited in Mitchell and Deane 1962, pp. 348-349) and it rises from 53 in 1790 to 105 in 1812, then falls to 72 in 1824 before rising to 79 in 1834. (Figure 3 here) Eccleston (1986) found a similar pattern in five Midland counties, and Richardson (1991) reports a parallel pattern in wages on a large farm in Essex. More recently, Clark (2000) has developed a series for weekly winter wages in the Southeastern counties based on various surviving estate records, including those used by Richardson, and he finds the same basic pattern. (Figure 4 here) The respected historian, K.D. Snell (1985) calculated trends in annual wages for farm servants in a number of Southern counties from a unique data set drawn from settlement examinations. For most counties or groups of counties, Snell's findings move in the same pattern as weekly wages cited elsewhere in the literature, but in some counties he did find that wages fall steadily from the 1820's onward..

But interpreting these patterns of nominal wages has been extremely difficult because of the dramatic price changes that occur across this period. There is no question that in the famine years, such as 1795, 1802-03, and 1812, the price spike in grains lead to dramatic, albeit temporary, declines in the real wage. Nevertheless, the view advanced by Prothero (1912) that wage levels during the Napoleon War doubled while prices actually tripled is no longer accepted. When one brackets the famine years, real agricultural wages clearly rose between 1790 and 1815. Second, since the post-Napoleonic period was one of steadily falling price levels, the small recovery in nominal wages between 1824 and 1834 reported by Bowley understates the gain in real wages in this period.

But the question that has preoccupied many analysts–were agricultural real wages higher or lower in 1834 than they were in 1790 is the wrong question for three different reasons. First, the reality was that real wages–with the critical exceptions of the famine years–first rose, then fell, and then rose. People did not live the average; they lived these distinct periods. Second, when rural workers are compared to the inhabitants of urban England who had greatly expanded access to a wide variety of manufactured goods between 1790 and 1834, there can be no doubt that their relative standard of living declined sharply during this period of industrial transformation. Finally, translating weekly wages into a standard of living depends critically on the number of weeks of employment available per year and we know that seasonal unemployment rose dramatically in the countryside after the Napoleonic Wars (Snell 1985, Boyer 1990).

Instead of focusing on the wrong question, the point is to evaluate the Royal Commissioners claim that Speenhamland policies damaged rural productivity. The argument is already undermined by evidence that the bread scale was not pervasive or continuous. It is further weakened by both the data on agricultural output and the trends in weekly wages that provide no support for a claimed collapse of rural productivity.

3. Household Income and the Poor Law.

Too much emphasis on male wages distorts our understanding of an historical period when it was completely the norm that wage earner families pieced together their income from multiple sources (Kumar 1988, Horrell and Humphries 1995, Reay 1996). It is precisely because of the variety and variability of these income sources that it is extremely difficult to identify any clear trends in average family income across this period. The best estimates that we have come from surviving family budget data that have been compiled by Horrell and Humpries (1995). They indicate that for the low wage agricultural sector--that tends to overlap with the Southeastern counties--there was a small upward trend in real household income between 1790 and 1834. But this average figure conceals much variation and poor relief outlays represented a rising component of family income, rising from a negligible level in the early period to 8% of family income for the 1821-1840 period. In this context, poor relief can best be understood as a mechanism to sustain family income in a context in which it had become increasingly difficult for the rural poor--through no fault of their own-- to piece together an adequate income.

The increasing importance of poor relief can be seen as compensating for three broad trends. First, rural craft industries suffered a dramatic decline in the Southeastern counties in the period after 1790 (Snell 1985, Allen 1992). Some of this decline had been going on for centuries, but the pace of decline was clearly accelerated by the rapid rise of industrial production in the Northern part of the country. This meant that opportunities for family members, especially women, to supplement income with labor on rural craft production simply disappeared in many places. Second, enclosures and consolidations of holdings meant that many rural laboring families lost the capacity to earn additional income by keeping farm animals or maintaining a vegetable garden.. In fact, during the Speenhamland period, a major alternative to the poor law that was widely debated was to provide laboring families with allotments--small pieces of land--that would make self-provisioning a real alternative to poor relief in hard times (Barnett 1967) But while the idea was widely discussed, it was never implemented on a wide scale. Third, particularly after 1813, the demand for farm labor diminishes, so that there are reduced earning opportunities for wives and children while men experienced longer periods of unemployment in the winter and early spring months (Snell 1985, Boyer 1990).9an increasing share of family income in the later period. Reay (1996, p. 129) finds that in one Kent Parish, sixty percent of farm laborers and small farmers required poor relief during the winter months in the 1830's (See also Emmison 1933).

In short, the family budget data provides a different angle of vision that further undermines the conventional Speenhamland stories. Instead of bread scales undermining work effort, we get a picture of a rural population facing broad structural forces that undermine their capacities for self support. In this context, it is difficult to see increasing poor relief as anything but a partial remedy to problems outside the control of the rural poor.


The strength of the evidence against the standard Speenhamland stories raises the obvious question of why the last thirty-five years of historical scholarship have not yet had any significant impact on social policy discussions. The obvious answer is that these revisionist findings are competing against two very powerful narratives–the Royal Commissioners’ story of the perverse consequences of poor relief and the Marxist account of primitive accumulation. Moreover, the revisionist findings lack a compelling narrative structure of their own. Since the revisionist work has been produced by a theoretically diverse group of scholars, the findings have not been organized into a storyline about early industrial England.

It seems useful, therefore, to suggest a revisionist narrative that would place these new historical findings into a framework that social policy analysts might find compelling.

This alternative narrative centers on the problem of legitimating the new science of political economy that was founded by Malthus and Ricardo. The narrative starts with Malthus’ famous claim in 1798 that while population grows geometrically, food supply grows only arithmetically. In retrospect, it seems that Malthus was generalizing from the near-famine of 1795 and the wartime conditions that limited emergency grain imports to create an ineluctable law of population growth exceeding food supply. Instead of recognizing that the use of poor relief had successfully saved many of the poor from starvation, he blamed the very institution–the poor law-- that had prevented a larger disaster.

While the publication of the first and second editions of the Essay on Population in 1798 and 1803 had a major impact, Malthus' critique of the Poor Law had only limited resonance in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. For example, in 1807, Samuel Whitbread, the Whig leader in Parliament made a proposal that would abolish the Poor Laws within a fifty year period, primarily by providing the poor with education and small plots on which they could grow vegetables (Cowherd 1977). This was a far cry from Malthus' advocacy of ending poor relief within two years and his critique of Arthur Young’s allotment proposal for being insensitive to the danger of overpopulation (Barnett 1967; Malthus 1992, pp. 349-350). While Whitbread’s bill is generally seen as an indication of the rising power of Malthus’ critique of the Poor Law, Poynter suggests that at this time, it was only a significant minority within public opinion that “might agree with Malthus that the whole poor-law system was an unfortunate mistake” (Poynter 1969, p. 221). It would take another twenty-five years before public opinion supported a direct assault on the Old Poor law.

The key turning pont that gave Malthus' arguments much greater influence was the agricultural downturn at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (Poynter 1969, Henriques 1979, p. 24). As prices began to fall and unemployment started to increase, it became far more plausible to argue that rural areas were overpopulated and that the poor law was a factor in that overpopulation But the most important fact is that the agricultural downturn was not just a brief post-war interlude; rather it became a long term reality continuing through and beyond the passage of the New Poor Law in 1834 (Gash 1935, Fussell and Compton 1939, Snell 1985). It was this persistence of rural distress that elevated Malthus into a secular prophet.

But the rural distress was itself closely linked to policy decisions, especially England's decision to restore the pre-war value of the pound in relation to gold. What happened in this period is remarkably similar to the decision by England to restore the pre-war relationship between the pound and gold after World War I. Keynes ([1925 ]1932) had famously denounced this policy as deeply misguided and insisted that it would produce a period of intense deflationary pressure. But it is seldom recognized that Keynes' prescience derived from his knowledge of economic history and the history of economic theory. He realized that English statesmen in the post-World War I era were simply repeating the mistake that had been made--at the urging of David Ricardo--a century earlier. 10

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