Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Farming the poor

The question of how to control state welfare spending is not a new one. The Poor Laws of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to place responsibility upon individual parishes, most notoriously by requiring them to operate a workhouse. One way of managing this duty was to engage in 'farming the poor'.

The terminology is odd and might suggest growing more poor people, in large greenhouses perhaps - but like baby-farming (fostering for profit) later in the century, the practice was less bucolic and more exploitative. Contractors looked after a parish's workhouse poor for a fixed sum, often arrived at by competitive tendering, and had to both provide for their 'clients' and make a profit from the agreed amount. To help them achieve this, they were able to require the paupers to work and could keep the proceeds of their labour.

St Nicholas, Deptford was among the parishes to attempt the system. Thus an advertisement of 1830 is headed 'CONTRACT for FARMING the POOR of SAINT NICHOLAS, DEPTFORD'. The parish sought a contractor who would take the parish's poor for up to three years; they had to provide sealed tenders accompanied by two sureties for the due performance of the contract. It can't have been the most tempting proposition unless there was the prospect of a good profit - one suspects that Deptford's poor spent the following years in very straitened conditions.


Minnie said...

Might this terminology be connected to/derived from the French 'tax farmer(s)/farming'?
Lived in a converted workhouse in Somerset once. However comprehensively refurbished, the overall atmosphere remained grim. For many people out of work, 'grim' doesn't even begin to describe how things are - and may become.

CarolineLD said...

I hadn't thought of that, but I'm sure you're right since tax farming involves very much the same idea. It still sounds so incongruous though, once applied to people.