Poverty, Poor Relief and Philanthropy in Early Modern Colchester: the Unacceptable Face

Poverty, Poor Relief and Philanthropy in Early Modern Colchester: the Unacceptable Face

Poverty, Poor Relief and Philanthropy in Early Modern Colchester: the Unacceptable Face of Mercantilism?

The parameters of poverty and poor relief in early modern England have been very clearly described by Paul Slack.[1] From a low starting point, ‘background’ or ‘shallow’ poverty increased steadily from the early sixteenth century through to c.1650, stabilising during the second half of the seventeenth century. ‘Deep’ poverty rose to c.1620, declining thereafter. The siamese twin forces of population growth and inflation underpinned these trends, overlaid upon which were a host of short-term factors, including harvest failure, epidemic disease and economic instability, all of which impacted with particular severity upon early modern towns. While the few surviving local returns of those in receipt of regular relief generally give a figure of the order of 5 per cent of the urban population, perhaps some 20 per cent were vulnerable to the economic dislocation that could accompany a slump in international trade, dearth or plague, creating a far larger class of dependent poor in such years.[2]

While the basic parameters of early modern urban poverty as currently understood are unlikely to be seriously challenged, it remains true that urban economies and urban social structures differed from each other by the late 17th century, and that textile centres such as Colchester exhibited a particularly large class of ‘labouring poor’, usually self-sustaining but potentially dependent upon relief in years of economic dislocation. It is also true that, while similar responses to poverty can be found across the urban sector, those responses were not necessarily the same, and the resources at the disposal of different towns might vary considerably. In Colchester, if the textile industry in a sense generated its own poor though the dependence of the putting-out system upon a cheap pool of labour, it also generated the funds to relieve those poor, through a range of formal and semi-formal mechanisms, some of which followed the dictates of national legislation and the Books of Rates, others of which drew upon the particular resources available to the Corporation generated by its thriving new drapery industry. The impressive range of strategies adopted by the Corporation will be outlined.

A further issue is the contribution made by private philanthropy. The current orthodoxy is that, nationally, philanthropy remained the senior partner until the mid- seventeenth century, after which an expanding tax base and increasing per capita poor relief payments swung the balance decisively towards formal relief.[3] If neighbourly charity and casual relief was in decline it had by no means disappeared and beggars—badged or not—still littered the streets of London and other cities. Casual charity of this kind cannot, of course, be measured, but more formal philanthropy authorized by will or endowment can, and Hadwin’s reworking of the data collected by Jordan for ten English counties appears to indicate a considerable growth in accumulated relief across the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries, by more than a factor of two in per capita terms, even allowing for inflation.[4] But few scholars have attempted to develop his work through a focus on charitable giving at the local level.[5] Intriguing snapshots have been provided for individual towns at particular dates, and appear to suggest that formal relief played a larger role than has often been assumed, but there are very few studies that attempt to emulate the chronological range of Jordan’s analysis, and none at all for any major provincial community.[6] Furthermore, in terms of charity the later seventeenth century remains ‘the dark ages of philanthropic propensity’, at both national and local levels. This paper will address this issue, and assess the contribution of charitable giving to poor relief through an analysis of bequests made in 2,621 Colchester wills proved in archdeaconry, consistory and preorogative courts between 1500 and 1699, allied to evidence of inter vivos charitable endowments.

Whereas in his article entitled ‘The other face of mercantilism’ published in 1959 (TRHS, 5th series, Vol. 9), Charles Wilson sought to rescue the mercantilists from accusations of ‘greed and stupidity’ and ‘ruthless materialism’, this paper will show that the charitable impulse declined substantially in late 17th century Colchester, while the wealth available from both expanding textile production and burgeoning overseas trade increased apace. For the majority of Colchester testators, the problem of the poor became largely the remit of Corporate sponsored relief, not the province of private philanthropy.

[1] P. Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988); P. Slack, The English Poor Law 1531-1782 (Basingstoke, 1990). See also A.L. Beier, ‘Poverty and Progress in Early Modern England’, in A.L. Beier, D. Cannadine and J.M. Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989).

[2] Slack, Poverty and Policy, 73-5; Beier, ‘Poverty and Progress’, 209-10, 221-6.

[3] Slack, Poverty and Policy, 170-82.

[4] W. K. Jordan, Philanthropy in England, 1480-1640 (London, 1959); Jordan, The Charities of London, 1480-1660 (London, 1961); Jordan, The Charities of Rural England, 1480-1660 (London, 1961); W.G. Bittle and R.T. Lane, ‘Inflation and Philanthropy in England: a Reassessment of W.K. Jordan’s Data’, Economic History Review, xxix (1976), 203-10; J.F. Hadwin, ‘Deflating Philanthropy’, Economic History Review, xxxi (1978), 105-17.

[5] For some attempts to follow Jordan’s lead and to test his hypotheses at the local level: J.A.F. Thomson, ‘Piety and Charity in Late Medieval London’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, xii (1965); A.D. Dyer, The City of Worcester in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1973), 241-2; A.L. Beier, ‘The Social Problems of an Elizabethan Country Town: Warwick, 1580-90’, in P. Clark (ed.), Country Towns in Pre-industrial England (Leicester, 1981), 46-85; C.S. Evans, ‘ “An Echo of the Multitude”: the Intersection of Governmental and Private Poverty Initiatives in Early Modern Exeter’, Albion, xxxii (2000), 408-28.

[6] W.T. MacCaffrey, Exeter 1540-1640: the Growth of an English County Town (2nd edn, Cambridge, Mass., 1975, 1st publ. 1958), 107-8; P. Slack, ‘Poverty and Politics in Salisbury 1597-1666’, in P. Clark and P. Slack (eds), Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700 (London, 1972), 179; Beier, ‘Social Problems’, 47, 69-73; A. Rosen, ‘Winchester in Transition, 1580-1700’ in Clark (ed.), Country Towns, 159-60.