The Poor Laws

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  • Topic: Workhouse, Poor Law, Poverty
  • Pages : 7 (2267 words )
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  • Published : December 10, 2012
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Extract 1: Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845, Penguin edn, pp.284-287)

The document chosen for analysis is a famous work from one of the most prominent political-theorists of the nineteenth-century. The Condition of the Working Class in England can be regarded as the foundation for contemporary left-wing political theory and the inspiration for later Marxist thinking that produced the subsequent works; The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

The Condition of the Working Class in England was authored during the years 1842-1844 whilst Friedrich Engels was staying at his father’s Manchester textile factory during the height of the Industrial Revolution. During this time, the city and the rest of the country saw massive economic growth that fuelled large social and industrial change. Engels' primary focus throughout the work is centred on the workers themselves, the conditions in which they lived and the effects that capitalism had upon the society around them. Through his observations, Engels' can gain first-hand insight into the day-to-day lives of the working-classes and the effects the change in law had upon them.

In this analysis, I wish to determine the primary motive of Friedrich Engels in writing The Condition of the Working Class in England. It is interesting to note that this work was not published in its subject country for almost three decades after it was written and it was first published in Engels’ native Germany.

England at the time was the world’s preeminent capitalist power at the height of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Was Engels intention a warning to the German people about the apparent evils of Capitalism? It would not be difficult to assume that his opposition to the New Poor Law stemmed from his anti-capitalist politics. In foresight, it is safe to speculate what Engels believed the New Poor Law to be; an instrumental policy keeping close to the interests of the bourgeoisie who sought to teach the poor the value of industry and the virtues of an obedient working-life. The social condition of England was therefore ripe for Engels’ documentation, spurred on by the prospect of social revolution in England after reading Die europaische Triarchie by Moses Hess Engels seized the opportunity to further his political ends in England.

A brief historiography of both the Old and New Poor Law’s is appropriate in order to provide some background context to the focus of the document.

The Poor Law Amendment Act was legislated in 1834 and broke the two-hundred and thirty one years covered by the Old Poor Law. Known as the New Poor Law, this act had taken a bold new direction in the relief of poverty and treatment of the poor, bringing about the first notions of ‘less eligibility’ which defined the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories . The previous system worked by dividing paupers into settlements that would provide them with relief from the particular parish they were associated with, or at least this was how it was meant to operate. This system was inherently expensive and difficult to administer due to settlement disputes. Fraser suggests “The growth of cities themselves, increased mobility, and sudden influxes of distressed Irish all created complex problems which revolved around settlement.” This indicates that the logistics involved in the day-to-day running of the Old Poor Law were made more difficult with often ambiguous changes made via statute acts. The Act of 1662 invites particular criticism due to its accretion of settlement laws already placed in previous acts. Fraser notes; “The act empowered magistrates to order the removal back to their parish of settlement of any person coming into the parish to inhabit a tenement with a yearly value of less than £10 upon a complaint being made to a magistrate, within forty days of the person's intrusion, by the churchwardens or overseers of the parish.” The reality of removals was often a long,...
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