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CHAPTER XV
AGRICULTURAL DEPRESSION AND THE POOR LAW
1813-37

  War taxation: peace and beggary; slow recovery of agriculture; the harvest of 1813; reality and extent of distress; the fall of prices; bankruptcies of tenant-farmers; period of acute depression, 1814-36; ruin of small owners; misery of agricultural labourers; reduction in wages and scarcity of employment; allowances from the rates; general pauperisation: the new Poor Law, 1834, and its administration.

ENGLAND in 1815 had emerged from the Napoleonic wars victorious. But she paid the price of victory in her huge National Debt, her excessive taxation, her enormous Poor-Rate, her fictitious credit, her mass of unemployed and discontented labour. Though it is estimated that one in every six male adults was engaged in the struggle by land or sea, the population of England and Wales had risen from under 8¾ millions in 1792 to about 10½ millions in 1815. Within the same period the National Debt grew from £261,735,059 to £885,186,323, and the annual expenditure, including interest on the public debt, from under 20 millions to £106,832,260. The wealth and resources of the nation are shown by the comparative ease with which the money was found and the increased burden met. Yet the strain of the struggle had been intense, and on no class had it told more severely than on agricultural labourers. If their wages had approximately doubled, the cost of living had nearly trebled. Of their distress the rise of the expenditure on poor-relief affords evidence. It advanced from £1,912,241 which was the triennial average for 1783-4-5, to £5,418,845 in 1815. Nor did the expenditure cease to rise with the close of the war. It continued to increase, in spite of falling prices. In 1818 it had grown to £7,870,801, the highest point which it reached under the old law.

  For six years after the end of the war the proverbial association of "Peace and Plenty" proved a ghastly mockery to all classes of the community. To agriculturists peace brought only beggary. In the first rush of complaint, some allowance must be made for disappointment at the immediate results of the end of the war. But the evidence of commercial depression was real and widespread. The disordered state of the currency continued to injure credit, to disturb trade, to create wild speculation instead of sound business. The labour market was glutted. Discharged sailors, soldiers, and militiamen swelled the ranks of the unemployed. The store, transport, and commissariat departments were put on a peace footing. Industries to which the war had given a feverish activity languished. Thousands of spinners, combers, and hand-loom weavers were thrown out of work by the increased introduction of machinery into manufacturing processes. Continental ports were once more opened to English trade; but money was scarce, and foreign merchandise excluded by heavy customs duties. It was soon found that home manufactures had exceeded the demand. Warehouses were overloaded, markets overstocked. Produce was unsold, or unpaid for, or bought at prices unremunerative to the producers. Only with America was increased business done. The growing imports of raw cotton were paid for by exports of British goods.

  After 1821 the commercial depression began to disperse. Difficulties of the currency had been, to some extent, adjusted; credit and confidence were reviving. Progress was for a time suspended by the financial crash of 1825. But the interruption was temporary. Trade improved, at first slowly, then rapidly. Agriculture recovered more gradually; for a protracted period it endured an almost unexampled misery. Landlords, tenant-farmers, and labourers suffered together. It was not till 1836 that any gleam of returning prosperity appeared. During the war, farming improvements had been stimulated by the prospect of increased profits. In peace, when once the new conditions were accepted, and some degree of confidence restored, adversity proved an efficient goad. Without improved practices there was no prospect of any profits at all. Yet down to the accession of Queen Victoria there is no substantial progress to chronicle. The characteristics of the period are a great loss of ground and a partial recovery.

  The inflated prices of the war had conferred, from one point of view, a great advantage on the agriculture of the country. They brought under the plough districts which, but for their stimulus, might never have been brought into cultivation,--areas that were forced into productiveness by the sheer weight of the metal that was poured into them. Money made by farming had been eagerly reinvested in the improvement of the land. For the same purpose banks had advanced money to occupiers on the security of crops and stock which every year seemed to rise in value. Farmers had been able to meet their engagements out of loans, and wait their own time for realising their produce. Better horses were kept, better cattle and sheep bred. Land was limed, marled, or manured. Wastes were brought under cultivation; large areas were cleared of stones in order to give an arable surface; heaths were cleared, bogs drained, buildings erected, roads constructed. The history of Northumberland strongly illustrates these brighter aspects of a gloomy period. John Grey of Dilston, "the Black Prince of the North," one of the most enterprising and skilful agriculturists of the day, played a conspicuous part in the transformation of his county. Born in 1785, and early called through the death of his father to the management of property, he lived in the midst of the agricultural revolution. When his father first settled in Glendale, the plain was a forest of wild broom. He took his axe, and, like a backwoodsman, cleared a space on which to begin his farming operations. The country was then wholly unenclosed, without roads or signposts. Cattle were lost for days in the broom forests. The inhabitants were as wild as their home,--the Cheviot herdsmen "ferocious and sullen," the rural population "uneducated, ill-clothed, and barbarous." But the character of the soil was such as to attract skill and industry. Men of the same stamp as Grey, or the Culleys, settled in the fertile vales, and by their spirited farming transformed into cultivated land wide districts, like the rich valley of the Till, which before the period of war prices were wildernesses of underwood. Between 1813 and the accession of Queen Victoria falls one of the blackest periods of English farming. Prosperity no longer stimulated progress. Except in a few districts, falling prices, dwindling rents, vanishing profits did not even rouse the energy of despair. The growing demoralisation of both employers and employed, which resulted from the administration of the Poor Law, crushed the spirit of agriculturists. "Many horses die while the grass is growing." The men who survived the struggle were rarely the old owners or the old occupiers. They were rather their fortunate successors who entered on the business of land-cultivation on more favourable terms. Prices had begun to fall with the abundant harvest of 1813. The suddenness of the decline is illustrated from the contracts made on behalf of the Royal Navy. At Portsmouth in January, 1813, the price paid for wheat was 123s. 10d., in November, 67s. 10d. In February, 1813, at Deptford, flour was contracted for at 100s. 3d. per sack, in November, at 65s. This rapid fall could not at that time have been due to any prospect of peace. It was rather due to over-production, which the House of Commons Committee on the Corn Trade (1814) found to have increased within the last ten years by a fourth. Besides English corn, Scottish and Irish corn were in the market. Since 1806 Irish grain had been admitted into the country free, and it poured into the western counties in considerable quantities. Deficient harvests in 1809-10-11-12 had concealed the potential yield of the increased area under corn; its full productive power stood revealed by the favourable season of 1813. The two following harvests, 1814 and 1815, were not above the average; but prices of wheat dropped to 74s. 4d. and 65s. 7d. per quarter respectively. As compared with 1812, the actual receipts of farmers diminished by one hundred millions, and the value of the farming stock was reduced by nearly one-half. The evidence of widespread distress is ample? But it is improbable that its extent was understated. Agricultural witnesses and writers were anxious, not only to prevent any relaxation of the Corn Laws, but, if possible, to increase their stringency. The depression, therefore, "lost nothing in the telling," though its depth and reality remain unquestionable. Brougham, speaking on agricultural distress in the House of Commons, April 9, 1816, said "There is one branch of the argument which I shall pass over altogether, I mean the amount of the distresses which are now universally admitted to prevail over almost every part of the Empire. Upon this topic all men are agreed; the statements concerning it are as unquestionable as they are afflicting . . . and the petition from Cambridgeshire presented at an early part of this evening, has laid before you a fact, to which all the former expositions of distress afforded no parallel, that in one parish, every proprietor and tenant being ruined with a single exception, the whole poor-rates of the parish, thus wholly inhabited by paupers, are now paid by an individual whose fortune, once ample, is thus swept entirely away."

  With wheat standing at over 60s. a quarter, it is difficult to realise that the landed interests could be distressed, and it might be supposed that farmers had made enough in prosperous times to tide over a period of depression. But though the rise in prices had been enormous, the increase in public burdens had more than kept pace. During the ten years ending in 1792, the average price of wheat had been 47s. per quarter; the national expenditure under twenty millions a year; the poor-rate less than 1¾ millions; there was also no property tax. During the ten years ending in 1812, wheat averaged 88s. a quarter. While wheat had thus not quite doubled, wages had risen by two-thirds; the national expenditure had multiplied five-fold; tithes had increased by more than a fourth; a property tax had been imposed on owners and occupiers of land. The poor-rate had quadrupled; the county-rate had risen sevenfold; the permissive charge of 6d. in the pound for the road material of highways had been of late years habitually levied. A very large proportion of this public burden was borne by agriculturists. Upon the landed interests fell more than half the new property tax, the greater part of the county-, poor-, and highway-rates, the war duties on hops and malting barley, the tax on agricultural horses, and an exceptional share of the tax on leather, which swelled the cost of every kind of harness gear. Thus the rise of the price of agricultural produce was to a great extent discounted by the growth of taxation, and it was the war, not the Corn Laws, which had given agricultural producers the monopoly of home markets.

  In other respects circumstances were exceptional. During the war, the social advantages of landownership and its apparently remunerative character, as well as the large fortunes realised in recent trade, combined to give land a fancy value. New capitalists gratified both their ambitions and their speculative instincts by becoming purchasers. Their biddings forced existing owners into ruinous competition; they mortgaged their ancestral acres to buy up outlying properties or round off their boundaries. As much as forty-five years' purchase was given for purely agricultural land. The same spirit of competition prompted farmers to offer extravagant rents for land. Farms were put up to auction, and the tenancy fell to the highest bidder. The more prudent had left business in 1806. Many of the new men entered on their holdings with insufficient or borrowed capital. Money was still made in farming; but, instead of being realised, it was put back into the land, where, so long as prices rose, or were even maintained, it proved a profitable investment. Among all classes, including landowners and farmers, a higher standard of living prevailed. Country mansions had been built, rebuilt, or enlarged, and costly improvements effected in the equipment of farms,--often by means of loans; heavy jointures and portions had been charged on estates; farmers and their wives had either altered their simpler habits, or brought with them into their new business more luxurious modes of life. The whole fabric rested on the continuance of the war-prices. When these began to fall, the crash came. Profits were reduced by a half; burdens remained the same. Tenants-at-will could at least quit their holdings. But tenants occupying under long leases found themselves in a difficult position. Landlords could not meet their liabilities, unless their rents were maintained; without reductions of rent, the bankruptcy of their tenants seemed inevitable.

  In the period 1814-16 the agricultural industry passed suddenly from prosperity to extreme depression. At first farmers met their engagements out of capital. When that was exhausted, their only resource was to sell their corn as soon as it was threshed, or their stock, for what it would fetch. The great quantity of grain thus thrown on the market in a limited time lowered prices for producers, and the subsequent advance, which benefited only the dealers, suggested to landlords that no reductions of rent were necessary Farms were thrown up; notices to quit poured in; numbers of tenants absconded. Large tracts of land were untenanted and often uncultivated. In 1815 three thousand acres in a small district of Huntingdonshire were abandoned, and nineteen farms in the Isle of Ely were without tenants. Bankers pressed for their advances, landlords for their rents, tithe-owners for their tithe, tax-collectors for their taxes, tradesmen for their bills. Insolvencies, compositions, executions, seizures, arrests and imprisonments for debt multiplied. Farmhouses were full of sheriffs' officers. Many large farmers lost everything, and became applicants for pauper allowances. Even in Norfolk the number of writs and executions rose from 636 in 1814 to 844 in 1815; in Suffolk from 430 to 850; in Worcester from 640 to 890. In the Isle of Ely the number of arrests and executions increased from 57 in 1812-13 to 263 in 1814-15. In the same district several farmers failed for an aggregate sum of £72,500, and the creditors in hardly any instance received a dividend. Between 1815 and 1820, 52 farmers, cultivating between them 24,000 acres, failed in Dorsetshire. Agricultural improvements were at a stand-still. Live-stock was reduced to a minimum. Lime-kilns ceased to burn; less manure was used on the land; the least possible amount of labour was employed. The tradesmen, innkeepers, and shopkeepers of country towns suffered heavily by the loss of custom. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights, collar makers, harness makers, carpenters, found no work. At first the depression had been chiefly felt in corn-growing districts, especially on heavy land. But by 1816 it had spread to mixed and grass farms. In that year, bad seasons created a temporary scarcity; the rise of wheat to the old prices aggravated rural distress without helping any persons except dealers, and the wealthier farmers who could afford to wait; the potato crop, which had recently become important in England, failed; perpetual floods in the spring and summer were succeeded by a winter of such unusual severity, that the loss of sheep in the North was enormous. Landlords, whose land was thrown upon their hands, or who had laid charges on their estates, found themselves confronted with ruin. The alternative was hard. If the mortgagee foreclosed, the estate sold for a sum which barely recouped the charges. Preston, in Review of the Present Ruined Condition of the Agricultural and Landed Interests, (1816), states that "in Norfolk alone landed property to the value of one million and a half is on sale, without buyers for want of money." One property, for which "£140,000 was offered two years ago, is now on sale at £80,000." In a second pamphlet, Further Observations on the State of the Nation (1816), he states that "some of the best estates of the kingdom are selling at a depreciation of £50 per cent. One of the finest grass farms in Somersetshire sold lately at 10 years purchase." Glover says in Observations on the Present State of Pauperism in England, "There are now estates in the most fertile parts of England, nay even within 50 miles of London, which are an absolute loss to the possessor." The natural reluctance of landlords to lower rents may have involved tenants in their fall; but by 1816 they are stated to have lost 9 millions a year by rent reductions alone?

  For the next twenty years the same record of depression is continued. The attention of Parliament was continually called to the distress of the landed interests. Petitions covered the table of the House; innumerable pamphlets and letters demanded remunerating prices for agricultural produce. Some exaggeration there probably was, for the struggle of Free Trade against Protection had begun. But the account which has been given of farming conditions in the years 1814-16 was substantially confirmed by numerous witnesses who gave evidence on the continuance of the distress before a series of Select Committees in 1820, 1821, 1822, 1833, and 1836. Rural conditions were deplorable. Even as late as 1833, it was stated that, in spite of rent reductions, which in Sussex amounted to 63 per cent., there was scarcely a solvent tenant in the Wealds of Sussex and Kent, and that many farmers, having lost all they had, were working on the roads. Violent fluctuations in prices continued to overthrow all calculations; the wheat area alternately expanded and contracted; the sliding scale of 1829, soon exploited for their own profit by foreign importers, only increased the speculative character of the agricultural industry. On heavy clays less capital and less labour were expended; wet seasons prevented farmers from getting on the land, and caused the discontinuance of manure, excessive cropping, and the impoverishment, even the abandonment, of the heavier soils. To add to the difficulties of clay farmers, the rot of 1830-1, which is described as the most disastrous on record, "swept away two million sheep." Everywhere wages were lowered and men dismissed. Work became so scarce that, in spite of the fall of prices, starvation stared the agricultural labourer in the face. Distress bred discontent, and discontent disturbances, which were fostered by political agitation. While the Luddites broke up machinery, gangs of rural labourers destroyed threshing machines, or avenged the fancied conspiracy of farmers by burning farm-houses, stacks, and ricks, or wrecking the shops of butchers and bakers. In the riots of 1830-31, when "Swing" and his proselytes were at work, agrarian fires blazed from Dorsetshire to Lincolnshire.

  The evidence before the Select Committee of 1836 shows that prosperity was beginning to revive. But the long period of depression left its permanent mark on the relations of landlord and tenant, as well as on the conditions of rural society. It was not merely that progress had been lost, or that much of the land was impoverished, or that farm buildings fell into ruinous condition. A great expenditure was needed to reorganise the industry, and it was the owner of the land who found the money. Necessity compelled landed proprietors to realise their position. Tenants had little capital left; they were also more cautious of risks. Recent experience had created a profound distrust of long leases. Without security of tenure for a prolonged term of years, no man of ordinary prudence would make an outlay on the costly works which his predecessors had eagerly undertaken. It was now that the distinction becomes cleanly marked between landlord's and tenant's improvements. Even in the latter class, it was already evident that, where the benefits were not exhausted at the expiration of the tenancy, compensation was payable, and that local customs afforded insufficient protection. On these new lines agriculture once more began to advance. At the accession of Queen Victoria the worst of the crisis was over. Rents had been adjusted to changed conditions. The industry had been relieved from some of the exceptional taxation. The Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 had removed a great obstacle to progress. The new Poor Law of 1834 reduced the burden of the rates, and began to re-establish the self-respect of the labourer. The rapid growth of the manufacturing population not only created an increasing demand for agricultural produce, but relieved the glut of the labour-market.

  To small freeholders, whether gentry, yeoman-farmers, or peasant proprietors, the Napoleonic war, with its crushing load of taxation and subsequent collapse of prices, had been fatal. The evidence before the Agricultural Committee of 1833 proves that some still held their own in every county. But it was in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century that their numbers dwindled most rapidly. Some had consulted their pecuniary interests by selling their land at fancy prices, which they took into business. Others sold and embarked their capital as tenant-farmers in hiring larger areas of land, on which they could take fuller advantage of the price of corn. Those who remained on their own estates were for the most part ruined. Many had raised mortgages to buy more land, or to improve their properties, or to put their children out in the world. Prices fell; but the private debt, as well as the public burdens, remained. The struggle was brief; farming deteriorated; buildings fell out of repair; creditors pressed; finally the estate was sold. Even where land was free from charges, owners could not stand up against the burden of poor-rates, which was most crushing to those who employed no labour but their own. "That respectable class of English yeomanry," writes Glover in 1817, "whose fathers from generation to generation have lived on the same spot and cultivated the same farms are now rapidly dwindling into poverty and decay, sinking themselves into the class of paupers." The purchasers were not men of their own class. After 1812 small capitalists no longer invested their savings in land. Their place as buyers was taken by large landowners or successful traders. In Yorkshire the number of small proprietors was dwindling; formerly, if one freeholder went, another took his place; but this had now ceased to be the case. The same report is made of Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Wiltshire. In Kent and Somersetshire it is stated that, though many freeholders retained their land, it was only by the practice of the most rigorous self-denial and by entirely ceasing to employ labour. Throughout the country, it is evident that most of the small landowners, who, in addition to taxes and rates, had to pay annuities or interest on mortgages, were forced to sell their properties. Everywhere large estates were built up on the ruin of small proprietors.

  Morally, if not materially, no class suffered more from the prolonged period of depression than agricultural labourers. They had bitter reason to deplore the shortsighted humanity which in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century had swept away the old barriers against pauperism.' Where Gilbert's Act had been adopted, every man was now secure of employment from the parish or, in any case, of maintenance. In every parish, also, outdoor relief for the able-bodied poor was now compulsory on the overseers. Already in some districts men out of regular work were "on the Rounds," offering their labour from house to house, paid, if employed, partly by the householder, partly by the parish, and if unemployed, wholly by the parish. Even men in full employment were drawn within the net. When in 1795-6 the price of provisions rose to famine height, wages were supplemented by allowances from the rates. A scale of these allowances was proclaimed by the Berkshire magistrates, proportioned to the price of bread and the size of families. From the wages of the unmarried labourer, which were zero, the scale ascended, varying with fluctuations in the cost of the quartern loaf and the number of the children of the married labourer. Similar scales of allowances were adopted in many other counties. Thus able-bodied men, whether in or out of work, became dependent on the rates. That, from the first, these allowances delayed the natural rise of wages, lowered earnings by making the needs of unmarried men the most important factor, and encouraged improvident marriages, is certain. But these evils were held in check till 1813. So long as the war and the high prices continued, the demand for labour was brisk; distress was practically confined to those who suffered from enclosures, or from the decline of local industries other than the cultivation of the land. Agricultural wages rose substantially; employment increased owing to the extension of tillage; even the high prices of provisions affected labourers less than might have been expected, since the provisions, in several parts of the country, were supplied to them at a lower cost than the market rates. Except for winter unemployment the allowance system was sparingly used. But during the depression farmers were driven to economise in their labour bills. Wages were greatly reduced or even ceased altogether. The replies to the Circular Letter of the Board of Agriculture insist on the deplorable scarcity of employment. Preston speaks of the daily increase in the number of paupers, and of "a large part of the community . . . in want of employment though willing to labour." "At no period in the memory of man," writes Jacob in Inquiry into the Causes of the Agricultural Distress, (1817) "has there been so great a portion of industrious agricultural labourers absolutely destitute as at the present moment." It was now that the Poor Law was most perniciously relaxed; now also that the demoralising system of allowances became the most conspicuous feature in its administration.

  The immediate effects of the depressed condition of agriculture was a great reduction in the rates of wages, and in the demand for permanent labour. Unless the farmer could lessen his costs of production, he was rapidly sinking into bankruptcy. The Poor Law, as it was administered in 1813-34, in two ways came to his assistance. It enabled him to reduce wages to the lowest possible point, because it made good the deficiency out of allowances from the rates. Men discharged as supernumeraries were taken on again as soon as they were on the poor-book. It also provided him with an inexhaustible supply of cheap and temporary labour. Bound to defray the whole cost of maintaining the able-bodied poor, the parish gladly accepted any payment, however small, in part relief of their liability. It became almost impossible for a farmer to keep a man in permanent employment at reasonable wages. If he did, he was only saving the rates for neighbours, who put their hands into his pockets to pay their labour bills. Sometimes the ratepayers in the parish arranged among themselves to employ and pay a number of men proportionate to the rateable value of their property. Sometimes the parish agreed with employers to sell the labour of so many paupers at a given sum, and paid the men the difference between the agreed price and the scale allowance awarded to them according to the cost of bread and the number of their children. Sometimes the paupers were paraded by the overseers on a Monday morning, and the week's labour of each individual was offered at auction to the highest bidder. Sometimes the parish contracted for the execution of a piece of work at a given sum, and performed it by pauper labour, paying the men according to the allowance scale. If men were still unemployed, they were formed into gangs under overseers, occupied in more or less unproductive work; it was among these men that the riots of 1830-1 are said to have originated.

  Against the mass of subsidised labour, free labourers could not hope to compete. It was so cheap that men who tried to retain their independence were undersold. Those who had saved money or bought a cottage, could not be placed on the poor-book; they were obliged to strip themselves bare, and become paupers, before they could get employment. Every agency that could promote the spread of pauperism seemed brought into play. The demoralisation gradually extended from the southern counties to the North. In the most practical fashion, labourers were taught the lessons that improvidence paid better than thrift; that their rewards did not depend on their own exertions; that sobriety and efficiency had no special value above indolence and vice. All alike had the same right to be maintained at the ratepayers' cost. Prudence and self-restraint were penalised. The careful were unemployed, the careless supported by the parish; the more recklessly a man married and begot children, the greater his share of the comforts of life. The effect was seen in the rapid growth of population. Among unmarried women morality was discouraged, and unchastity subsidised. The more illegitimate children, the larger the allowance from the parish; at Swaffham a woman with five illegitimate children was in receipt of 18s. a week. The demoralisation was so complete that it threatened to overthrow the whole social fabric. Voluntary pauperism became a profession, and a paying one. Recipients considered themselves as much entitled to parish allowances as they would have been to wages that they had earned by their industry. A generation was springing up which knew no source of income but poor relief. When once the spirit of independence and self-respect was numbed, and the instincts of parental responsibility and filial obligation were weakened, a pauper's life, with its security of subsistence, its light labour, its opportunities of idleness, had attractions for the vicious and easy-going. Riots were not always protests against the existing system; they were sometimes means of enforcing its continuance, and parochial allowances were maintained by the establishment of a reign of terror, by threats, violence, and incendiarism.

  Rural conditions were fast becoming intolerable. Fortunately, there still remained a leaven of agricultural labourers who resented pauper dependence as a curse and a disgrace. Fortunately, many farmers were learning by experience that cheap labour was bad labour, and that quantity was no efficient substitute for quality. Fortunately, also, there were districts which a wiser administration of the Poor Law had rescued from the general demoralisation. In four parishes, Southwell, Bingham, Uley, and Llangattock, the principle had been adopted, with marked success, of refusing relief to the able-bodied, except in well-regulated workhouses. Some sixty others had been practically depauperised (e.g. Welwyn, Leckhampstead, and Carlisle) by stopping allowances, and exacting hard work, at low pay, under strict supervision, as a condition of parish relief. On the other hand, the parish of Cholesbury in Buckinghamshire afforded the typical illustration of the extreme consequences to which the existing system was necessarily leading. Out of 98 persons, who had a settlement in the parish, 64 were in receipt of poor relief, and the rates exceeded 24s. in the pound. Only 16 acres remained in cultivation. When able-bodied paupers were offered land, they refused it on the ground that they preferred their present position. The parish was only able to exist by means of rates-in-aid levied on other parishes in the hundred. Similar conditions prevailed elsewhere. It was evident that the fund from which the rates were provided must become exhausted. Rents were already disappearing. The Poor Law had destroyed the confidence of tenants, deteriorated the moral character of the labourer, forced large areas out of cultivation, driven capital to seek investment everywhere but in land. A drastic remedy was needed. In 1832 a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to examine into existing conditions, and suggest the lines of legislative reform. On the recommendations of this Commission was based the Act of 1834 "for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relative to the Poor in England and Wales." A central authority was constituted to regulate local administration. The orders issued by the new authority proceeded on the main principle of restoring the old Poor Law, without the relaxations which the legislation and practice of George III. had introduced. The workhouse test for the able-bodied was revived. If a man chose to depend for subsistence on the parish rates, instead of on his own resources, he was obliged to enter the workhouse and submit to its regulations. Out-door relief for the able-bodied was discouraged, and allowances in aid of wages were prohibited. At the same time the laws of settlement were modified, in order that labour might become more mobile and more easily transferable in obedience to the laws of demand and supply. The effect of these and other changes was soon manifest. Expenditure upon poor relief fell from £7,036,968 in 1832 to £4,044,741 in 1837. Wages rose, though for many years they remained miserably low. Landowners again poured their capital into the land; farmers regained confidence; agricultural progress was resumed. The evidence laid before the Select Committee of 1836 proves that signs of returning prosperity were beginning to appear, and that the distress was now practically confined to clay land.


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