Were single mothers better off in the 19th Century?

Women with children

As far back as the 1800s, single mothers were receiving benefits. At that time, they would be paid up front and in cash, but were they better off than today?

It's a perennial issue every government has to grapple with, whatever its political persuasion. Is the welfare system too generous?

The Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through parliament, is this government's attempt to introduce what it says is "a simpler and fairer" system. But proposed cuts will hit the poor hardest, argue opponents.

New research shows that the amount of benefits given to those in need is a debate that has raged for hundreds of years. It also challenges commonly held beliefs that the poor in centuries past were universally left to flounder, often in crushing poverty.

Elizabethan Poor Law

Woman with child

Cambridge historian Dr Samantha Williams has examined an early form of welfare in England and Wales called the Old English Poor Law. Under it, poor relief - as it was then called - was given out by the local parish.

Looking at the plight of poor families in two Bedfordshire communities between 1760 and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, her research reveals that a generous benefits system existed in parts of England.

Payments were worked out according to the average household income of neighbouring working families. Lone mothers were the recipients of some of the biggest handouts, so were the elderly. Others did not fare so well.

Under today's welfare system, such single mothers receive welfare including income support, child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit. The elderly get pensions, plus other help. But how did that compare with today?

If a single pregnant mother wanted to claim poor relief before 1834, she had to go before two judicial officers and swear on the paternity of her child's father under oath. No other proof was needed. She would then receive benefits up front and the officials would try to reclaim money back from the father.

The "bastardy examinations" - as they were called - required the father to pay back all the childbirth expenses, the legal expenses it cost to pursue him and regular maintenance payments for the child, similar to child maintenance payments today.

If the father couldn't be found, the parish would support the woman. It was quite a financial undertaking as the birth of illegitimate children to errant fathers was massively widespread during this period in history, says Williams.

Average weekly incomes today

  • Single/couple all in full-time work £644
  • Couple, one full-time, one part-time work £567
  • Couple, one full-time work, one not working £519
  • No full-time, one or more part-time work £419
  • Workless, one or more aged 60 or over £381
  • Workless, one or more unemployed £246
  • Workless, other inactive £298

Does not include break down of income and what it includes

Source: DWP

Lone mothers could receive up to 37% of the income of neighbouring working households, according to the study, which does not cover lone fathers. Extras such as fuel, clothing and rent payments contributed another 8%.

But wages and average living standards were extremely low and 45% would actually amount to very little, say historians. According to Williams, in 1834 the weekly wage of an average agricultural worker was nine shillings. It's the equivalent of 45p and would be worth just under £48 today, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator. A lone mother would get just over four shillings a week, roughly the equivalent of 20p, which would be worth an estimated £19 today.

So, while single mothers were well provided for, it is only relative to other welfare claimants of the time, says Dr Tim Leunig, an economics historian from the London School of Economics. In real terms they were not better off than today.

"By today's standards these women would have been utterly impoverished," he says.

Just like modern times, welfare expenditure was a topic of fierce debate in the early 19th Century. After the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 it became much harder for a single mother to claim money for her child. Identifying the father under oath was no longer enough.

"Women had to provide corroborative evidence. She had to be seen courting the father in order to claim child support costs," says Dr Williams.

It was pensioners who received the most generous benefits. Each case was separately judged and, if needed, they would also receive clothes, fuel, food, medical care and their burials would be paid for.

With all the extra handouts they effectively got up to 70% of the average working household income in their area, but again in the 1800s it would not have amounted to much because wages were so low. It would work out at roughly £35 a week today.

Cartoon titled 'St. Giles's' There was no retirement age as we now know it

If today's pensioners got 70% of the average working household wage, it would total £451 per week. This is using the DWP's current average weekly income for a working couple, which is £644. The current basic state pension is £102, but the elderly do get other benefits on top.

There was no set age to receiving a pension back then, it was given once deemed necessary. The term pension as we know it today did not come into place until the 1908 Pensions Act.

"Pension in that era meant money to live on for the rest of your life. That's where the phrase 'pensioned off' comes from, you could be pensioned off at any age," says Dr Leunig.

But again, things weren't quite as generous as they appear. If able, people were expected to work for as long as they could - however old they were.

Some were pushed into poor relief because there was no work available, says Dr David Turner, a historian at Swansea University.

"There were growing concerns about rising levels of poverty. The poor relief system was finding it difficult to cope with the demands of claimants, which is parallel to the welfare system today."

Poverty rapidly increased after 1790, as many men returned from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Combined with harvest failures and rapid price inflation, this gave rise to a severe lack of jobs and increased reliance on poor relief.

Scottish Poor Law

Drawing of a boy in a workhouse
  • The Scottish system was funded by voluntary contributions
  • The money was distributed under the direction of the minister and elders of the Kirk
  • Able-bodied poor had no right to statutory relief
  • By 1894 the creation of the Local Government Board made Scottish practice much closer to that of England

Men were the worst off when it came to benefits as they were expected to stay in work. Income support as we know it, which currently pays £67.50 a week to over 25s, and other benefits would have been very welcome. Instead vagrants, who wandered from job to job, were frequently whipped and sent to prison for short periods if they weren't working.

"Access to poor relief was heavily gendered," says Williams. Elderly women were more than twice as likely to receive support than elderly men.

Leunig agrees there was no support for single men in this era "unless they were 'imbeciles' as they would have been called at the time - that is, unable to work."

"This era was a phenomenally sexist, patriarchal society where men were expected to work and support their families and women were not seen to be able to support their children alone. But it was also an era where strength was much more important in the labour market."

Fathers who did not pay child support were pursued by local officials for payments. In some cases they were sent to prison if they did not pay. Some of the parishes would work hard to recover child support payments, while others were more lax, says Williams. There was no universal system in place as there is today.

However, it was often very difficult for the father to be traced as men went to war, went to sea or simply did not want to be found, adds Williams. It was very easy for a man to become invisible in large cities like London.

Benefits were only given to those in dire need and it was largely expected that families would take care of their dependents.

"You had to claim you were poor and that nobody else could look after you," says Leunig.

Vocal members of society would name and shame those receiving relief. Each parish had special overseers of the poor. They would display public lists of those receiving poor relief, says Joanna Innes, modern history lecturer at Oxford University.

A cartoon depicting 1834 Poor Law Able men who refused work were known as vagrants

"This was an anti-welfare measure and allowed the community to scrutinise those receiving relief."

The maximum of 70% relief given to those out of work under the old Poor Law is more than benefit claimants would get under the government's proposed £26,000 per-household cap on benefits, planned for 2013.

But again it must be remembered that society is much wealthier today than it was in the early 19th Century, says Leunig.

"Incomes were very low then. The benefits given were generous considering how poor society was, but by today's standards the pensions provided would not be enough to live off."

Although poor relief was given out locally, unemployment and the increasing cost of welfare in the late 18th and early 19th Century was a national problem, says Turner.

"There were similar calls as there are today to restrict people's access to benefits. Many paupers, especially the young, were seen as capable of finding work so were stigmatised as being lazy."

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