Bastardy and the new poor law : 1832-1844

Rodgers, Adrian. (1986) Bastardy and the new poor law : 1832-1844. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Abstract

In 1832 the English government commissioned an Inquiry to examine the troublesome administration of a group of social welfare laws, known as the Poor Laws. The omnibus of Poor Laws governed relief to many groups of indigent people. This thesis, however, is one of a few twentieth century analyses to limit its concerns to only one of the laws which provided assistance for the mothers of illegitimate children. By limiting the question to 'bastardy', as it was frequently known, this thesis examines the faulty reasoning of the government in relation to social questions. Although the government carefully researched every reform, in twelve years it made four substantial alterations in the way it hoped to regulate illegitimate children. By analysing government documents and other sources, this thesis blames the limited spirit of inquiry that characterised bureaucratic reports for the fickleness of the nation's laws. -- When the Poor Law's Commissioners of Inquiry published their recommendations in 1834, they made the startling suggestion that the mother of a bastard child should no longer be permitted to sue the father of the child for a support payment. Instead, the Commissioners wanted local parishes, which administered the national scheme of relief for the poor, to provide the mother with assistance. If the parishes would incarcerate the mothers and their children in a 'workhouse', where they would be governed by strict rules, the commissioners hypothesized that the rate of illegitimate births would decline. In their effort to escape this unpleasant treatment, the Commissioners reckoned that all women would take every safeguard to ensure they remained chaste until marriage. In placing the onus of chastity exclusively upon the women, the Commissioners completely ignored accepted social traditions, which placed the liability for maintaining an illegitimate child on the father. Instead, the Commissioners accepted the Utilitarian and Malthusian ideology, predicated by Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus. -- The government, which also propounded their own forms of Malthusian and Benthamite doctrine, attempted to enact their Commissioners' proposals. In 1834, the government succeeded in abolishing the mother's right to sue the father of her illegitimate child. Yet, because of the pressure exerted by individuals who opposed the reform, they were forced to compromise their ideals. The government's new law allowed the parish this ability to sue the father for the maintenance it provided to the child. Despite this 'compromise', the government felt the philosophy of 'enticing' the woman to remain chaste, which lay behind their Commissioners' proposals, remained intact. -- Although the new law was opposed by public and political factions, the government successfully side-stepped these criticisms. By 1838, however, a pool of bureaucratic reports had accumulated, which recommended that the government reconsider the law it had passed only four years before. The government obliged by making a token amendment, but the law remained substantially unchanged. In 1844, the Rebecca Riots in Wales catalysed the government reaction, and a new law which reinstated the woman's right to sue the father of her bastard, was enacted. Although this law was far from ideal, it was a step in redressing a social injustice.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
URI: http://research.library.mun.ca/id/eprint/7960
Item ID: 7960
Additional Information: Bibliography: leaves 200-210.
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > History
Date: 1986
Date Type: Submission
Geographic Location: Great Britain
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Poor laws--Great Britain; Illegitimacy--Great Britain

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