Bentham Project

Writings on the Poor Laws

vol. 1, ed. Michael Quinn, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001), pp. lvi, 359.

In the essays presented in this volume Bentham lays down the theoretical principles from which he develops his proposals for reform of the English poor laws in response to the perceived crisis in poor relief in the mid 1790s. In `Essays on the subject of the Poor Laws' Bentham seeks to justify the principles upon which entitlement to relief should be grounded. He moved beyond the commonplace indictment of idelness and drink to recognize that unemployment, ill health, old age, pregnancy and childbirth constituted a standing threat to the viability of the families of the rural poor. He envisaged the provision of medical care, and of ante- and post natal services to the independent poor, and the establishment of midwifery schools in a national system of workhouses. In `Pauper Systems Compared' he presents a sustained comparison between home relief and institutional relief, to the detriment of the former, above all for its severance of the link between subsistence and labour. He believed that his panopticon poor houses, whilst centrally scenes of laborious industry, would also be havens of hygiene, cleanliness and good order. The polemical `Observations on the Poor Bill' is a lively critique of the Bill introduced into the House of Commons by William Pitt in 1796. The ideas advanced here by Bentham were a significant influence on Edwin Chadwick, and through his mediation, on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The essays are based almost entirely on manuscript sources, and are published here for the first time in definitive form.

Michael Quinn.

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