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Poverty, savings banks and the development of self-help, c. 1775-1834



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Filtness, David 


This thesis examines the development of self-help as an ideology and as an organisational principle for poor relief and how it came to dominate discussions over poverty and crucially inform the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The continuity of self-help with earlier discussions and reviews of the poor laws is explored and emphasised, as is the continuing moral core of poor relief despite historians’ frequent ascription of de-moralisation to the new political economy that came to heavily influence poor law discourse.
The thesis analyses the evolution of the poor laws and of attitudes to poverty and begins with an examination of a divergence in the discourse relating to poverty between a more formal and centralised institutional approach and a more devolved, permissive institutional approach; the latter gained precedence due to its closer proximity to a dominant mode of thinking (as analysed by A. W. Coats) about the poor that held self-betterment as offering a solution to poverty most appropriate to the governance structures of the day. The greater role given to self-betterment and the natural affinity of more devolved schemes with a macroeconomic political economy framework pushed the evolution of poor law discourse along a route of emphasising individual probity and agency over the established model of community cohesion. Parallel to this divergence was the development of distinct intellectual traditions within poor law discourse between the older natural-law tradition of a natural right to subsistence and a new ideology of the natural law of markets and of competition for resources. By analysis of the thought of writers such as Thomas Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, Patrick Colquhoun, David Davies, Frederick Morton Eden, Edmund Burke, etc., it is shown that this newer conception of natural law, encompassing a less interventionist and more macroeconomic approach (involving the deployment of statistics and abstraction, as explored by S. Sherman), proved more compatible with the devolved, more permissive institutional approach and so came to take precedence over that of the natural right to subsistence, which was associated more with traditional paternalism and community-level responses to scarcity and poverty. The natural law tradition spoke more to the abstract conceptions of poverty associated at this time with the greater deployment of statistics and tables in the analysis of social problems. It is demonstrated how writers of the period utilised utilitarian conceptions and nascent political economic arguments to portray the greater good of the country as a whole as possessed of greater moral and economic authority than more traditional ‘moral economy’ responses, and that vocabularies of virtue and duty were used to illustrate and justify such a shift. This set the scene for self-betterment as an economic strategy to evolve into an ideology of self-help which was developed as the panacea of poverty and the answer to the social dislocations caused by industrialisation. Self-help came to the fore as an approach that was more politically resonant in the era of revolutionary France and which enabled a more permissive institutional apparatus to be advanced. These institutions, such as allotments, savings banks and schools of industry, came to prominence in the period 1816-1820 and pertained more to macroeconomic understandings of poverty. They were expounded using a theme, that of ‘character’, that described poverty as the result of personal imprudence and hence as treatable, the most appropriate level for this treatment being that of the individual. The reforms of 1818-19 and the debates that informed them are given an extended analysis as they formed the crucial juncture in the cohering of self-help as an ideology and a paradigmatic shift in poor law policy towards greater discrimination underwritten by self-help. Finally, the 1834 Poor law Reform Act is explained in terms of the ideological development of arguments of self-help and character towards a more punitive and disciplinarian platform for enforcing self-help, with the cost-efficient and systematic institutional approach of Bentham adapted to the purpose.





Poverty, Savings Banks, Poor Laws, Self-help, Malthus, Bentham, Colquhoun, David Davies, Joseph Townsend


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge