The Speenhamland System.

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Jack Copson 11-1

History Coursework

The Speenhamland System

Objective 1

How did the Speenhamland System work?

Throughout the 1790’s food prices in Britain were a constant problem. During this period Britain was at war with France. This affected trade with mainland Europe and led to rising food prices. Workers wages were seldom enough to keep up with the rising food prices affecting the country. Knowing what had happened during the French revolution in 1798 local parishes and the government realised that if people could no longer afford basic foods such as bread, there could be a large-scale problem. The people could become desperate and cause difficulties for the authorities of Britain.

 A system was developed in Speen in Berkshire during 1795 that would allow casual workers to provide food for them and their families. The system became known as the Speenhamland System. The system worked by topping up workers earnings to comply with the current bread prices. If bread prices were to rise, the workers wage would be topped up to enable them to purchase food. The system also worked by the size of each family, more children resulted in more money for workers. This new system only gave workers enough money to top up their earnings in order for them to be able to buy food, but they would only be made up to a subsistence level by their parish.

How did the Speenhamland System affect those who were in full-time employment?

Unfortunately the Speenhamland had no long-term affect on the problems faced by workers. It did save many people form starvation, but damaged their pride and self-respect. The system was easily abused; employers were able to keep wages low as they knew the parishes would top up their workers wages. Farmers were typical abusers of the system as they realised its loopholes. But the system was also used wrongly by the workers who quickly realised that they could get paid for doing nothing.

 The system managed to keep workers happy during times of high food prices and low wages. Many cynics argued that the added allowances for children influenced people to get married earlier and to have larger families, therefore making the problems of growing population worse. The basic hypothesis was, have more children, get more money. The British Poor Rates rose alarmingly.

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 Another downfall of the Speenhamland System was that the parish had no control over food prices. Wheat prices rose during the French wars and so did the number of workers requiring poor relief. Before the war, the cost of poor relief was below £2 million, but during 1812 when wheat prices were at there highest this figure rocketed to £8.8 million. The 1830’s saw a large increase in the number of riots witnessed in Britons rural south. The Poor Law couldn’t even keep the peace.


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