The desire to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor is nothing new, says David Filtness. The founder of the Thames Police, Patrick Colquhoun, was both radical and draconian in his approach to crime and Poor Law reform.
In an age of austerity, when many commentators are decrying the cost of living in relation to wage levels, attention often turns to how our forebears wrestled with their own versions of these problems. In Britain the coalition government has targeted excessive benefits as a prime factor in the spiralling of welfare costs, just as politicians and thinkers of the 19th century also bemoaned the rapidly burgeoning costs of poor relief and sought ways to make the poor earn their keep to a greater degree. The muscular pull of political economy was starting to make itself felt in views on caring for the poor. Before the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, poor law policy had subtly shifted towards a greater emphasis on self-help, both as an organising principle and as an ethical heartbeat of policy.