Sickness, medical welfare and the English poor, 1750–1834

Author: Steven King

This book explores the experiences of the sick poor between the 1750s and through the so-called crisis of the Old Poor Law ending in the 1830s. It provides a comprehensive and colourful overview of the nature, scale and negotiation of medical welfare. At its core stand the words and lives of the poor themselves, reconstructed in painstaking detail to show that medical welfare became a totemic issue for parochial authorities by the 1830s. The book suggests that the Old Poor Law confronted a rising tide of sickness by the early nineteenth century. While there are spectacular instances of parsimony and neglect in response to rising need, in most places and at most times, parish officers seem to have felt moral obligations to the sick. Indeed, we might construct their responses as considerate and generous. To some extent this reflected Christian paternalism but also other factors such as a growing sense that illness, even illness among the poor, was and should be remediable and a shared territory of negotiation between paupers, advocates and officials. The result was a canvas of medical welfare with extraordinary depth. By the 1820s, more of the ill-health of ordinary people was captured by the poor law and being doctored or sojourning in an institution became part of pauper and parochial expectation. These trends are brought to vivid life in the words of the poor and their advocates, such that the book genuinely offers a re-interpretation of the Old Poor Law from the bottom up.

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