Huntingdonshire 1851-1901: changes in population and poor relief with particular reference to the St. Ives Poor Law Union

Clayton, Michael Robert (2019). Huntingdonshire 1851-1901: changes in population and poor relief with particular reference to the St. Ives Poor Law Union. Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
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The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of economic and social upheaval in England. The standard historical narrative posits that rapid industrialisation in the towns and cities was driving a population boom, not only in those areas but also in smaller towns and urban areas as increasing opportunities for trade opened up new markets and commercial centres. At the same time, rural England was in decline and migration from the economically ailing countryside intensified population growth in the industrialised areas.

This was the national backdrop to the introduction in 1834 of the New Poor Law, one of the most significant social measures in British history. The New Poor Law sought to end the previous regime of paternalistic locally determined welfare support by imposing a harshly punitive central regime based on the ‘morality’ of paid employment above welfare assistance, thereby reducing numbers of paupers and the cost of poor relief. This study examines the interaction of all these factors in the area of the St. Ives Poor Law Union in the former county of Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) during the period 1851 to 1901. This was an intensely rural area that experienced significant population decline yet, despite the intentions of the New Poor Law, its relative incidence of poor relief increased from below to above the national average over the course of the study period.

This study concludes that this result, characterised as the ‘St. Ives anomaly’, owed little to the local administration of the New Poor Law which was a model for its time and largely reflected the punitive intent of its authors. Instead, it reflected the almost unique circumstances of St, Ives specifically and Huntingdonshire generally as prime exemplars of the Great Agricultural Depression and rural depopulation of the late nineteenth century. This study highlights the important truth that standard national narratives can hide multiple, varying local histories.

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