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The Speenhamland System 1795

The Speenhamland System was a method of giving relief to the poor, based on the price of bread and the number of children a man had. It further complicated the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law because it allowed the able-bodied - those who were able to work - to draw on the poor rates. It was set up in the Berkshire village of Speen by local magistrates who held a meeting at the Pelican Inn on 6 May 1795. They felt that 'the present state of the poor law requires further assistance than has generally been given them'. A series of bad harvests had put wheat in short supply and consequently the price of bread had risen sharply. The situation was made worse by the growing population and because of the French Wars. This meant that grain could not be imported from Europe. Things were so bad that famine was a distinct possibility and there was a fear among the ruling classes that the lower orders might be tempted to emulate the French, and revolt. There had been a spate of food riots in the spring of 1795.

The magistrates decided to bring in an allowance scale. The idea was that a labourer would have his income supplemented to subsistence level by the parish: a type of 'top-up' on very low wages. The magistrates also suggested that farmers and other employers should increase the wages of their employees, but this latter idea met with little success. The idea of these allowances spread rapidly in the south of England and it is thought that the system saved many families from starvation. Although this method of poor relief was not a national system it was particularly common in the so-called 'Swing' counties. However, as time passed, contemporary writers, such as Thomas Malthus, said that the system tended to increase the population because it encouraged labourers to marry earlier than they might have done; it was also believed that it encouraged couples to have more children so the family could claim on the poor rates.

An example of the scales of relief

All sums of money are given in £.s.d. (pounds, shillings and pence)- pre-decimal currency. For an explanation of this click here.

Income for When a gallon loaf cost

1/- 1/1 1/2 1/3 1/4 1/5 1/6
Single man




3/9 4/- 4/- 4/3
Husband and wife 4/6 5/-


5/6 5/10 5/11 6/3
Husband, wife and one child 6/- 6/5 6/10 7/3 7/8 7/10 8/3
Husband, wife and two children 7/6 8/0 8/6


9/6 9/9 10/3

This system and others like it lasted until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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