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Illegitimacy and the poor law in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England

Illegitimacy and the poor law in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England

This research is being undertaken by Tom Nutt, a Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a member of the Cambridge Group.

This research concerns the treatment of unmarried mothers and fathers under the Old and New Poor Law in eighteenth- and nineteenth century England. Whilst there are extensive historiographies of both illegitimacy and the poor law in this period, few historians have systematically examined the operation of this system (under the Old Poor Law) that not only afforded unmarried mothers an implicit right to welfare relief for their illegitimate children, but also expected putative fathers to be financially responsible for the cost this support. Little is also known about the practical effects brought by changes to the law instituted under 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The research thus examines the operation of this system at a number of levels.

At the core of the research is a series of parochial case studies, with Tom's recent PhD drawing upon four such studies in Essex (Chelmsford and Great Leighs) and the West Riding of Yorkshire (Sowerby and Ovenden). These studies highlighted the workings of national system that was also characterised by local and regional diversity in terms of policy and practice. The research also highlights the key role played by magistrates' courts in overseeing poor law practices. Future research will focus substantially upon this, particularly with regards to the labouring poor's capacity to triangulate between the institutions of the parish and the magistracy.

In a broader sense, the research also examines the political economy of bastardy, primarily in terms of understanding contemporary discourses of welfare and illegitimacy.