The geography of poor relief expenditure in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century rural Oxfordshire
This thesis aims to explore the relationship between the geographies of law, society, economy and the physical environment in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century rural England. It uses as its exploring ground the operation of the Old Poor Law in rural Oxfordshire. This county was chosen because it was both a microcosm of the farming landscape of Southern England and was one of the counties where the problem of poor relief was most acutely felt. Chapter 1 establishes that the mapping out of spatial diversity, and the consideration of the forces moulding it, is fundamental to an understanding of the functioning of the Old Poor Law. Chapter 2 uses data contained in the parliamentary returns to demonstrate some clear regional differences in the level of poor relief and the chronology of change. Chapters 3 and 4 show that these regional averages and trends do not make intelligible the kaleidoscopic welter of local variations indicated by a closer examination of parish records. Chapters 5 and 6 consider poor relief expenditure in four parishes: Cropredy, Pyrton, Spelsbury and Stoke Lyne. These show that differences in the level of poor relief expenditure cannot automatically be taken to indicate variations in the level of what we might think of as unemployment or poverty. The generosity of disbursements, and therefore the real incomes of the poor, could also vary markedly between parishes. Thus, the Old Poor Law cannot be detached from the particular places in which it acquired its meaning and saliency. Its impact upon the daily lives of ratepayers, administrators and recipient can be established and the poor treated as individuals rather than as abstract units of labour.