Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • E. A. WRIGLEY (a1) and RICHARD SMITH (a1)


Malthus was severely critical of the old poor law, especially when the payments paid to recipients were made in conformity to the principles adopted by the local magistrates in Speenhamland in 1795. He considered that it encouraged early and improvident marriage with unfortunate consequences. There have been a number of attempts to determine whether Malthus was justified in supposing that the old poor law had this effect, some concluding that he was correct in his assumption, others that he was mistaken. The information contained in the first four English censuses did not include a breakdown of the population by age, sex, and marital status, and therefore did not provide a basis for a definitive test of Malthus's assertion before the repeal of the old poor law in 1834. The 1851 census, however, did provide this breakdown for five-year age groups which makes it possible to compare marriage patterns in counties in which a large proportion of the male workforce were ‘peasants’ (Malthus's term for agricultural labourers), and the Speenhamland provisions were widely adopted, with other counties. The results show that Malthus was mistaken.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Available formats


Corresponding author

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, cb2
Downing College, Cambridge, cb2


Hide All

1 There is a general discussion of these issues in Wrigley, E. A., The path to sustained growth: England's transition from an organic economy to an industrial revolution (Cambridge, 2016), ch. 6.

2 Malthus described the inducement to marriage that arose from the adoption of Speenhamland as follows: ‘In country parishes the poor do really receive some compensation for their low wages; their children, beyond a certain number, are really supported by the parish; and though it must be a most grating reflection to a labouring man, that it is scarcely possible for him to marry without becoming a father of paupers; yet if he can reconcile himself to this prospect, the compensation, such as it is, is, no doubt, made to him.’ Malthus, T. R., An essay on the principle of population, in Wrigley, E. A. and Souden, D., eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus (8 vols., London, 1986), iii, p. 381.

3 Ibid., i, p. 27.

4 Ibid., p. 33.

5 Ibid., p. 35.

6 Ibid., pp. 35–6. Such views mirror those of Smith, Adam in The wealth of nations, ed. Cannan, E (Chicago, IL, 1976), book 1, ch. x, pt ii, pp. 151–2. Smith, however, made no other references to or criticisms of specific poor relief practices and their consequences. See Winch, Donald, Riches and poverty: an intellectual history of political economy in Britain, 1750–1834 (Cambridge, 1996), p. 202.

7 Malthus, Essay on population, i, pp. 30–1.

8 Ibid., pp. 36–7.

9 Malthus, Essay on population, 6th edn, iii, p. 381.

11 T. R. Malthus, An investigation of the cause of the present high price of provisions, in Wrigley and Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, vii, pp. 5–18; Wrigley, E. A., ‘Corn and crisis: Malthus on the high price of provisions’, Population and Development Review, 25 (1999), pp. 121–8.

12 T. R. Malthus, The amendment of the poor laws, in Wrigley and Souden, eds., The works of Thomas Robert Malthus, iv, p. 9. For an especially succinct and insightful assessment of Malthus's view on the poor laws, see Winch, Riches and poverty, pp. 269–71.

13 Krause, J. T., ‘Changes in English fertility and mortality, 1781–1850’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 11 (1958), p. 68.

14 Huzel, J. P., ‘Malthus, the poor law, and population in early nineteenth-century England’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 22 (1969), pp. 430–52.

15 Marshall, J. D., The old poor law, 1795–1834 (London, 1968), pp. 3843.

16 Huzel, J. P., ‘The demographic impact of the old poor law: more reflections on Malthus’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 33 (1980), pp. 367–81.

17 Ibid., p. 380.

18 Boyer, G. R., ‘Malthus was right after all: poor relief and birth rates in southeastern England’, Journal of Political Economy, 97 (1989), pp. 93114, and further developed in ch. 5 of Boyer, G. R., An economic history of the English poor law, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 1990).

19 Thompson, S. J., ‘Population growth and corporations of the poor, 1660–1841’, in Briggs, C., Kitson, P. M., and Thompson, S. J., eds., Population, welfare and economic change in Britain, 1290–1834 (Woodbridge, 2014), pp. 189226. The geography of poor relief expenditure in the later stages of the old poor law has recently been assessed in Suffolk and it has been shown that the areas with the slowest population growth, but also experiencing the highest per capital poor relief expenditure between 1780 and 1834 were those that had de-industrialized sharply in the eighteenth century and had moved inexorably towards a distinctive style of agrarian capitalism with high ratios of labourers to farmers c. 1817. See R. Smith and M. Satchell, ‘Malthus, poverty and population change in Suffolk, 1780–1834’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History (2018), pp. 256–69.

20 Webb, S. and Webb, B., English local government: statutory authorities for special purposes (London, 1932), pp. 107–51.

21 Poynter, J. R., Society and pauperism: English ideas on poor relief, 1795–1834 (London, 1969), p. 83.

22 Williams, S., Poverty, gender and life-cycle under the English poor law, 1760–1834 (Woodbridge, 2011); French, H. R., ‘Living in poverty in eighteenth-century Terling’, in Hindle, S., Shepard, A., and Walter, J., eds., Remaking English society: social relations and social change in early modern England (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 281315; French, H. R., ‘How dependent were the “dependent poor”? Poor relief and the life-course in Terling, Essex, 1762–1834’, Continuity and Change, 130 (2015), pp. 192222; French, H. R., ‘An irrevocable gift: detailing the dynamics of rural poverty in southern England, 1762–1834: a case study’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 68 (2015), pp. 759805.

23 Williams, Poverty, gender and life-cycle, p. 161; French, ‘How dependent were the “dependent poor”’?’, p. 221.

24 French, ‘Living in poverty’, pp. 298–9; Williams, Poverty, gender and life-cycle, p. 162.

25 Williams, Poverty, gender and life-cycle, p. 162. In a less comprehensive case-study using selected relief recipients, Samantha Shave has argued based on a similar nominative linkage exercise with the parish registers and poor law accounts for the Dorset parish of Motcombe that there was no certainty that those with large families would come to depend on regular weekly or monthly pensions. See Shave, S., ‘The dependent poor? (Re)constructing the lives of individuals “on the parish” in rural Dorset, 1800–1832’, Rural History, 20 (2009), pp. 6797.

26 Williams, S., ‘Malthus, marriage and poor allowances revisited: a Bedfordshire case study, 1770–1834’, Agricultural History Review, 52 (2004), pp. 5682.

27 Ibid., p. 80.

28 Wrigley, E. A., Davies, R. S., Oeppen, J. E., and Schofield, R. S., English population history from family reconstitution, 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997), p. 193.

29 Williams, ‘Malthus, marriage and poor allowances’, p. 81.

30 Wrigley, Davies, Oeppen, and Schofield, English population history, tab. 5.4, p. 141.

32 After taking into account army, navy, and merchant seaman abroad when the 1851 census was taken, it was estimated that in England and Wales the male population was 8,907,786 and the female population 9,146,384, a sex ratio of 97.4. Since in the older age groups women outnumbered men, it is probable that in the younger adult age groups numbers were roughly equal. 1851 Census, Population Tables, i, PP 1852–3, lxxxxviii, p. xxvii.

33 Blaug, M., ‘The myth of the old poor law and the making of the new’, Journal of Economic History, 23 (1963), p. 158.

34 Hertfordshire was not in Blaug's list of Speenhamland counties, although it lies immediately to the north of London and is surrounded by the other counties in the table. It was not therefore included in Table 3, although it does not differ significantly from those counties which were included.

35 We are grateful to Dr Sebastian Keibek for these percentages. His recent research has greatly improved our knowledge of occupational change in England between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. His sources and techniques of analysis are described in his recent thesis: Sebastian A. J. Keibek, ‘The male occupational structure of England and Wales 1600–1850’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge, 2017).

36 1831 Census, Enumeration Abstract, i, PP 1833, xxxvi–xxxvii, p. vi.

37 Ibid., ii, p. 778.

38 Blaug provides lists both of all the counties which were in his view ‘Speenhamland’ and all those which were not ‘Speenhamland’: Blaug, ‘The myth of the old poor law’, app. E, p. 184. The county totals of agricultural labourers are listed in 1831 Census, Enumeration Abstract, ii, pp. 832–3.

39 Wrigley, Davies, Oeppen, and Schofield, English population history, tab. 7.27, p. 421.

41 Kussmaul, A., A general view of the rural economy of England, 1538–1840 (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 1725.

42 It is interesting that Malthus objected strongly to Samuel Whitbread's Poor Law Bill of 1807 in which it was proposed to revive the power of parishes to build cottages at the expense of the rates, to be let to the poor at whatever rents they could afford. Malthus looked unfavourably on any measure that might reduce the ‘difficulty of procuring habitations’. He thought that ‘such is the tendency to form early connections, that with the encouragement of a sufficient number of tenements I have very little doubt that the population might be so pushed, and such a quantity of labour thrown into the market, as to render the condition of the independent labourer absolutely hopeless, and to make the common wages of day labour insufficient to support a single child without parish assistance’. In fact, he reminded Whitbread that ‘in England it appears that the proportion of births and marriages to the whole population is less than in most countries of Europe’ and that a specific cause of this ‘unexpected effect’ arose for the difficulty of procuring habitations. See ‘A letter to Samuel Whitbread Esq. MP on his proposed bill’ in Malthus, The amendment of the poor laws, p. 10. See also Whitbreads's reply in Malthus, T. R., The unpublished papers in the collection of Kanto Gakuen University, ed. Pullen, J. M. and Parry, T. H. (2 vols., Cambridge, 1997), i, pp. 80–5.

43 The views of the classical economists on this issue are described in Wrigley, The path to sustained growth, ch. 2.

44 Malthus, Essay on population, 6th edn, iii, p. 409.

45 Ibid., appendix, p. 598.

46 Ibid., ii, p. 247.

47 Ibid., iii, p. 586. It is worth noting that he added a footnote which suggests that he was conscious of drawing upon Mandeville's ideas but wished to distance himself from him: ‘In saying this let me not be supposed to give the slightest sanction to the system of morals inculcated in the Fable of the bees, a system which I consider to be absolutely false, and directly contrary to the just definition of virtue. The great art of De Mandeville consisted in misnomers.’ On this issue, see Winch, Riches and poverty, pp. 240–1.

48 Malthus, Essay on population, 6th edn, iii, p. 575.

49 Ibid., p. 339.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed