The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Laws builds on various acts in the 1500s that set policies to collect poor taxes, defining who was “deserving” and “undeserving” of relief that was distributed across local parishes by a justice of the peace, and set punishments for vagrants.
The 1601 Law established a poor rate that was required and collected from property owners across parishes, created the position of overseers to collect and distribute relief and made requirements for work by the poor and punishments to meted out to those who did not follow the Poor Laws. The 1601 laws allowed for “indoor relief” in the form of workhouses and poorhouses that would be developed throughout the 1600-1700s and more intensely into the 1800s.
According to Sir George Nichols in his 1834 analysis, the motivation for this set of poor laws was to remove some of the responsibility placed on feudal “masters” for the poor as well as to “maintain the system of feudal villeinage” [p. 13]. Further, Nichols describes the laws as “primitive and barbaric in their approach.”
Prior to 1601, various acts were passed to collect taxes to fund poor relief and punish vagrants and paupers in the 15th century. Prior to the 15th century, monasteries and charity was available for paupers in England. The feudal system in England required that local land owners (masters) and communities or parishes were responsible for providing some care for those that could not care for themselves: people with disabilities, the sick, old, and orphaned children.
Elizabethan Poor Laws gave a lot of power and authority to local administrators to shape poor relief and punishments in a way that they saw fit.