Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


During our examination of the state of western capitalism, UnHerd has confirmed through a major transatlantic poll that the public makes clear distinctions between a deserving rich – including inventors and manufacturers – and an undeserving rich – including bankers, CEOs and property investors. The idea of a deserving and undeserving rich was promoted by Michael Gove at a Legatum Institute event in October 2015 and leans on the idea of a deserving and undeserving poor. Today, Michael Burleigh revisits the term’s history.

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The distinction between a deserving and undeserving poor is more venerable than many imagine, and it remains a contemporary one. A feckless and fecund ‘underclass’, binging on junk food, junk TV, drink or drugs is often juxtaposed –not least in the junk media – against the respectable working class.

In the Middle Ages, poverty was not regarded as a vice provided one bore it meekly, and voluntary poverty like that of the Franciscans was the apogee of virtue. Parasitic idleness was seen as the gateway to crime, though ‘avarice’ or material greed, a vice of the rich, was a much greater sin because it was seen as a form of spiritual lassitude.

The idea that the poor can be categorised in terms of moral failings was an Elizabethan rather than a Victorian one, though in this area as in that of butterflies and moths, their contribution was scientising and taxonomic.

The dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540 eradicated one of main refuges for the poor, while swelling their ranks by rendering monks and nuns homeless. Land enclosure to raise sheep created bigger farms requiring fewer labourers, while the poor lost customary rights to fish, fowl and fuel. A 25% population increase during the Elizabethan era, a series of poor harvests, and an increase in what we would call ‘drifters’, prompted Elizabethan governments to legislate a series of Poor Laws between 1563 and 1601. The 1601 Poor Law formed the template for legislation in this field until the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act.

The Elizabethans established mechanisms for dealing with the poor, partly because they feared civil unrest. Justices of the peace assessed local needs and then made the rich pay a tax which in 1598 came to be called the rates. Centrally issued Books of Orders instructed JPs how to deal with outbreaks of dearth or disease.

“The idea that the poor can be categorised in terms of moral failings was an Elizabethan rather than a Victorian one” – and in our own age it is also the rich who are being divided up into those deserving or undeserving of their wealth
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The Elizabethans also distinguished between the ‘deserving poor’, who were too young, old or sick to work, and who subsisted on ‘outdoor relief’ (donations of food, clothing and money). Next were the ‘deserving unemployed’ who were victims of what was gradually viewed as what we would call cyclical unemployment. Since they were able and willing to work, they received ‘indoor relief’ in almshouses, orphanages, and the new workhouses, with the justices supplying flax or hemp to work over.

The first of these ‘Bridewells’ (as they were generically known) was established in Henry VIII’s eponymous palace on the capital’s River Fleet. Since it doubled up as a home for orphans and a jail for petty offenders, it can be seen as the forerunner of the Victorian Workhouses. Last but not least, the Elizabethans dealt harshly with the ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘sturdy beggars’. If they were not locals, they were whipped until they reached the stones marking a parish boundary where they were ejected. If they returned they would be jailed or hanged. The growth of Puritanism accentuated the moral aspects of these distinctions since a wider range of human behaviours were deemed to be sins. This reinforced the view that there was something inherently sinful about the lives of the ‘undeserving’ poor.

Attempts to map and coerce the ‘undeserving poor’ also antedate the Victorians. A leading Glasgow merchant called Patrick Colquhoun became a magistrate in Shoreditch and in 1798 one of the founders of the Thames Police. He distinguished between poverty and indigence. The useful poor should be helped to work, the genuinely indigent (the sick, old and very young) simply helped by the state. The criminal and culpably indigent should be coerced.

By Colquhoun’s reckoning, there were 115,000 criminals on the loose in London alone. He proposed a gradated series of institutions to correct the behavior of the criminal and culpably indigent. The very worst malefactors would do forced labour on prison hulks, decommissioned navy warships moored at Deptford, Woolwich and Portsmouth, while each county (Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey) would have two large penitential workhouses for males and females. The work included treadmills to drive machinery, stone crushing or sawing, and picking over oakum and hemp. The general aim was to ‘excite a general terror’ among the delinquent classes, but for those poor through no fault of their own, Colquhoun suggested soup kitchens and subscription insurance schemes. In fact, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment generalised the workhouse model so as to offer only deterrent indoor relief. Families were segregated and subjected to forced labour in the dire conditions described by Dickens, and moreover men who had once met the property owning threshold lost were disenfranchised.

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist did not get ‘more’ when he asked for it from the workhouse in which he lived his miserable early life. Drawing by James Mahoney, before 1879.

The inherited distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor survived into the Edwardian era, though the new Eugenics Society (founded in 1907) led to the redefinition of what Charles Booth called the ‘residuum’ as a quasi-genetic problem amenable to isolation and sterilisation. Others however were convinced that it was no longer adequate to view poverty as a moral, let alone a medical failing. One can see these tensions in the Majority and Minority reports of the 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress. Whereas the Majority wished to perpetuate the old Poor Law in a modern guise, the Minority led by Beatrice Webb and the Fabians wanted the state to adopt preventative measures and to establish minimal social services to replace often inefficient and overlapping charities. Much of this thinking inspired William Beveridge.

It would be much harder to chart a similar genealogy of the deserving and undeserving rich though aristocratic parasitism versus bourgeois industriousness, or the differences between productive and unproductive capital have their own histories.