Migration: controlling the unsettled poor

Examining the way in which first rulers, and then the state, have coerced the poor in England into mobility and immobility, offers opportunities for developing a new politics of migration, says Bridget Anderson

Bridget Anderson
1 August 2011

Contemporary British attitudes to migration tend to regard mobility as exceptional and to reify differences between migrants and non-migrants.   In this way, ‘migrants’ are seen as threatening the entitlement of ‘citizens’ and challenging state sovereignty.

But the history of the world is unavoidably a history of mobility, beginning with the earliest human beings in Africa and their spread across the globe.   As Dirk Hoerder observes, those who moved were known as pioneers or pilgrims, settlers, troubadours, slaves and conquistadors – not ‘migrants’.  

Thinking historically reminds us that ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘state’ are relatively recent constructions, and that relations between people and land are contingent: land has not always been bounded territory. Such a perspective reveals a relation between the expansion of state authority and control over the mobility of subjects within the realm – more particularly poor people – and later over the mobility of non-citizens.

Thinking historically allows us to link migration to other social and economic processes; it suggests that migration issues in contemporary Britain cannot be extricated from centuries of struggle for control of labour and anxiety about the threat of ‘uncontrolled’ masses.

The first English law against vagrancy was the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers, prompted by the rising cost of labour. An outbreak of the plague that had begun a year earlier had killed between a third and half of the population; in addition, the growing number of chartered towns that purchased freedom from feudal obligations attracted a floating population of former serfs who were fleeing the increasingly harsh conditions imposed by landowners.

The 1349 Ordinance limited wages to pre-plague levels, and obliged any able-bodied man or woman under 60 without ‘craft’, ‘proper land’ or visible means of support to be ‘bounded to serve him which shall him require’, or be imprisoned until they agreed to do so. Thus a situation which benefited former serfs – because landowners competing for their labour would offer higher wages – was turned to the masters’ advantage, since they were allowed to compel service from labourers who, as another landowner’s tenants, would previously not have been available to them.

Compulsory service was seen as the solution, not just to the rising cost and scarcity of labour, but to social unrest, since it extended and reinforced the power of the landowners and clamped down on the mobility of the poor. The 1349 Ordinance criminalised giving alms to a category of person known as ‘valiant beggars’, who, ‘as long as they live of begging, do refuse to labour, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations’. This ‘masterless’ vagrant threatened the social hierarchy, and anyone giving alms to such a person was to be subject to ‘pain of imprisonment’.  

The ‘valiant beggar’ is the first appearance of a person who haunts the statute books: a figure of idleness and indiscipline who to this day is a folk devil (in the person of the benefit scrounger). Before the borders of the nation state were hardened, when ‘strangers’ could be people from a neighbouring parish, it was the ‘valiant beggar’ that threatened social cohesion, not the immigrant.

But the Tudor era, which marked the beginning of the centralised state, saw the fullest development of vagrancy legislation. The 1563 Statute of Artificers, for instance, spelled out how masters were authorised to recover runaways, and made any poor person on the roads without a testimonial from a master punishable as a vagabond. Feudalism was dead – the last serfs in England were manumitted by Elizabeth I in 1575 – but poor people were increasingly denied access to ‘the Commons’, a crucial concept enshrined in 1217 in the Charter of the Forest (also known as the Charter of the Common Man), as an adjunct to the Magna Carta. The Charter of the Forest gave poor ‘freemen’ the right to gather fuel, graze flocks, hunt and fish and so on on royal lands. But during Tudor times, landowners responding to an increased demand for wool enclosed common land or overgrazed it, thus limiting the possibilities of subsistence for many poor people.

The need for poor people who left their parish to carry testimonials from a master produced a highly skilled counterfeiting industry. By 1570, false papers could reportedly be bought almost anywhere for between 2d and 4d, and some ‘vagrants’ would carry more than one set. In 1569-72, a national round-up that involved inn-keepers and local officials checking travellers’ papers saw 13,000 people arrested as vagrants. Like today, there was a problem with administering the penalties for mobility: there were not enough gaols, and not enough magistrates and judges.   Punishments were summary and severe: scourging, branding, being held in the stocks, expulsion, even death.

In 1597 the Act for the Repression of Vagrancy abolished the death penalty and introduced penal transportation – thus ‘civilized England shall be disburdened of its worst people’. It’s worth noting that in 1596 Elizabeth I had already included in that category ‘blackmoores…of which kinde there are already here to manie…’. They should, she said, ‘be sent forth of the lande’.

The 1601 Poor Law created a complex system of relief administered by parishes and paid for by levies on local ratepayers (property owners).   The ‘settled’ poor were eligible for outdoor relief in their homes, or indoor relief in alms houses. Charitable giving by individuals was now forbidden, and ratepayers, who assumed the responsibilities previously discharged by the now dissolved monasteries, became anxious over reports that poor people were migrating to more generous parishes. The 1662 Statute of Settlement ordered that poor relief was only to be given to those ‘settled’ in a parish or who were in the parish of their birth.

It became ever more difficult to be classified as settled in a parish, and even those who were potential claimants could be removed. This resulted in large numbers of forced removals. David Feldman finds for instance that between 25 March 1827 and 25 March 1828, 43,677 people were removed from parishes in England and Wales. The power of removal was exercised particularly strongly against unmarried pregnant women, as any child born in the parish would be the financial responsibility of local ratepayers.

But the revised 1834 Poor Law reflected a growing demand for labour from industrialists: outdoor relief was abolished and alms houses were replaced with workhouses, to ‘encourage’ the able-bodied poor to migrate to manufacturing towns. Settlement requirements, however, remained a disincentive to mobility. The requirement for the population to be fixed, on the one hand, in order to claim poor relief, and be mobile on the other, in order to sell their labour, continues to have relevance today. In contemporary discourse, those who access the welfare state are often depicted as stuck in their housing estates, not bothering to make the journey to town to look for work. As British Prime Minister David Cameron said in April 2011, he has declared war on the contemporary equivalent of ‘valiant beggars’, and he links this to limiting entry for the unsettled poor – migrants:

‘Immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency…ending the option of living a life on the dole when a life in work is possible.’

National boundaries keep non-citizens out, making work a right they do not have access to. But within national boundaries, work is a duty for the good citizen.

Examining the ways in which, first rulers and then the state have coerced the poor in England into mobility and immobility, moves the focus away from pathologising ‘the migrant’.  Such a historical perspective offers opportunities for developing a new politics of migration, one that does not essentialise the figures of ‘the migrant’ and ‘the citizen’.

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