What it was to be poor in the eighteenth century

27 March 2012

An Act of Parliament passed during the reign of George III which reformed the way in which poor people were dealt with by parishes will go on display at Tate Britain today.

An Act to prevent the Removal of Poor Persons until they shall become actually chargeable (35 George III, c. 101, 1795), which is written on parchment,  will form a key part of this year’s Tate Britain Commission by Patrick Keiller, The Robinson Institute, supported by Sotheby’s. Keiller is best known for his series of film essays that feature the fictional and unseen scholar, Robinson.

The Robinson Institute is an exhibition that considers the origins of the current economic crisis. Throughout, images of landmarks and locations in the English landscape are employed to illustrate the development of capitalism alongside works of literature and objects of historic interest.

The 1795 Act attempted to reform the system of poor relief which had been set up by an Act of Parliament in 1601 and modified in 1662, and in particular to address the issue of poor people moving around the countryside in search of work in the new industrial towns of eighteenth century Britain.  Following the 1795 Act such individuals could only be removed from a parish and returned to their previous place of settlement when they actually applied for help. It also provided protection for those who were too ill to be removed.

Caroline Shenton, Head of the Parliamentary Archives, said:

“We are delighted to loan the original 1795 Act relating to the treatment of the poor to Tate Britain for inclusion in Patrick Keiller’s exhibition.  The Act gives out a powerful message about the way Parliament has affected communities in the past and is a brilliant demonstration of how archival material can inspire and inform creative artistic processes and thereby connect with new audiences.”

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