‘Charity begins at home’: studying the legal transplant of English welfare laws and ideologies in colonial Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries


‘Charity begins at home’: studying the legal transplant of English welfare laws and ideologies in colonial Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries

Ideas about regulating the poor in England and Wales began in the 16th century, with the first legal regime of locally collected and administered funds appearing in the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor. The Act reflected the prevailing moral sensibilities of the time regarding the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, and welfare responsibility. The Poor Laws ensured that relief would only be granted to those with solidaristic ties to the local area and only when family and kin could not provide aid, adding a legal quality to the maxim ‘charity begins at home’.

This project seeks to appraise the legal transfer of the English Poor Laws, and the ideologies underpinning them, to two Canadian provinces during the mid-18th and 19th centuries. Most Canadian jurisdictions witnessed a rejection of English Poor Laws, with Upper Canada even explicitly legislating against any transferral of the English Poor Law. However, in 18th-century Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, measures nearly identical to the Elizabethan Poor Laws were adopted. This unusual choice adoption provides grounds for interesting comparative research between the English and Canadian experiences of the Poor Law system of relief.

This project seeks to answer three broad questions. First, since a predominant feature of the English system was the variety of its local implementation, the project investigates how the Poor Law regime worked outside the English parish system, and whether the application of the law was as diverse across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Second, the project questions whether the rigour of welfare reform in 19th-century England, born from intense political and social disdain for the Elizabethan Poor Laws, was replicated in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The English New Poor Law of 1834 focused on creating a more homogenous system of administration and on discouraging reliance on poor relief. An assessment of welfare reform in the Canadian localities provides insight into the development of the law in context, as well as the development of societal views about the poor and the role of government. This research also provides the opportunity to compare the experiences of the Poor Laws between England, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Third, this project seeks to uncover the relationship between financial assistance and residency in the poor relief systems established in maritime Canada. English parishes jealously guarded their relief funds against strangers via a system of recognised settlement, so claimants for the funds had to be well-versed in how to answer the legal questions about settlement that would give rise to their relief. Nova Scotia produced a residency-based approach to the right to poor relief in 1771. In New Brunswick the legislature enacted similar provisions on settlement for access to poor relief in 1876. This project will consider whether beneficiaries of the Poor Law systems in Canadian jurisdictions were as legally informed as their counterparts in parishes in England.

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