A 'well-wisher' to man-kind? Joseph Townsend (1739-1816) and the problem of poverty
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Joseph Townsend’s 1786 Dissertation on the Poor Laws has achieved iconic status as the archetypical argument for abolishing poor relief. It was dismissed by Townsend’s friend Jeremy Bentham as propounding the ‘no provision, or starvation principle’. Modern scholars treat the Dissertation one dimensionally. It is dismissed as an exposition of ‘market fundamentalism’ or praised as an inspired anticipation of JR Malthus’s population theory, isolated from its intellectual, social and political context. Using an original combination of contextual intellectual history, and social analysis, focussed on Townsend’s context as rector in a Wiltshire parish over five decades, this thesis corrects this lacuna. It relates the Dissertation to Townsend’s other writings and wider debates concerning the economic and political rights of the poor during the five decades before the New Poor Law. Chapters One and Two examine the relationship between the development of Townsend’s ideas and his life as rector in a Wiltshire parish over five decades. Particular attention is paid to the tension between local and national in Townsend’s writings: the Wiltshire context shaped Townsend’s thought, but he responded to national debates concerning taxation and the rights of the poor Chapter Three relates Townsend’s arguments to the changing demands of the labouring poor themselves, reflected in the travelogues of two radical visitors to Wiltshire, John Thelwall and William Cobbett. Chapter Four also considers how travel shaped the eighteenth century science of society. In this case, examining Townsend’s own travels in Spain and those of the agriculturalist Arthur Young. Chapter Five examines poor provision in one Wiltshire parish, Bradford on Avon, between 1784 and 1834, demonstrating how Townsend’s ideas were recast in response to the growing perception of economic subsistence as a human right by the ‘labouring poor’. This re-shaping of the British political landscape is interpreted as a consequence of the French Revolution and the wars which came in its wake, demonstrating how the New Poor Law met the needs of nineteenth century industrial capitalism.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2020-10-19
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Print and electronic copy restricted until 19th October 2020
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