Helping the poor has always posed a challenge to the wealthy. Keeping the balance between losing money and risking revolt is still hard to maintain.
Fearing that the poor will stop slaving if they get financial peanuts, many solutions have been sought after.
The English Poor Law Act of 1697 forced paupers who received parish relief to wear a badge of blue or red cloth on the shoulder of the right sleeve, as a form of humiliation, with the declared hope of deterring them from emptying the parish’s coffers.
Another motive might be traced to the fact that the person responsible for the act was Henry Blaake, (1659-1731) a Whig who sat for the Wiltshire textile borough. We can
Woodcut depicting a beggar and a rich bastard.
assume that the demand for textile has risen in the years following the Poor Law Act, when the poor were forced to buy badges of blue or red cloth.
To ensure the sales, it was decreed that if a parish officer gave money to a poor person not wearing a badge he could be fined 20s. per disbursement. A pauper who refused to wear the badge (or simply couldn't afford it) was denied help, or was whipped and committed to Bridewell Prison for three weeks’ hard labour.
In Europe, beggars were forced to ‘wear a sign’ as early as 1370.
It is unlikely that people like Mary Burton-Gulliver, who had no other choice, were deterred from seeking help by the shame inherent in wearing a badge. After all, in small communities, everyone knew just about everything about everybody else. And when we note that according to the 1696 Board of Trade estimation, expenditures on poor relief totalled £400,000, which was slightly less than 1 percent of national income, we are left to wonder to what depth can the greed of the rich sink.