American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
April, 2005

This Issue | Past Issues | Useful Links | Team Directory | Team News | Wiki! | Search This Site | Contact Us
 AMN Article open journal systems 

The Poor Laws and the Waltham "Black Act"

A Cause of the Demise of Pre-Revival Morris Traditions?

by Andrew Bullen

There are many reasons for the demise of pre-revival Morris traditions caused by the profound forces acting upon England in general:

Whole theses, books and careers have been based upon the changes in European and English society brought about in the mid-18th to late 19th centuries. I also believe, though, that two acts of law helped spell the Demise.

The first of these was a nasty piece of legislation enacted in George I's reign, 1723, 9 Geo. I, c. 22, known colloquially as the Waltham Black Act. It had been drafted to deal with some minor agrarian uprisings near Waltham Chase in Hampshire in which a group of laborers had burned hay stacks and poached fish and game. According to Leon Radzinowicz ,"There is hardly a criminal act which did not come within the provisions of the Black Act; offences against public order, against the administration of criminal justice, against property, against the person, malicious injuries to property of varying degree - all came under this statute and all were punishable by death. Thus the Act constituted in itself a complete and extremely severe criminal code. ... It is very doubtful whether any other country possessed a criminal code with anything like so many capital provisions as there were in this single statute." If one was convicted for violating one of myriad provisions of this act, one could at best pray for deportation to America and later Australia; death by hanging was a very real possibility. Hanoverian England believed that the best maintenance of social order was to instill terror in the general population, the "loose and disorderly sort of people" cited by Lord Hardwicke as being the main culprits of crime. A provision of the act made it illegal-- in fact, a capital offense-- to appear "in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face." One could literally be hanged for appearing on the High Street with a sooty or otherwise blackened face. This was, of course, meant to protect a pre-police force society from bandits, anarchists, and highway robbers like the infamous Dick Turpin.

The second set of legislation that may have had some effect was more well-intentioned, if not any less devastating in its effect. The Poor Laws were actually a series of legislative initiatives dating back to 1601. The 1601 laws, known commonly as the Elizabethan Poor Laws, placed the burden of caring for the poor on the parish "of their settlement." Local taxes and church relief were raised for the support of the poor and sick. The parish of settlement was generally the parish of birth, or of the husband's birth. Morris traditions found themselves in many instances turned towards the purpose of relief and fund raising for the poor. Dr. Robert Plot, in A Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686, wrote that the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance was performed for charity:

"To this Hobby Horse dance there also belong'd a pot, which was kept by turnes, by four or five of the cheif of the town, whom they call'd Reeves, who provided cakes and ale to put in this pot; all people who had any kindness for the good intent of the institution of the sport, giving pence apiece for themselves and families; and so forraigners too, that came to see it: with which mony (the charge of the cakes and ale being defrayed) they not only repaired their church but kept their poore too: which charges are not now perhaps so cheerfully boarn."

All this changed with the so-called New Poor Laws of 1834, which removed much of the burden of caring for the poor from the parish and placed it onto the state. These new, "more caring" poor laws gave the world the workhouse, incidentally, with all of its Dickensian horrors; provisions of these laws continued until 1930.

So how did these two bits of legislative zeal-- the Black Acts of 1723 and the Poor Laws of 1834-- help bring about the Demise? First, I believe that, by making it illegal to appear in public in disguise or black face, the draconian provisions of the Black Act had a chilling effect on traditions that depended upon ritual disguise. The Act was enforced with particular vigilance in rural parts of the country, as the landed gentry feared for their property and wealth before an imagined mob of rioters, anarchists, and brigands; much of the Act dealt with penalties to rural and agricultural properties. Rural areas were precisely the areas where Morris ritual celebrations were performed.

The Poor Laws may have also helped put a final "nail in the coffin" to Morris rituals. Why spend the tremendous effort of organizing, rehearsing, and performing an annual ritual celebration when one of the main reasons that it was done-- relief of the poor and charity towards the indigent-- was no longer necessary?

England's Poor

  1. Pitofsky, Alex, "The Warden's Court Martial: James Oglethorpe and the Politics of Eighteenth-Century Prison Reform"
    Eighteenth-Century Life - Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp. 88-102
    Duke University Press

  2. Cited in a letter to Robert Peel. More about Hardwicke can be found at


 AMN, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005  ISSN: 1074-2689