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An overview of poor relief in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Social benefit fraud and poor soldiers in Groningen
22 June 2009

Now the Dutch economy is shrinking, employment is falling in the southern and western regions of the Netherlands in particular. In the seventeenth century Groningen was also less troubled by hard times than other parts of the country. This can be concluded from research by Albert Duursma, PhD student at the University of Groningen. Since it was a garrison town, the City of Groningen also housed large numbers of unemployed soldiers in peacetime. Social benefit fraud barely existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – it was mainly those providing the poor relief who fiddled the books.  

In his PhD thesis, Albert Buursma sheds light on an unwritten episode in the history of the City of Groningen. His research shows a town with a extensive network of institutions dealing with poor relief. There were for instance hospitals, almshouses, workhouses, orphanages, lunatic asylums, approved schools for people found guilty of misconduct, and houses of correction for the poor and for criminals. In 1763, Groningen was the first city in the Netherlands to provide medical care to the poor, at the behest of the physician Petrus Camper. This provided the lower classes with basic medical care and offered medical students an opportunity to practise. 

Church and town

Much of the poor relief was organized through the auspices of the ‘Reformed’ (Protestant) Church – the established church of the Dutch Republic. However, in the seventeenth century other denominations also began to provide poor relief. If you believed in the God of the Walloon Church, you received a substantially higher allowance than if you worshiped the Lutheran, Roman Catholic or Dutch Reformed one. But the influence of the church was beginning to wane. Prior to 1594 many of the care institutions were already under supervision of the municipality and in the following century it strove towards supreme control of all almshouses. If the church lacked funds, the City Council made up the difference. Towards the close of the eighteenth century, Reformed social welfare work became increasingly short of money and the City Council stepped into the breach.  

Parents of truants

Poor relief was arranged on the basis of city neighbourhoods. In every neighbourhood (‘kluft’) the poor were supervised by two deacons, who provided alms and bread. At the beginning of the seventeenth century butter, clothing, footwear and peat were also distributed. However, from 1681 onward the poor were back to eating plain bread – the church welfare could no longer afford anything to go with it. Economizing’ was also used as a punishment. Buursma: The deacons knew who they were dealing with. Whoever didn’t behave in what was considered a proper manner, had their alms cut.’ Squandering, questionable conjugal ethics, ‘an aggravating way of life’ and ‘evil behaviour’ were punishable as well. As education gained in importance in the eighteenth century, parents would have their alms cut for letting their children play truant. 

Less sensitive to economic change

War and peace had a substantial influence on poor relief. As a garrison town Groningen housed large numbers of unemployed soldiers in peacetime; in times of war their wives and children were left destitute. Few people, however, turned to poor relief - around the turn of the eighteenth century just seven to ten percent of the population did so; in other towns this could be as much as twenty percent. Buursma does not have a conclusive explanation for this. Groningen did not have much industry, compared to a similar town such as Leiden. Groningen was more focused on agriculture, and thus less sensitive to the vagaries of the economy.’ 

Cheating and parties

Fiddling the alms was nearly impossible due the strong social control. If anyone kept silent about money they had earned, they were quickly found out if a deacon happened to speak to a neighbour or a relative. Buursma: I may be going out on a limb here, but perhaps most of the fraud was committed by those providing alms.’ While doing his research he came across stories of bakers who used too little flour in bread they baked for the poor, orphanage supervisors who partied on pancakes and bacon meant to feed their orphans, and a carpenter who used wood of such poor quality for a charity coffin that the corpse fell through it at the funeral.  

Curriculum vitae

Albert Buursma (1960) studied history at the University of Groningen.He will be awarded his PhD by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen on 2 July. His supervisor is Prof. M.G.J. Duijvendak. His PhD research was funded by Stichting Erven A. de Jager (Heirs of A. de Jager Foundation), based in Groningen. Buursma publishes and develops projects in the domain of the regional history of the Northern Netherlands. These Anxious Times’ (Van Gorcum, Assen) is the title of the commercial edition of the thesis.

More information

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