Thomas Gilbert is known was one of the earliest advocate of poor relief in British history and the father of the Relief of the Poor Act of 1782.
Gilbert, famous for his advocation of changing laws about the poor, was born in 1720 in a small town in England. He was the son of Thomas Gilbert of Cotton in Staffordshire. In 1745 he accepted a position in the regiment created by Lord Gower, the brother-in-law of the Duke of Bridgewater. His first wife was named Miss Phillips, and when he married her he bought her a lottery ticket, and she won one of the largest prizes in the country. Together they had two sons, one joined the navy and the other became a clerk to the privy council. His marriage did not last long and he got re-married to Mary Craufurd.
He was a Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme. He held many titles throughout his career in parliament and was a very active member. In 1765 the title Sinecure Place of Comptroller of the Great Wardrobe was given to him, and he kept it until it was eliminated by Burke's bill which reformed the civil list. Gilbert also held the long named office of Paymaster of the Fund for Securing Pensions to the Widows of Officers in the Navy. On May 31, 1784 he received his most important post, the Chairmanship of Committees of Ways and Means. Although he became the chairman of these offices, his passion was helping the poor. He dedicated the majority of his life's work to aiding the less fortunate. In 1765 he brought to the House of Commons a bill that would group parishes for poor-law purposes in greatly populated districts, but it was rejected in the House of Lords by 66 votes to 59. In 1778, while Britain was still at war with the American colonies, he proposed to parliament a tax of twenty-five per cent should be enforced upon all government places and pensions. Many people were against a tax this high and called it absurd but it was still carried in the committee but later turned down.
He then turned his attention to passing laws to improve highways, but was unsuccessful and was only able to pass acts for local roads. In 1776 a small committee of the House of Commons wrote a report on how bad the conditions of factories and workhouses were and he took this opportunity to work on his most important bills. During the 1780s there was an increase in unemployment which was attributed to an increase in food prices, low labor wages, and a decrease in available space for land. These factors led to an increase in the poor population and wealthy landowners found this unacceptable so they turned to Gilbert to help them change this. In 1782, his name was given to an Act of Parliament known as Relief of the Poor Act 1782
In 1787 Gilbert introduced another poor relief related bill, which would group many parishes together, for taxing purposes, and the bill would impose an additional charge for the use of turnpikes on Sundays. With this extra money he intended it to be used at helping the poor get back on their feet and give them a chance to get out of the poverty that stricken them. In order to get rid of temptation in the poor population, he advocated the abolishment of ale-houses in the country districts, except for the use of out of town travelers (for tourism purposes), and to see to stricter supervision of ale-houses. He believed that these bars were a handicap, and that most of the customers were poor, so he wanted to change this. He was also a big advocate of doing away with imprisonment for small debts, but this idea did not catch on until many years later but this achieved by a bill passed in 1793.
Gilbert died at Cotton in Staffordshire on December 18h, 1798. His friend John Holliday printed anonymously a monody on his death, praising his generosity for building and endowing in 1795 the chapel of ease of St. John the Baptist at Lower Cotton. Gilbert dedicated his life to better the less fortunate and he was an inspiration to many poor relief helpers even today.
Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).