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Acland, John (1699–1796), Church of England clergyman and writer on social issues, was the second son of John Acland (d. 1703), of Beerford, Devon, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Acland of Fremington, Devon. His father was MP for Callington, Cornwall, and his older brother was Sir Hugh Acland, sixth baronet, of Columb-John, Devon. He matriculated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1718, receiving his BA in 1721 and MA in 1725. He was instituted to the vicarage or rectory of Broadclyst, Devon, on his own petition in 1753 and also served as a JP.

In 1786 Acland published A Plan for Rendering the Poor Independent of Public Contributions, Founded on the Basis of the Friendly Societies, Commonly called Clubs. To this was added a letter from , who commended the scheme, and wished it more success than his own had ‘met with some years ago’ (Thomas, 59). It is clear that Acland had been prompted by the failure of previous legislation for the encouragement of friendly societies in Devon. This had ensured that the funds of friendly societies might be supplemented by grants in aid from the proceeds of the poor rate. It provided, among other things, for the payment of sums of money on the marriage of members and the birth of their children; however, owing to the burden this put on the ratepayers, the schemes proved unworkable.

Acland suggested a modified application of this idea. He proposed that there should be established throughout the country, by the authority of parliament, a general club or society for the support of the poor in sickness, in old age, and when out of work. With certain exceptions, every adult male or female receiving a certain wage was to be compelled to contribute to this fund, and a similar obligation was imposed on the bulk of the community. In this way pauperism was gradually to be extinguished, and the recipients of aid from the fund might regard themselves as members of a state friendly society.

The proposal excited considerable attention at a time when the increase of the poor rate was causing general anxiety. A pamphlet by John Howlett, responding to Acland's, appeared in 1788. A bill based on Acland's ideas about poor relief and the settlement of illegitimate children was introduced into the House of Commons in December 1787, with an actuarial table by Richard Price, but came to nothing. Although it was discussed in Sir Frederick Eden's The State of the Poor (1797), it was judged to have fundamental defects. A second pamphlet by Acland, outlining a refutation of Edward King's attempt to prove the public utility of the national debt, and to explain the cause of the high price of provisions, was published at Exeter in 1796. It was given a brief and approving notice in the Gentleman's Magazine for November 1796.

Acland died in 1796. Although a country priest, he made an important contribution to poor-law reform, envisaging far-reaching policies which went beyond the then accepted framework of the old parish-based poor law. He did this via the principles of insurance and self-help. While in the short term his ideas did not have much practical influence, beyond small reforms affecting friendly societies, they nevertheless expanded the terms of reference of debates before 1834. In the longer term such ideas (propagated in various forms by later authors) were to prove highly influential in the history of social policy and administration.

Francis Espinasse, rev. K. D. M. Snell


H. R. T., ‘Acland, Rev. John’, Dictionary of political economy, ed. H. R. I. Palgrave (1894–9) · G. Long, ed., The biographical dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 4 vols. in 7 (1842–4) · J. R. Poynter, Society and pauperism: English ideas on poor relief, 1795–1834 (1969) · J. Wilson, The imperial gazetteer, 2 vols. (1872) · R. Polwhele, The history of Devonshire, 3 vols. (1793–1806) · R. Thomas, Richard Price: philosopher and apostle of liberty (1924) · G. B. Cone, Torchbearer of freedom: the influence of Richard Price on eighteenth-century thought (1952) · Burke, Peerage · GM, 1st ser., 66 (1796), 944–5 · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · J. S. Crossette, ‘Acland, Sir Hugh’, HoP, Commons