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Contents on this Page

England and Wales Poor Law History

The Royal Commission
The Report Recommendations
Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
Change in Attitudes of the Poor
Government Reforms after 1906
Related Acts of Parliament
Editorial - The Starving Experiments

England and Wales Poor Law History

The Old Poor Law

In the 17th century an understanding came about that Society as a whole had a responsibility for the destitute and the disabled, that led to the Poor Law Act in 1601. Overseers of the poor were appointed annually by each Parish Committee and they were responsible to ensure the sick, needy poor and aged were assisted either in money or in kind, distribution of which took place in the Vestry of the Parish Church. All records were kept in the Parish Vestry book.

The Settlement Act 1622

Allowed Parishes to return Paupers to their 'home' parish after 40 days unless in receipt of a settlement certificate.

Knatchbull's Act 1722

In 1722 Knatchbull's Act was passed allowing officers to purchase buildings to be used as Workhouses by able bodied paupers. Relief could be refused if they would not enter.
In 1796 an Act was passed repealing Knatchbull's Act which had restricted out relief, having the effect that the amount of out relief rose rapidly and pressure was placed on Parliament for reform. 

Gilbert's Act 1782

In 1782 Gilbert's Act made it possible for a small group of Parishes to unite and build a Workhouse if the majority of ratepayers thought it desirable. Section 29 of this Act provided that no person be sent to the poorhouse except Children, Aged or Infirm. The overseers were required to find suitable work for the able bodied.

The "Roundsmen" System

Tickets were given to Able-bodied paupers to approach local farmers for work. If they were successful in finding work, the Parish paid some or all of the Wages for that day.

The "Speenhamland" System 1792

The cost of food began to rise at a greater rate than the average wage, and the number of paupers claiming out relief increased. This system was developed to 'top up' the amount earned to the level of the cost of bread.

Criticism of the Old Poor Law

In 1832 a Royal Commission was appointed by Earl Grey, Prime Minister to inquire into the whole system. Edwin Chadwick was appointed Assistant Commissioner, and they sat for 2 years. The final report and recommendations were embodied in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

The Royal Commission

The Commission consisted of eight commissioners headed by an Economist, Nassau Senior, to investigate the Poor Law, and whether reform was required. The report took two years to complete and most of the work was compiled by the 26 Assistant Commissioners, the most prominent being Edwin Chadwick. The majority of the 300 page report made by the Commissioners was written by Edwin Chadwick and Nassau Senior drawing on many varied sources and opinions. However, two of the well known views of the time were from Reverend Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham

  • Malthusian Views
  • Utilitarian Views
  • Radical Views

The Report has been criticised for not being impartial, and certainly some views were not recognised by the Commissioners, for example those of Robert Owen and Richard Cobden who were considered radicals.

The Report Recommendations

  • There should be one system of poor relief for the whole country.
  • Outdoor relief should be ended.
  • Parishes should join together to form Unions, with a large Workhouse that would cater for all categories of Pauper.
  • Relief would only be given if the Pauper was prepared to enter the Workhouse. This was known as The Workhouse Test.
  • Conditions in the Workhouse were to be lower than those for the poorest paid labourer.

These recommendations were incorporated into the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. 

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

By its terms three Government Commissioners, with Edwin Chadwick as the first Secretary were appointed centrally to supervise the Boards of Guardians elected representatives to each Union. Parishes were to unite into Unions and a Central Union Workhouse was to be built. The separate Union Workhouses can be accessed via The Poor Law Unions Page
The Commissioners were to supervise the accounts, the standard of accommodation, the diet and dress of inmates and the salary of Staff.

Great Success was made by Chadwick and the Commissioners in the South of England, however it was a different story in the North where the Act was not supported. Many demonstrations were led by Richard Oastler a radical campaigner. A riot broke out in 1842 at Stockport where the Workhouse was stormed and badly damaged. 

In 1847 the Poor Law Commissioners were replaced by the Poor Law Board with a Member of Parliament as its President. This in turn developed into the Local Government Board in 1871. The 1929 Local Government Act abolished Workhouses and their responsibilities were passed to County Borough and County Councils.

An Act in 1862 provided for the maintenance and education of Pauper Children. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1868 introduced Creed Registers where by the Religious creed of every Inmate was to be entered.

Changes in Attitudes

Attitudes to the Poor gradually changed over time, and a number of campaigners highlighted the plight of the poor and the reasons for poverty. 

Government Reforms from 1906

  • An Act to allow free school meals, 1906
  • School medical Service, 1907
  • The Children and Young Persons Act 1908
  • Old Age Pension for aged 70 plus, 1909
  • Labour Exchange set up, 1909
  • National Insurance Act, 1911

The First World War
The Great Depression

The future of Welfare following the second World War, was laid out by Sir William Beveridge in The Beveridge Report 1942. In 1948 the Labour Government set up The National Health Service.

Further Acts of Parliament related to Poor Law

Medical Act 1858
Poor Law Commissioners stated that no Medical man could be employed by the Guardians unless qualified in both Medicine and Surgery. Poor Law Doctors must hold two formal qualifications and be registered.

Metropolitan Poor Act 1867
Spread the cost of Indoor poor relief amongst all London parishes.
Provided separate Administration for Infirmaries, apart from Workhouses.
Lunatics, fever and smallpox cases were removed from Management of the Guardians and a new authority - the Metropolitan Asylums Board was to provide hospitals for them.

Local Government Board Order 1913
required that an institution with more than 100 beds for the sick must have an appropriately qualified Superintendant Nurse.

In 1892 the weekly Poor Law Officers Journal began publication in Rochdale, and continued until 1929.
It tried to keep officers informed of changes in the law and of administrative decisions which affected the service.

Pauper Inmates Discharge and Regulations Act 1871
If a Pauper had not left the workhouse within the past month he could be detained for 24 hours after giving notice to leave; detention was gradually increased so that inmates who had left more than twice in the past 2 months could be detained 72 hours.

In 1897 the Board passed an order forbidding the employment of Pauper Nurses, though they were still allowed to work in the Infirmaries under the supervision of a trained Nurse.

Poor Law Commissioners under the New Act.
The London Medical Gazette 1837-8 Vol 21 1053 pp
Submitted by Alan Longbottom
p 102 14th October 1837
Editorial - The Starving Experiments. 
Some persons and cases named :-

.. We shall be thought by many of our readers, and perhaps justly, to belong to the sect of optimists, when we confess that we think it almost impossible for any proved and obvious abuse, in this country at least, to go one without some attempt at a remedy. This is saying, in other words, that we think it impossible that the inquiry into the working of the present Poor Law, which was broken off by the prorogation of Parliament, can remain where it was. The glimpse which it afforded of the real working of this cruel Act must excite every one's curiosity - to say nothing of better feelings - to have a full view of the case; and though Mr Walter is now unfortunately removed from public life, it is to be hoped that a worthy successor will not be wanting. The oppressed have good reason to exclaim - Exoriare aliquis vestris ex ossibus ultor - 

Mr Walter's case, it must be admitted was quite made out. 
The systematic famishiing - the neglect of the sick - the decoying into the manufacturing districts under false pretences - the cruelty to the aged and infants - and the general contempt of all the charities and decencies of life, were alas! but too easy of proof. Let us recapitulate some of this evidence.

Systematic Famishing : 
In the Report of the Select Committee, it appears, from the
evidence of Mr James Lambert (who was the governor of Westhampnett Workhouse from 3rd Nov 1832 to 1st March 1836) that as soon as the new diet table came into operation, the weekly allowance of bread was reduced from 126 ounces to 78, of meat pudding from 20 ounces to 14, of suet pudding increased from 20 ounces to 28. See 17th Report p 66.
So the experimentalist had reduced the daily slice of bread to 
even less than 12 ounces. 

Neglect of the Sick :
Under this head it would be sufficient to allege the perverse
ingenuity of the Commissioners in obtaining medical men at the
cheapest rate, without regard to any but the technical qualifications, well knowing that this rate is often so low as not to cover even the expense of proper drugs; we have often alluded to this part of the subject, and at some length, but we think it right just to mention the case of Honor Shawyer.

This unfortunate woman died of mortification of the bowels in 
Bishop's Waltham Workhouse; and though the grossest neglect had been made out against the master and mistress of this receptacle, and formally presented in the Coroner's inquest on Honor Shawyer, they were not dismissed from their situation until seven weeks afterwards. They were succeeded by John Murphy; and so little impression had been made upon the experimentalists by this lamentable case - so little disposed were they to return to the paths of humanity, that it was during Murphy's mastership, but against his wish, that the famous attempt was made to give the paupers in Bishop's Waltham
Workhouse pork-water for soup, and puddings made of the skimmings of pork-water instead of suet. See 3rd Report pp 104-5 and 7th 
Report p 14. 
The Rev Mr Brock, seeing how the sick were neglected, used to send them foof from his own house; for which he was found fault with by the Guardians, and called meddling and officious. See 4th Report p 4.

Decoying into manufacturing districts :
Among other whims and oddities of the Commissioners, they imagined they were qualified to regulate and equalize the labour-market all over England; and accordingly endeavoured to transfer the victims of their experiments from the agricultural districts to manufacturing districts. The case of poor Sopp is mentioned ?? To aid the scheme, one Muggeridge, who is called a migration agent, sends from Manchester the price-lists of a puffing shop-keeper; and though these prices would hardly take-in a reasonable person, yet they might easily impose on a famished labourer, ready to catch at a straw.

Cruelty to the Children and the Aged :
Three children between 4 and 5 years of age, named Withers, Cook, and Warren, were sent to the Fareham Workhouse from the Bishop's Waltham Workhouse. One remained in his new abode 12 weeks, the other two for 8 weeks. 

Mr William Harrison, the master of the Bishop's Waltham Workhouse, describes their state when they returned. They were standing against the wall in a passage, he desired them to walk into a room; they attempted but could not. It was a cold day moreover, and they were without proper clothing. After about a quarter of an hour, food was offered to them, which Warren vomited up again. It appears, that during their stay in Fareham Workhouse, in order to cure their dirty habits, these miserable infants had been additionally starved, flogged, and placed in the stocks, sometimes from 9 till 12 and from 2 till 5. See 3rd Report p 43.
This monstrous case was rather too bad, even for the Poor-Law Commissioners, if they had no compassion, at least they had some fear of public indignation, and accordingly reproofs were dealt forth to all the persons concerned in tormenting these poor little creatures.

Cruelty to the Aged :
Nor has the other extremity of life been a protection from the 
rigour of the new regulations. James Sparshott, aged 91, had his allowance reduced from 3s-6d to half-a-crown a week (2s-6d) See 10th Report p 21. The Rev Mr Spencer, indeed, Chairman to the Board of Guardians of the Bath Union, and a starvationist of the first water, speaks with indignation of a pauper aged 84, who refuses to reside in the  workhouse, as well as of certain mischievous ladies who not only abet and comfort him in this nefarious obstinacy, but actually give him a weekly allowance. Our austere Chairman says, that rather
than be washed, shaved, and have his hair cut, many a pauper has gone away from the workhouse. Perhaps this aversion to being shaved, Mr Chairman, may arise from your shaving them very close. 
See 2nd Report of Poor Law Commissioners.

ADMINISTRATION OF THE POOR LAW.

Extracted from the District Handbook Ratepayers Guide and Almanack for Bowes Park, Palmers Green, Southgate, Winchmore Hill and new Southgate - 1911 
Submitted by Anthea Greenaway.

A peculiar interest at the present time attaches to the story of the English workhouses, from the fact that the whole system is now in the melting pot. The Royal Commission, which exhaustively dealt with this question, unanimously condemned the Poor Law System, although there was a difference of opinion as to the new method to be substituted.

Up to the time of  Henry VIII, the poor in England subsisted on the private benevolence, in which the monastaries took the leading part. Various statutes were enacted during this and subsequent reigns. At the time of Queen Elizabeth, overseers were appointed to relieve distress, for which rates were levied. This came to be the basis of the system ultimately adopted. Amongst the Acts subscequently passed was one allowing relief to be given in aid of wages. the haphazard method of indiscriminate releif demoralised the people, and brought about endless abuses. At the beginnign of the nineteenth century, improvidence in marriage and illegitimacy were encouraged by paying a woman a fixed sum for every child. In some cases the parish authorities undertook to find not only a house but a wife for the able bodied pauper. Outdoor releif was given to men on condition that they would go to a pound where stray cattle were placed, and attend a roll call. The object was to have men ready to be hired out to farmers requiring labour. The heavy drain on the public pursecaused a serious overhauling of the Poor Law machinery. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed which, with more recent statutes, forms the legislation now in actual operation.

In the early days of the new Poor law, workhouses were often the scenes of  degrading cruelty and indescribable horrors. The Times gave the following description of one of these institutions: ‘ A crowd of sots, cronies and drabs, blighted maidens and bloomless children, dwelling in wards and dormitories, existing by dietary, fed without a host, wearied without work, herding withjout love, and dying without a mourner.’ Dickens levelled his searchlight on the abuses of ‘Bumbledom’, and other writers joined in the crusade. Reforms were accomplished in many of the unions, particularly as regards the indiscriminate herding of the inmates and removing of children from the sphere of pauper influence.

The 648 unions are now linked up with the controlling force at Whitehall. In recent years ameliatorive changes, particularly in the treatment of the aged poor, have been affected as a result of the new Local Government Board orders, whilst several grave cases of maladministration have been unveiled by the department’s vigilance. The Board has also encouraged the further extension of the boarding out of children. In many unions, either by cottage homes, barrack schools, or the employment of foster parents, the children have been removed from the pauper association and given a good start in life.

A problem which has puzzeled many Board of Guardians is the effective treatment of the casuals. Some of the workhouses on the route of the tramps’ favourite tours are overcrowded with these homeless wanderers. Even the rigors of stone breaking and wood chopping, and an obnoxious and necessary bath, have not a deterrent effect.

In round figures, one in every fifty of the population of the United Kingdom is permanently chargable on the Poor Law Boards, wholst about one in twenty has recourse to the Guardians during the year. There are usually about 2 million in receipt of relief in the United Kingdom each year. The decrease of pauperism in the last 60 years has, however, been considerable. The cost of poor relief in the United Kingdom is over 16 millions a year, representing 7s 61/2d  per head of the population. The expenditure has shown a steady tendency to to increase within the last fifty years. Of course there has been a corresponding increase in the rateable value.

The largest proportion of destitution naturally follows on casual labour. The proportion of destitution furnisshed by various trades was  examined by the Poor Law Commission with the following result: General labourers, 84.9; fishing 40’3; agriculture, 39.7; boot and shoe trade, 24; building 22; transport, 20.3 per 1,000.




Page updated December 19, 2006 by Rossbret