See S. Webb and B. Webb, English Poor Law History (1927-29, repr. 1963); J. R. Poynter, Society and Pauperism (1969); M. E. Rose, English Poor Law, 1780-1930 (1971).
The Poor Law was the system for the provision of social security in operation in England and Wales from the 16th century until the establishment of the Welfare State in the 20th century. It was made up of several Acts of Parliament and subsequent Amendments. The extreme longevity of the Poor Law meant that some of the generalisations made about it (for example, the use of workhouses) refer to only a part of its history.
Tudor Poor Laws aimed to deal with vagrancy were harsh towards the able bodied poor who were not trying or finding work - whippings and beatings were acceptable punishments.
Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so called impotent poor, was in the form of a payment or items of food ('the parish loaf') or clothing. Some aged people might be accommodated in parish alms houses, though these were usually private charitable institutions. Meanwhile able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in houses of correction. However, provision for the many able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was relatively unusual, and most workhouses developed later. Assistance given to the deserving poor that did not involve an institution like the workhouse, was known as 'outdoor relief'.
There was much variation in the application of the law and there was a tendency for the destitute to migrate towards the more generous parishes, usually situated in the towns. This led to the Settlement Act 1662 also known as the Poor Relief Act 1662 - this allowed relief only to established residents of a parish - mainly through birth, marriage and apprenticeship. A pauper applicant had to prove a 'settlement'.If they could not, they were removed to the next parish that was nearest to the place of their birth, or where they might prove some connection. Some paupers were moved hundreds of miles. Although each parish that they passed through was not responsible for them, they were supposed to supply food and drink and shelter for at least one night. The Act was criticised in later years for its effect in distorting the labour market, through the power given to parishes to let them remove 'undeserving' poor.
Some of the legislation was punitive. In 1697 an act was passed requiring the poor to wear a "badge" of red or blue cloth on the right shoulder with an embroidered letter "P" and the initial of their parish. However, this was often disregarded.
Starting with the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1714 several dozen small towns and individual parishes established their own institutions without any specific legal authorization. These were concentrated in the South Midlands and in the county of Essex. From the late 1710s the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge began to promote the idea of parochial workhouses. The Society published several pamphlets on the subject, and supported Sir Edward Knatchbull in his successful efforts to steer the Workhouse Test Act through parliament in 1723. The act gave legislative authority for the establishment of parochial workhouses, by both single parishes and as joint ventures between two or more parishes. More importantly, the Act helped to publicise the idea of establishing workhouses to a national audience. By 1776 some 1912 parish and corporation workhouses had been established in England and Wales, housing almost 100,000 paupers. Although many parishes and pamphlet writers expected to earn money from the labour of the poor in workhouses, the vast majority of people obliged to take up residence in workhouses were ill, elderly, or children whose labour proved largely unprofitable. The demands, needs and expectations of the poor also ensured that workhouses came to take on the character of general social policy institutions, combining the functions of creche, and night shelter, geriatric ward and orphanage.
In 1782, Thomas Gilbert finally succeeded in passing an act that established poor houses solely for the aged and infirm and introduced a system of outdoor relief for the able-bodied. This was the basis for the development of the Speenhamland system, which made financial provision for low-paid workers.
Dissatisfaction with the system grew at the beginning of the 19th century. The 1601 system was felt to be too costly and was widely perceived as encouraging the underlying problems - pushing more people into poverty even while it helped those who were already in poverty. Jeremy Bentham argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems, whilst the writings of Thomas Malthus focused attention on the problem of overpopulation, and the growth of illegitimacy. David Ricardo argued that there was an "iron law of wages". The effect of poor relief, in the view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the "independent labourer".
In the period following the Napoleonic Wars, several reformers altered the function of the "poorhouse" into the model for a deterrent workhouse. The first of the deterrent workhouses in this period was at Bingham, Notts. The second was Becher's workhouse in Southwell, now maintained by the National Trust. George Nicholls, the overseer at Southwell, was to become a Poor Law Commissioner in the reformed system. The 1817 Report of the Select Committee on the Poor Laws condemned the Poor Law as causing poverty itself.
The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was set up following the widespread destruction and machine breaking of the Swing Riots. The report was prepared by a commission of nine, including Nassau William Senior, and served by Edwin Chadwick as Secretary. The Royal Commission's primary concerns were with illegitimacy (or "bastardy"), reflecting the influence of Malthusians, and the fear that the practices of the Old Poor Law were undermining the position of the independent labourer. Two practices were of particular concern: the "roundsman" system, where overseers hired out paupers as cheap labour, and the Speenhamland system, which subsidised low wages without relief.
When the act was introduced however it had been partly watered down. The workhouse test and the idea of "less eligibility" were never mentioned themselves and the recommendation of the Royal Commission - that 'outdoor relief' (relief given outside of a workhouse) should be abolished - was never implemented.
The report recommended separate workhouses for the aged, infirm, children, able-bodied females and able-bodied males. The report also stated that parishes should be grouped into unions in order to spread the cost of workhouses and a central authority should be established in order to enforce these measures.
The Poor Law Commission took two years to write its report, the recommendations passed easily through Parliament support by both main parties the Whigs and the Tories. The bill gained Royal Assent in 1834. Of those who opposed the Bill - of whom there were few - were more concerned about the centralisation which the bill would bring rather than the underpinning philosophy of utilitarianism.
The Bill established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system. This included the forming together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions and the building of workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief.
The act stated that:
The Amendment Act did not ban all forms of outdoor relief. Not until the 1840s would the only method of relief be for the poor to enter a Workhouse. The Workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entering a Workhouse.
When the new Amendment was applied to the industrial North of England (an area the law had never considered during reviews), the system failed catastrophically as many found themselves temporarily unemployed, due to recessions or a fall in stock demands, so called 'cyclical unemployment' and were reluctant to enter a Workhouse, despite it being the only method of gaining aid.
The abuses and shortcomings of the system are documented in the novels of Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope. Despite the aspirations of the reformers, the New Poor Law was unable to make the Workhouse as bad as life outside. The primary problem was that in order to make the diet of the Workhouse inmates "less eligible" than what they could expect outside, it would be necessary to starve the inmates beyond an acceptable level. It was for this reason that other ways were found to deter entrance to the Workhouses. These measures ranged from the introduction of prison style uniforms to the segregation of 'inmates' into yards - there were normally male, female, boy and girls yards.
Fierce hostility and organised opposition from workers, politicians and religious leaders eventually lead to the Amendment Act being amended, removing the very harsh measures of the Workhouses to a certain degree. The Andover workhouse scandal, where conditions in the Andover Union Workhouse were found to be inhumane and dangerous, prompted a government review and the abolishment of the Poor Law Commission which was replaced with a Poor Law Board. From now on a Committee of Parliament was to administer the Poor Law, with a cabinet minister as head.
Scotland launched its own Poor Law system in 1579. As the Act of Union which united England and Scotland did not alter Scotland's legal system, the Scottish Poor Law system did not disappear after 1707. Reforms similar in intent to the English reforms of 1834 were made in 1845. The English Poor Laws applied in Wales.
The reforms of the Liberal Government 1906-14 (see Liberal reforms) made several provisions to provide social services without the stigma of the Poor Law, including Old age pensions and National Insurance, and from that period fewer people were covered by the system. Means tests were developed during the inter-war period, not as part of the Poor Law, but as part of the attempt to offer relief that was not affected by the stigma of pauperism.
One aspect of the Poor Law that continued to cause resentment was that the burden of poor relief was not shared equally by rich and poor areas but, rather, fell most heavily on those areas in which poverty was at its worst. This was a central issue in the Poplar Rates Rebellion led by George Lansbury and others in 1921.
Workhouses were officially abolished by the Local Government Act 1929, which from 1 April 1930 abolished the Unions and transferred their responsibilities to the county councils and county boroughs. Some however persisted into the 1940s. The remaining responsibility for the Poor Law was given to local authorities before final abolition in 1948.