Definitions

poor law

poor law

poor law, in English history, legislation relating to public assistance for the poor. Early measures to relieve pauperism were usually designed to suppress vagrancy and begging. In 1601, England passed the Elizabethan poor-relief act, which recognized the state's obligation to the needy; it provided for compulsory local levies to be administered by the parish, and it required work for the able-bodied poor and apprenticeships for needy children. Local reluctance to support the poor from other areas led to settlement laws limiting migration. Institutional relief was provided by poorhouses, where the aged, sick, or insane were grouped together. From c.1700 workhouses were established where the poor were expected to support themselves by work. However, because of widespread unemployment and low wages, it became customary in the late 18th cent. to give home relief. Poor-law amendments of 1834 sought to establish uniform assistance by placing relief under national supervision; they curtailed home relief and modified the settlement laws. Those amendments assumed that pauperism stemmed partly from unwillingness to work rather than from inadequate employment opportunities. As a result poor relief was maintained at a level below that of the poorest laborer. The Local Government Act of 1929 established the basis for a more far-reaching and humane approach to the conditions of the poor.

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).

This article deals chiefly with the English Poor Laws covering England and Wales. For the laws regarding the other areas of the British Isles see Irish Poor Laws and Scottish Poor Law

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.

The classification of the poor

For much of the period of the Poor Law, the dependent poor were classified in terms of three groups:

  • The impotent poor could not look after themselves or go to work. They included the ill, the infirm, the elderly, and children with no-one to properly care for them. It was generally held that they should be looked after.
  • The able-bodied poor normally referred to those who were unable to find work - either due to cyclical or long term unemployment in the area, or a lack of skills. Attempts to assist these people, and move them out of this category, varied over the centuries, but usually consisted of relief either in the form of work or money.
  • The 'vagrants' or 'beggars', sometimes termed 'sturdy rogues', were deemed those who could work but had refused to. Such people were seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as potential criminals, apt to do mischief when hired for the purpose. They were normally seen as people needing punishment, and as such were often whipped in the market place as an example to others, or sometimes sent to houses of correction. This group was also termed the idle poor.

Origins of the Poor Law system

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.

  • 1552 - Parishes began to register those considered 'poor'.
  • 1563 - Justices of the Peace began to collect money for poor relief. The poor were grouped for the first time into the impotent poor, idle poor and able-bodied poor (unemployed).
  • 1572 - First local poor tax to fund poor relief.
  • 1576 - Idea of a workhouse first suggested. It is first suggested that JPs could provide materials for which the able-bodied could work in return for relief.
  • 1579 - Justices of the Peace authorised to collect funds for poor relief. The post of Overseer of the Poor was created.
  • 1595 'Buttock Mail', a Scottish Poor Rate is levied.

The Act of 1601

The Poor Law Act 1601 also known as the Elizabethan Poor Law and Old Poor Law (after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834) formalised earlier practices of poor relief. It created a collectivist national system, paid for by levying local rates (or property taxes). It made provision:

  • To board out (making a payment to families willing to accept them) those young children who were orphaned or whose parents could not maintain them,
  • To provide materials to "set the poor on work"
  • To offer relief to people who were unable to work mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind", and
  • "The putting out of children to be apprentices".

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.

Amendments to the 1601 Act

The 18th century

The 18th century workhouse movement began at the end of the 17th century with the establishment of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor, founded by Act of Parliament in 1696. The corporation established a workhouse which combined housing and care of the poor with a house of correction for petty offenders. Following the example of Bristol, some twelve further towns and cities established similar corporations in the next two decades. As these corporations required a private Act, they were not suitable for smaller towns and individual parishes.

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.

The reform of the Poor Law

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 Royal Commission on the Poor Law

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.

Findings of the Commission

The 13 volume report pointed to the conclusion that the poor law itself was the cause of poverty. The report differentiated between poverty, which was seen as necessary, as it was fear of poverty which made people work, and indigence - the inability to earn enough to live on.

  • "less eligibility": that the position of the pauper should have to enter a workhouse with conditions worse than that of the poorest 'free' labourer outside of the workhouse.
  • the "workhouse test", that relief should only be available in the workhouse. The reformed workhouses were to be uninviting, so that anyone capable of coping outside them would choose not to be in one.

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 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

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:

(a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse;

(b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help;

(c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes;

(d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission;

(e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country.

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.

There were a number of provisions that aimed at stopping previous discrimination against non-conformists and Roman Catholics.

Amendments to the Amendment Act

The Poor Laws in Ireland, Scotland and Wales

In 1838 the Poor Laws were extended into Ireland, although a few poorhouses had been built before that time. The workhouses were supervised by a Poor Law Commissioner in Dublin. The Irish Poor Laws were even harsher on the poor than the English Poor Laws; furthermore, the Irish unions were underfunded, and there were too few workhouses in Ireland. As a result, the Irish Potato Famine became a humanitarian catastrophe.

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.

Poor Law Policy 1847-1900

Commission replaced with a Board

After 1847 the Poor Law Commission was replaced with a Poor Law Board. This was because of the Andover workhouse scandal and the criticism of Henry Parker who was responsible for the Andover union as well as the tensions in Somerset House caused by Chadwicks failure to become a Poor Law Commissioner.

Union Chargeability Act

The Poor Law had been altered in 1834 because of increasing costs. The Union Chargeability Act was passed in 1865 in order to make the financial burden of pauperism be placed upon the whole unions rather than individual parishes. Most Boards of Guardians were middle class and committed to keeping Poor Rates as low as possible

Increasing powers for local government

After the Reform Act 1867 there was increasing welfare legislation. As this legislation required local authorities' support the Poor Law Board was replaced with a Local Government Board in 1871. County Councils were formed in 1888, District Councils in 1894. This meant that public housing, unlike health and income maintenance, developed outside the scope of the Poor Law. The infirmaries and the workhouses remained the responsibility of the Guardians until 1930. This change was in part due to changing attitudes on the nature and causes of poverty - there was for the first time an attitude that society had a responsibility to protect its more vulnerable members.

Demise and abolition

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.

See also

References

External links

  • The Poor Law at a Web of English History
  • A famous depiction of women in the Victorian workhouse - 'A scene in the Westminster Union, 1878'
  • British Social Policy 1601-1948
  • Poor Law research guide from The National Archives, UK
  • Southwell Workhouse - National Trust
  • Workhouse - The Story of Workhouses
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