Saturday, 10 May 2008

Further reform of the Poor Laws

The effectiveness of the workhouse test in the north was never really verified. From 1837 to 1842 it lay in the grip of hunger and the intermittent collapse of industries. Whole communities went suddenly out of work and in these circumstances the new poor law was impossible to institute or operate. Fanatical opposition to the poor law became a central theme of Chartism and, because it posed a threat to public order, produced a ceaseless campaign against the Commissioners. The Central Board had only been given a five-year lease of life and it was so unpopular when it came up for renewal it was only extended for one year. The result was the abandonment of the workhouse test and less eligibility principle in the north with a return to outdoor relief.

By 1842 the industrial working class had largely won back outdoor relief and the worse of the economic distress was over. The Commission was given five more years of life but its days were numbered. A humanitarian attack began on the conditions in the new workhouses. This criticism gained strength from a series of mistakes, epidemics and scandals that provoked public inquiries and ultimately public demands for reform of the worst abuses. In 1842 the first scandal led to the withdrawal of the rule imposing silence at all meals; the bringing together of families separated into male, female and infant; and the first attempts to separate prostitutes, lunatics and infected persons from the general body of paupers. This process continued gradually until 1847 and the Andover scandal of 1845-6 was the last straw. When the Commission came up for renewal once more in 1847 it was swept aside. The 1847 Act set up a new board consisting of a president, accountable as a member of government to Parliament, and two secretaries, one of whom might be an MP. The 1847 Act had two great merits:

  1. It remedied the weakness caused by the old board's independent status: the government was now genuinely responsible and there was a proper channel between the board and parliament.
  2. It stilled the long agitation against the new poor law and mean that the new board could undertake a common-sense policy of gradual improvement in peace. It was aided in this by the improved economic situation and by the fact that the laws of settlement were also swept away in 1847.

The achievements of the board between 1847 and 1870 were small but a beginning was made in several fields. In 1848 the first schools for pauper children were set up; in the 1850s outdoor relief was frankly admitted and regulated; by 1860 segregation of different classes of pauper into different quarters of the workhouse was virtually accomplished and the harshness of the old uniform regulations was softened. Even by the 1870s the workhouse was still barbarous in many places and as a system but important changes had taken place:

  • More and more money was being spent on the poor and unfortunate without protest.
  • Pauperdom, especially for the able-bodied poor, was being increasingly regarded as misfortune rather than a crime or cause for segregation. The stigma of disfranchisement was not removed until 1885.

By the 1860s the Poor law service had moved away from controversy and into a phase of consolidation. The administration became less centralised, less doctrinaire and to some extent less harsh[1]. Inspectors turned to advising on workhouse management rather than applying blind deterrent policies. Boards of Guardians had more freedom to respond to local conditions and outdoor relief was given more frequently. The Lancashire cotton famine of the early 1860s brought matters to a head. Poor law and charity solutions proved inadequate and government, both central and local, thought that it was justifiable to intervene to create employment. The Public Works (Manufacturing Districts) Act 1863 gave powers to local authorities to obtain cheap loans to finance local improvements. This Act, as much as anything, symbolised the failure of the nineteenth century poor law to cope with the problem of large-scale industrial unemployment. Poor law financing was changed in the Union Chargeability Act 1865 that ended the system whereby each union was separately responsible for the cost of maintaining its own poor. In 1871, the Local Government Act set up a new form of central administration -- the Local Government Board combining the work of the Poor Law Board, the Medical Department of the Privy Council and a small Local Government section of the Home Office.

There were attempts by the Local Government Board and its inspectorate during the next decade to reduce the amount of outdoor relief by urging boards of guardians to enforce the regulations restricting outdoor relief more stringently. This meant that using the poor law system as a device to cope with unemployment more difficult and led to the unemployed seeking relief for their condition from other sources. This trend was given official recognition in 1886 when Joseph Chamberlain, the President of the Local Government Board, issued a Circular urging local authorities to undertake public works as a means of relieving unemployment.

The poor law system of the late nineteenth century was gradually moving towards greater specialisation in the treatment of those committed to its care. This can be seen in the increase in expenditure on indoor relief by 113 per cent between 1871-2 and 1905-6, though the number of indoor paupers only increased by 76 per cent. In the conditions of the late nineteenth century the focus shifted from pauperism to an increasing awareness of poverty and to the growing demand for an attack on it. While the Boards of Guardians retained control over paupers, other agencies became more important in dealing with various kinds of poverty:

  1. Urban school boards from 1870 and local education authorities after 1902 played a vital role in exposing and dealing with child poverty. School feeding and medical inspections developed out of the work of these bodies not out of the poor law system.
  2. At the other end of the age spectrum, opinion was moving in favour of old-age pensions in some form to take the poor out of the sphere of the poor law. A Royal Commission on the Aged Poor that reported in 1895 favoured the improvement of poor law provisions for old people but rejected the pension idea. Four years later, however, a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Aged Deserving Poor reported in favour of pensions.
  3. The policy of the Chamberlain Circular of providing work for the unemployed was continued both by local authority and by some philanthropic bodies such as the Salvation Army. In 1904, with unemployment worsening, the Local Government Board encouraged the creation of joint distress committees in London to plan and co-ordinate schemes of work relief for the unemployed. The Unemployed Workmen Act 1905 made the establishment of similar distress committees in every large urban area in the country mandatory. The committees were also empowered to establish labour exchanges, keep unemployment registers and assist the migration or emigration of unemployed workmen. This Act, it has been maintained, marked the culmination of attempts to deal with unemployment through work relief schemes.

With poor relief costs and the numbers on outdoor relief increasing, there were fears for some that the evils of the old Poor Law were being resurrected. The result was the establishment in November 1905 of a Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress.


[1] Poverty in the cities is analysed by J. Treble Urban Poverty in Britain 1830-1914, Batsford, 1979, L. Rose 'Rogues and Vagabonds' Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985, Routledge, 1988 and Carl Chinn Poverty amidst prosperity: the urban poor in England 1834-1914, Manchester University Press, 1995.

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