Thursday, 8 May 2008

Operating the Poor Law

The Poor Law Amendment Act was implemented with speed and determination[1]. Nine assistant commissioners were appointed and this rose to sixteen within a year. Poor Law Unions were created with some rapidity. By the end of 1835 2,066 parishes had been incorporated into 112 Unions. In 1836 the score reached 365 Unions of 7,915 parishes and by December 1839 13,691 parishes out of some 15,000 had been incorporated into 583 Unions, leaving 799 mostly Local Act or Gilbert Act Unions outside. The new Poor Law territorial system was nearly as complete as it would be until 1871, although some restructuring of Unions occurred later.

  • The resulting reduction in costs was considerable. By 1838 the Commissioners reported that the country had been relieved of some £2,300,000 'direct annual taxation'. Although after 1837 costs began to rise again, it was long before they reached the level of 1834. This was a success for those who aimed chiefly at reducing the poor rate.
  • For those who propagated the 1834 Act as a measure of social rehabilitation it was also claimed as a success. By 1835 the Commissioners were claiming that it had already brought more prompt and adequate relief to the aged, inform and sick; was improving the education of pauper children. They were encouraging industry and moral habits in the able-bodied and thereby increasing their welfare and helping farmers to provide more employment and higher wages; was improving the relationship between rural employers and their workers. There was a decline in chargeable bastardy and better sexual morals in the countryside.

The Commission produced annual reports and the propaganda features of the 1834 Report reappeared regularly. It remains, with the help of regional studies, to see how far their claims were justified.


The southern counties felt the impact of the new poor law even before the new Unions were created. Some places took the opportunity to reduce poor relief wholesale: the Uckfield Union in Sussex reduced its costs in one year from £16,643 to £8,733 of which only £5,675 was spent on the poor, the remainder being used to build a workhouse. Immediate reductions occurred in widely separated areas, even if not on the Uckfield scale. In East Yorkshire expenditure fell by 13 per cent in 1835 and by 27 per cent between 1834 and 1837. These examples hide the extent of opposition, the poor geographical construction of some Unions and the role of the landed classes:

  1. The Commissioners wanted the Unions to consist of a circle of parishes round a market town and some Unions did conform to this pattern. But others did not. Most of Anglesey formed a large Union of 53 parishes while five parishes in the east of the island were attached to Caernarfon to which they were linked by ferry and 16 more were attached to Bangor across the Menai straits.
  2. In some rural areas the Assistant Commissioners were compelled to obtain the support of the landed nobility by drawing the boundaries of Unions round their estates. In Northamptonshire the Union of Potterspuy encompassed the Duke of Grafton's interest, Aynho, the Cartwright's interest and Daventry, Charles Kingsley's interest. Anthony Brundage sees this as a process by which the great landowners created Unions to suit their own interests and so maintain their control over Poor Law administration. Peter Dunkley challenges this view. He observes that in urban areas and in some rural districts lacking great landowners, yeomen farmers or town shopkeepers and artisans secured control of the Boards of Guardians.

There was therefore considerable disparity in the size, shape, population and wealth of the Unions. Far from uniformity, the 1834 Act inaugurated a period of considerable variegation and experiment in local administrative areas.

Administrative services

The success of central policies was dependent on the character and efficiency of the Poor Law Union officials. The new government service included Clerks to the Boards, Relieving Officers, Workhouse Masters and Medical Officers. Some of these posts were part-time and the salaries varied according to the size and population of the Union. The officials in the front line were the Relieving Officer and Workhouse Master, sometimes one person holding two posts:

  1. The Relieving Officer decided the fate of applicants for relief; whether they should be relieved at home, enjoy free medical treatment, be sent to task work or 'offered' the workhouse. He was also supposed to supervise outdoor relief.
  2. The Workhouse Master ran the House. He served two masters, the Commission and the Board of Guardians, who not infrequently issued conflicting orders. He was required to fulfil the demands of Medical Officers for the supply and treatment of pauper patients. He needed to be of firm character and the Commissioners hoped that the Guardians would use their powers of patronage to appoint both Relieving Officers and Workhouse Masters from the police or military NCOs. Even so between 1835 and 1841 90 Relieving Officers were dismissed for theft, neglect of duty, misconduct or drunkenness.

The inevitable result of local patronage was the dismissal and then re-appointment of officials from the old poor law system.  imilar problems occurred in establishing professional Poor Law medical services. Initially the Commissioners encouraged Unions to offer part-time medical posts at the lowest tender but this led to many complaints of neglect and ill treatment before the Select Committee of 1837. After this Unions appointed qualified doctors at reasonable wages. From 1842, when the first General Medical Order was issued, attempts were made by the Commissioners to regulate the improvement the service. Unions were divided into medical districts each with its own Medical Officer. Workhouse infirmaries did provide indoor medical treatment and increased in number but they were often overcrowded and without adequate equipment or staff. They failed to improve until 1867, when the Metropolitan Poor Law Act, began the process of taking the London infirmaries out of Union control. In 1885 the Medical Relief Disqualification Act removed some of the stigma of pauperism from those who received only medical assistance from the poor law and the poor law authorities administered three-quarters of all hospital beds.

The workhouses

The well-regulated workhouse was the centrepiece of the new system[2]. Chadwick never intended that the deterrent workhouse test should apply to all. He intended to build new workhouses for orphans, the old and infirm while driving the able-bodied to provide for themselves and their families. Existing parish workhouses were to be included in the Unions for the separate treatment of classified paupers, the old, the young and the able-bodied. He hoped to extend this principle to the separate housing of lunatics, the blind and other special categories. This proved impractical and a single large Union workhouse was more efficient with the result that the 'deserving poor' were treated little different from the 'undeserving' able-bodied.

The Commissioners never intended that workhouses should be places of repression for the able-bodied. Paupers might be better fed and housed than in a labourer's cottage. But they would be put to heavy work and subjected to discipline including the denial of tobacco and alcohol and the separation of men from women. But the workhouses were to be intended as 'prisons without crime'.  Dietaries published by the Commissioners were not wholly insufficient and took notice of local eating habits but food was stodgy and monotonous.  Inmates had to wear workhouse uniform but the Commissioners resisted the attempts of some Guardians to clothe unmarried mothers in yellow as a badge of shame.

The picture of a stern and uniform regime in the workhouse -- a picture reinforced by radical writers called them 'Bastilles' -- belied the facts. Just how cruel the new poor law workhouses were is a question often obscured by propaganda and myth. They were often overcrowded but their character varied between areas. The character of the Master and Matron, the Union boards and the regional Assistant Poor Law Commissioner regulated the actual conduct of the workhouses. The new workhouses were often less crowded and insanitary than those built before 1834. The most resented deterrent effect of the new poor law, and the most obvious contrast with the old system, was the strict workhouse routine and the increasing stigma attached to pauper status.

[1] D. Fraser (ed.) The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan, 1976 is a collection of excellent essays on the operation of the system.

[2] The workhouse is discussed in N. Longmate The Workhouse, Temple Smith, 1974, A. Digby Pauper Palaces, Routledge, 1978 and M. Crowther The Workhouse System 1834-1929: The History of an English Social Institution, Methuen, 1984. Felix Driver Power and pauperism: the workhouse system 1834-1884, CUP, 1993 is a useful recent study.

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