Thursday, 8 May 2008

Resisting the Poor Law

Resistance to alterations in the provision of poor relief was not uncommon in the early nineteenth century and grievances about the operation of the poor laws formed a significant feature of disturbances in southern England between 1830 and 1832. Whatever its demoralising character, the old poor law had at least provided flexible arrangements to deal with poverty and had come to be regarded by many labourers as their right in times of hardship. It was not surprising that the introduction and especially the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 provoked widespread hostility and opposition[1]. This section is divided into three parts: discussion of rural and then urban opposition and finally a documentary exercise in how opposition has been interpreted.

Rural opposition

The Act was intended to solve the problem of rising poor rates and the maladministration of existing workhouses by an application of market principles. Making unlawful any relief to able-bodied people outside the workhouse was intended to discourage all but the genuinely needy. The Act also grouped hitherto independent parishes into poor law unions governed by an elected board of guardians under the supervision of three centrally appointed Poor Law Commissioners. The Act had a relatively easy passage through Parliament but even so there was some opposition. William Cobbett saw it, in his pamphlet The Legacy to Labourers, as an attack on the 'right' to relief and an assault on the traditional 'social compact' between the propertied and the poor. Other saw it as an attack on the independence of local government. Working class radicals saw it as part of the attack on the livelihood of the poor by a penny-pinching government.

  • The first reaction to the implementation of the Act came in agricultural areas. From 1835 there were numerous disturbances in East Anglia and the southern counties, a situation aggravated by a hard winter that forced many unemployed labourers to apply for relief.
  • Announcements of the implementation of the Act were greeted with hostility. In May 1835 a crowd assembled at Ampthill demanding 'Blood or bread', 'All money' and 'No bread' and was dispersed only after the Riot Act was read.
  • In other places labourers occupied the workhouses demanding their customary rights.
  • Attempts to separate male and female paupers under the new regulations were seen as part of a Malthusian plot to stop the poor from breeding; this was elaborated by rumours that workhouse food was laced with an anti-fertility substance or even poisoned.
  • The most serious disturbances took place in Suffolk. Anglican clergymen openly opposed to the new law and strong local feeling was more evident than in many other parts of the country.

The disturbances in southern England demonstrated the sensitivity of the population to changes in customary arrangements for poor relief. Reactions varied from locality to locality but there was little serious violence other than some property being damaged and a few people assaulted. There was often considerable local sympathy for the rioters and many gentry and parsons petitioned against the Act. However, the disturbances did little to disturb the implementation of the Act and by mid 1836 the new system was operating across the agricultural south. The anti-poor law movement never gained the support and partial success it was to achieve when the system was applied to the North.

Urban opposition: the North

Initially the Act was received favourably by the powerful provincial northern press because it was felt to be irrelevant to the industrial areas where poor rates were much lower than in the south and parochial relief had often already been organised. Implementation in the north from the end of 1836 aroused serious and sometimes violent opposition, much of it organised by Tory radicals such as Michael Sadler and Richard Oastler. These middle class reformers, already prominent in campaigning for factory reform, provided an organisation against the new Act that the resistance in the south had not had.

  1. The campaign orchestrated by the anti-poor law movement stressed the Christian duty of the rich to assist the poor and accepted Cobbett's argument that the Act denied basic rights.
  2. The timing of implementation in the north was also unfortunate and occurred just at the time that trade depression was beginning to affect many of the textile districts, greatly adding to the fears of the manufacturing population, especially the increasingly vulnerable handloom workers.
  3. The arrival of the commissioners often led to violence though the leaders of the movement preferred to maintain control over their followers and direct the campaign in a peaceful direction without causing outright violence. This was not always possible. In June 1837 a crowd of people wrecked the workhouse in Huddersfield. This led to implementation being put off until the following year.
  4. By the end of 1838 the violent phase of resistance had died down as the unions were gradually established and the poor law commissioners made concessions that allowed boards of guardians to give relief in Lancashire and Yorkshire on the traditional basis of the old poor law if the situation required it. By 1839 the campaign began to disintegrate as working class resentment was appeased by the continued use of outdoor relief and rivalries between middle class and working class elements of the movement began to come to the fore. Increasingly Chartism attracted the more radical supporters of the agitation.

The anti-poor law movement in the North represented a temporary alliance between working and middle classes against what was widely regarded as an unjust and intrusive measure; in a sense it was also a local reaction against centralisation that cut across class lines. Eventually differences in emphasis and ideas between Tory radicals, who emphasised the value of paternalism, and the emerging Chartist leaders, with their belief in universal suffrage, ruptured the alliance.

Opposition to the 1834 Act did little to delay its implementation in southern England but in the north it was more effective. It delayed effective implementation until 1838 and even then local concessions meant that outdoor relief still continued to play an important role. The northern campaign demonstrated that exerting pressure through press, pamphlets and meetings was far more influential that the 'language of menace'. This stands in contrast to the more traditional, less organised and less effective reactions in the agricultural areas.

Anti-poor law agitation: some sources

Source 1: William Cobbett

This bill will totally abrogate all the local government of the kingdom: the gentlemen and the magistrates will be totally divested of all power, tending to uphold their character, and to secure their property, and their personal safety in the country. I have talked to twenty gentlemen, farmers and attorneys; every man of them has said: “If this bill be attempted to be put into execution, there will be a revolution in England”; and I am so firmly persuaded of the soundness of their opinion, that I should look upon such result as something inevitable.

Weekly Political Register, 3 May 1834

Source2: Account from W.J. Gilbert from Devon

The leaders of the opposition are to be found amongst the constant overseers (gentlemen accustomed to accept the office for £5 a year, and quit it with a well-furnished purse); the little shopkeeper, at whose house the poor were paid, and who received the amount for old debts and encouraged new, from which the pauper never got free; the beer-shop keeper, at whose house great part of the relief was expended; and the little farmer or the lime-kiln owner, whose influence at the vestry enabled him to pay one half hid labour from the parish funds, under the name of relief in aid of wages, or to speak correctly, relief in aid of vestrymen. Wherever disturbances have taken place, they have been traced to the instigation of some or one of these parties. In the north of the county, where there were some disturbances, we found that the poor people were acting under the grossest deception…

Poor Law Commission Second Annual Report, Appendix B, No. 9, 1836

Source 3: Reverend J.R. Stephens

The people were not going to stand this, and he would say, that sooner than wife and husband, and father and son, should be sundered and dungeoned, and fed on “skillee” – sooner than wife or daughter should wear the prison dress – sooner than that – Newcastle ought to be, and should be --- one blaze of fire, with only one way to put it out, and that with the blood of all who supported this abominable measure…

Extract from a speech January 1838 printed in R.G.Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, 1854, page 64.

Source 4: Richard Oastler

Christian Reader.

Be not alarmed at the sound of the Title. I can not bless that, which GOD and NATURE CURSE. The Bible being true, the Poor Law Amendment Act is false! The Bible containing the will of God, --- this accursed Act of Parliament embodies the will of Lucifer. It is the Sceptre of Belial, establishing its sway in the Land of Bibles!! DAMNATION; ETERNAL DAMNATION to the accursed Fiend!!

Richard Oastler Damnation, Eternal Damnation, 1837, frontispiece.


Source 5: John Knott

The 1834 Poor Law was a focus for popular discontent, rather than its sole cause. When the popular radicals of Bradford drew up A Petition to Parliament Against the New Poor Law Act in early 1835, they did not confine themselves to criticising the Act’s poor relief policy: they also mentioned the hardship and suffering caused by the use of steam power and machinery in factories, and of the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to extend the franchise to the labouring population…..Boom and depression punctuated their lives; they were frightened by the 1832 Anatomy Act and the introduction of the New Police; the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Factory Act fell well short of their demands; and now the 1834 Poor Law held out the spectre of lower wages and possible starvation. It was hard to escape the conclusion that all these things were part of an orchestrated attempt to grind the labouring population down even further.

John Knott Popular Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law, Croom Helm, 1986, page 247.

Source 6: Nicholas Edsall

The emergence of spontaneous resistance early in 1837 revived the opposition’s hopes, but not their realistic prospects. Only something approaching a national movement with effective representation in Parliament would have been sufficient to check let alone reverse the progress of the Poor Law Commissioners, and there was never the slightest chance of these conditions being fulfilled…..This did not mean, however, that the popular resistance movement was pointless or that its importance lay solely in its legacy to northern Chartism. It failed only in terms of its own over-ambitious goals; judged by any less exacting standards it was a success. Without popular resistance the administrative machinery of the New Poor Law would have been introduced long before the end of 1837…The most that the anti-Poor Law movement could realistically hope to achieve was what had been achieved by 1844, delay, a demonstration of the inadequacy of the Law, and some modification of its rigors. Anything more substantial would have to wait until a positive alternative to the New Poor Law was put forward, and that was not to happen for more than half a century.

Nicholas C. Edsall The Anti-Poor Law movement 1834-44, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp. 258, 262.


[1] Opposition to the introduction of the 1834 Act can be found in N. Edsall The Anti-Poor Law Movement 1833-1844, Manchester U.P., 1971 and J. Knott Popular Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law, Croom Helm, 1985.

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