Thursday, 20 November 2008

Social Policy: The Poor Laws

In contrast to the government’s fiscal policy, its social policy affecting the poor, the insane, factory and other workers and railway passengers was remarkably cautious. The ministry’s social legislation sought to tidy up the loose administrative ends of existing programmes rather than to advance new ones. Had it not been for the initiatives of Lord Ashley, the record of social legislation during the Peel administration would probably have been less than it was. In spite of its fundamentally cautious approach, the ministry encountered far more opposition for its social legislation than to its fiscal policy. This opposition was due to the controversial nature of the issues involved and partly to the growing disenchantment of some Conservative back-benchers with their leadership.

Poor Law policy exemplified the cautious approach of Peel’s government. There was general agreement in the cabinet that the new Poor Law[1] was a success. Since 1834, it had had the desired effect of implementing a more efficient system of poor relief and lowering poor rates. However, the law was unpopular in the countryside and was an issue in the 1841 election. Some Conservative MPs were pledged to a revision of the new system and in this they were joined by a group of like-minded radicals.

William Busfield Ferrand[2], the Conservative MP for Knaresborough was the most prominent of the anti-Poor Law MPs. He and his supporters objected to the new Poor Law on three general grounds. First, they claimed that to place the administration of the Poor Laws under a centralised body was an infringement of local rights. Secondly, they claimed that the Poor Law Commission lacked specific knowledge of local conditions and tended to adopt an inflexible approach to the problems of poor relief. Thirdly, they charged that the new Poor Law oppressed the poor, was inhumane and even unchristian. Practices such as discontinuing outdoor relief, separation of families, arbitrary punishment and bad food were cited as evidence. While there were some abuses under the new system, Ferrand was certainly overstating his case.

The government defended the new Poor Law with some rigour from Ferrand’s graphic attacks. It argued that the Poor Law Commission only guided policy to ensure certain standards of uniformity and that local management of poor relief was guaranteed by the system of elected Poor Law Guardians. This did not mean rigidity: Sir James Graham stated that it was a ‘plastic system’ that was capable of responding to local needs and conditions. In practice, he argued, however desirable the workhouse test was, ‘it would be cruel in the extreme if [it] was to be made the universal rule’. In fact, in 1841 of the 345,000 people in receipt of relief, only 65,467 were relieved in the workhouse. The government won the debate and the Poor Law Commission was extended for a further five years.

The only other Poor Law legislation of important was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1844. It enacted a new law of bastardy, regulated more clearly the relations between pauper apprentices and their masters, altered the mode of voting for Guardians and their qualifications for office and sponsored district pauper schools. Sporadic anti-Poor Law opposition continued through the life of the government but it never weakened ministerial determination to maintain the new Poor Law system.


[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. M.E. Rose The Relief of Poverty 1834-1914, Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1985 and P. Wood Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian England, Alan Sutton, 1991 are the most useful books on the introduction and operation of the ‘new’ poor law.

[2] John Ward W.B. Ferrand ‘The Working Man’s Friend’ 1809-1889, Tuckwell Press, 2002, especially pages 29-40.

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