Friday, 17 December 2010

Operating the New Poor Law 1834-1847

Despite opposition, 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, this reached 365 Unions of 7,915 parishes and by December 1839, 13,691 out of some 15,000 parishes 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 £2.3 million of ‘direct annual taxation’. Although costs soon began to rise again, it was not until after 1900 that they reached pre-1834 levels. 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, there were also claims of success. By 1835, the Commissioners were claiming that it had already brought more prompt and adequate relief to the aged, infirm and sick and was improving the education of pauper children. They were encouraging industry and moral habits in the able-bodied helping farmers to provide more employment and higher wages and 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 other areas, even if not on the Uckfield scale. In East Yorkshire, expenditure fell by 13% in 1835 and by 27% 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.[2]

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 many 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.[3] 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, for example, 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 observing 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. [4] There was therefore considerable disparity in the size, shape, population and wealth of the Unions. Far from uniformity, the 1834 Act established considerable variety in local administrative areas.

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. 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. The Workhouse Master ran the House but 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.[5] 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.

Similar problems occurred in establishing professional Poor Law medical services.[6] 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 improvements to 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.

Poverty 8

Brownlow Hill: Liverpool workhouse

The Medical Act 1858 stated that Poor Law Doctors could not be employed by the Guardians unless qualified in both Medicine and Surgery and were registered. Despite this, conditions failed to improve in London until 1867, when the Metropolitan Poor Law Act began the process of taking the infirmaries out of Union control. [7] 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.[8] In 1897, the Local Government Board passed an order forbidding the employment of Pauper Nurses, though they were still allowed to work in infirmaries under the supervision of a trained Nurse and the Local Government Board Order 1913 required that an institution with more than 100 beds for the sick must have an appropriately qualified Superintendant Nurse.

The well-regulated workhouse was the centrepiece of the new system. [9] 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.[10] 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. However, in practice, workhouses were increasingly seen as ‘prisons without crime’. Dietaries published by the Commissioners were not wholly insufficient but took little notice of local eating habits and food was stodgy and monotonous.[11] 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.

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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.

The feature of the 1834 legislation that caught the attention of contemporary opinion was not the system of central administration but the threat of seeking relief, with special emphasis being paid to the workhouse test. Official records are stronger on administration that relief, but they do give more attention to the inmates of the workhouse than to those on outdoor relief. In many respects this is unfortunate since the majority of paupers were normally those in receipt of outdoor relief. The statistics of the period suggest that over 80% of paupers were on outdoor relief. In 1837, 11% of all paupers had been workhouse inmates; by 1844, the figure was no more than 15%. In 1844, the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order re-confirmed that the able-bodied should not be given outdoor relief but infrequent visits by commissioners meant that this was never rigorously applied.

Poverty 10

East Preston workhouse

The workhouse test was designed to deter the able-bodied poor, but the majority of workhouse inmates were normally the physically and mentally disabled, the aged and a wide variety of sick.[12] In dealing with the able-bodied the workhouse test was invariably offered to those regarded as of bad character: aged or diseased prostitutes, ex-criminals, mothers with more than one illegitimate child, known alcoholics and vagrants.[13] Regarded as a refuge for undesirables, the workhouse gave its inmates a greater stigma than applied to those in receipt of outdoor relief. The Victorian workhouse was faced with the impossible task of providing a refuge for the impotent while deterring the scrounger. In that the mass of the poor regarded the workhouse with considerable dread the deterrent feature had been successfully conveyed, despite the fact that the majority of the inmates were usually unsuitable for such treatment. Indeed for the Webbs, the workhouse became ‘shocking to every principle of reason and every feeling of humanity’.[14]

This dismal view corresponds to that of contemporary critics of the 1830s and 1840s such as The Times and the novelist Charles Dickens. The picture of the workhouse presented by its early opponents suggested a life of horror.[15] For even the mildly awkward there were savage beatings and solitary confinement in the most unsuitable of cells. For the majority, existence was endured on a starvation diet, families were ruthlessly separated in the interests of classification, accommodation was overcrowded and unhealthy and daily life was a monotonous routine supervised by unsympathetic officials. Finally, for those unfortunate enough to die in the workhouse, the end was a pauper burial without dignity or respect. There were, however, others in the 1830s and 1840s who took a more positive view of the new system and sought to answer the rabid criticisms of those opposed it.[16]

The picture was not simply a study in black. There was much variation between workhouses and those that paid most attention to the directives of the central authority probably provided better food and accommodation than was available to many of the poor who struggled to survive outside. In the case of children and the sick, foundations were being made for future progress, though developments were slow and partial until the mid-1860s. Most historians accept that the sensational stories of cruelties were either false or the result of survivals from the former regime. In a number of cases, such as the flogging of young girls at the Hoo Workhouse or the scandal at Andover, the local authority could be shown to have ignored the directives of the central authority. However, this did not excuse the inadequacy of the supervision that allowed such things to take place.

Poverty 11

Workhouse inmates picking oakum c1880

The effectiveness of the workhouse test in the north was never fully tested. From 1837 to 1842, much of industrial England was in the grip of severe depression. Whole communities went suddenly out of work and in these circumstances it was impossible for the new poor law to operate. The Outdoor Labour Test Order was introduced as a result by which the poor were supposed to do the ‘labour test’, hard and monotonous work in return for outdoor relief. Zealous 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 a tempering of the workhouse test and less eligibility principle in the north with a return to outdoor relief. By late 1842, the worst of the economic distress was over and the Commission was given five more years of life but its position was already compromised. A humanitarian attack began on the conditions in the new workhouses, criticism that 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 but events in the Andover Union were the last straw.


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

[2] Useful local studies include Rawding, Charles, ‘The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834-65: a case study of Caistor Poor Law Union’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, Vol. 22, (1987), pp. 15-23, Fletcher, Barry, ‘Chichester and the Westhampnett Poor Law Union’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. 34, (1996), pp. 185-196, Carter, Paul, (ed.), Bradford Poor Law Union: papers and correspondence with the Poor Law Commission, October 1834-January 1839, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Record series, Vol. 157, (Boydell), 2004 and Song, Byung Khun, ‘Continuity and change in English rural society: the formation of poor law unions in Oxfordshire’, English Historical Review, Vol. 114, (1999), pp. 314-338.

[3] Jones, David Llewelyn, ‘The fate of the paupers: life in the Bangor and Beaumaris Union Workhouse 1845-71’, Transactions of the Caernarvonshire Historical Society, Vol. 66, (2005), pp. 94-125.

[4] For the debate, see, Brundage, Anthony, ‘The landed interest and the New Poor Law: a reappraisal of the revolution in government’, English Historical Review, Vol. 87, (1972), pp. 27-48, Dunkley, Peter, ‘The landed interest and the new Poor Law: a critical note’, English Historical Review, Vol. 88, (1973), pp. 836-841 and Brundage, Anthony, ‘The landed interest and the new poor law: a reply’, English Historical Review, Vol. 90, (1975), pp. 347-351. See also, Brundage, Anthony, ‘The English Poor Law of 1834 and the cohesion of agricultural society’, Agricultural History, Vol. 48, (1974), pp. 405-417.

[5] See, Gutchen, R.M., ‘Masters of workhouses under the New Poor Law’, Local Historian, Vol. 16, (1984), pp. 93-99.

[6] See, for example, Green, David R., ‘Medical relief and the new Poor Law in London’, in Grell, Ole Peter, Cunningham, Andrew and Jütte, Robert, (eds.), Health care and poor relief in eighteenth and nineteenth century northern Europe, (Ashgate), 2002, pp. 220-245, Hodgkinson, R.G., ‘Poor law medical officers of England, 1834-71’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 11, (1956), pp. 299-338 and Miller, Edgar, ‘Variations in the official prevalence and disposal of the insane in England under the poor law, 1850-1900’, History of Psychiatry, Vol. 18, (1), (2007), pp. 25-38.

[7] See, Anon, The Lancet sanitary commission for investigating the state of the infirmaries of workhouses: reports of the commissioners on metropolitan infirmaries, 1866. On the operation of the poor laws in London after 1834 see, Green, David R., Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law 1790-1870, (Ashgate), 2010, pp. 81-246.

[8] Brand, J.L., ‘The parish doctor: England’s poor law medical officers and medical reform, 1870-1900’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 35, (1961), pp. 97-122.

[9] The workhouse is discussed in Longmate, N., The Workhouse, (Temple Smith), 1974, Digby, A., Pauper Palaces, (Routledge), 1978, Crowther, M., The Workhouse System 1834-1929: The History of an English Social Institution, (Methuen), 1984 and Driver, Felix, Power and pauperism: the workhouse system 1834-1884, (Cambridge University Press), 1993.

[10] Bartlett, Peter, The poor law of lunacy: the administration of pauper lunatics in mid-nineteenth-century England, (Leicester University Press), 1999, Ellis, Robert, ‘The Asylum, the Poor Law and the Growth of County Asylums in Nineteenth-Century Yorkshire’, Northern History, Vol. 45, (2008), pp. 279-293, Murphy, Elaine., ‘The New Poor Law Guardians and the administration of insanity in east London, 1834-1844’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 77, (2003), pp. 45-74 and Bartlett, Peter, ‘The asylum and the Poor Law: the productive alliance’, in Melling, Joseph and Forsythe, Bill (eds.), Insanity, institutions, and society, 1800-1914: a social history of madness in comparative perspective, (Routledge), 1999, pp. 48-67. See also, Phillips, Gordon Ashton, The blind in British society: charity, state, and community, c.1780-1930, (Ashgate), 2004, pp. 160-199.

[11] See, Johnston, V.J., Diet in workhouses and prisons 1835-1895, (Garland), 1985, pp. 13-36.

[12] Besley, Timothy, Coate, Stephen and Guinnane, Timothy W., ‘Incentives, information, and welfare: England’s New Poor Law and the workhouse test’, in Guinnane, Timothy W., Sundstrom, William A. and Whatley, Warren, (eds.), History matters: essays on economic growth, technology, and demographic change, (Stanford University Press), 2004, 245-270.

[13] Fillmore, Jacquelené, ‘The female vagrant pauper’, Local Historian, Vol. 35, (2005), pp. 148-158 and Henriques, U.R Q., ‘Bastardy and the new Poor Law’, Past & Present, Vol. 37, (1967), pp. 103-129.

[14] Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice, English Poor Law Policy, (Longman, Green), 1910, p. 133.

[15] See, for example, Oastler, Richard, Damnation! Eternal damnation to the fiend-begotten ‘coarser-food’, new Poor law, a speech, (Henry Hetherington), 1837, Roberts, Samuel, Mary Wilden, a Victim to the New Poor Law, Or, The Malthusian and Marcusian System Exposed: In a Letter to His Grace the Duke of Portland, (Whittaker and Co.), 1839, A few practical observations on the new poor law: showing the demoralizing & enslaving effects of this anti-Christian enactment: containing various facts illustrating the working of the new law, (A.Redford), 1838, and especially, Baxter, G.R.W., The book of the Bastiles: or, The history of the working of the new poor law, (J. Stephens), 1841.

[16] For example, Nevile, Christopher, The new poor law justified: with suggestions for the establishment of insurance offices for the poor, (Ridgway), 1838, Spencer, Thomas, The new poor law: its evils and their remedies, 1841 and Objections to the new Poor Law answered, (John Green, 121 Newgate St.), 1841 and Gurney, John Hampden, The new poor law explained and vindicated: A plain address to the labouring classes among his parishioners..., (W. Walker), 1841.

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