Monday, 13 December 2010

Opposing the 1834 Poor Law Act

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] 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.[2] Other saw it as an attack on the independence of local government. Working-class radicals regarded 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.[3] 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.

In Wales, Tories exploited working-class antipathy to the 1834 legislation and the Tory press, and especially Yr Haul, portrayed itself as the champion of the poor who, it said, were suffering because the Whigs wanted to relieve their own supporters and defended the poor who were now its victims:

The poor tremble…they would rather die of famine on the fields and hills where they live than go into the workhouse to pine in slavery…[4]

The anti-Poor Law agitation took an increasingly religious tone with the new workhouses seen as violating the laws of Christianity by separating families. [5]

The agitation in Wales also demonstrated deep local aversion to outside interference, matched only in northern England.[6] The legislation was constantly referred to as a piece of ‘English’ legislation unsuited to Welsh conditions but Welsh opposition had few links with opposition in England. Also bitterly resented was the decision by Poor Law Commissioners, because of the low density of population, to create large Poor Law Unions separating some communities from their Union centres by many miles. Nevertheless, opposition in Wales took time to gain momentum and initially the commissioners expected little opposition to the implementation of the legislation. The major problem they faced was what they called an ‘unholy alliance’ of magistrates, Anglican clergy and Nonconformists to capture control of the Boards of Guardians. This proved remarkably successful and in many Unions, the 1837 board elections were won by anti-Poor Law candidates. In south Wales, these victories had little practical effect since Unions had already been established and workhouse construction had gone too far to be easily reversed. In addition, wages in the iron-mining districts were comparatively high and Glamorgan was considered fairly free of the worst evils of pauperism. [7] This was not the case in central and northern Wales where reorganisation had not proceeded beyond the preliminary stage before opposition crystallised. By early 1838

...the administration of the Poor Law in northern and central Wales had become a war of nerves in which the Poor Law Commissioners might not actually lose but which they had little prospect of winning. [8]

As in England, the 1834 Act politicised working people and reinforced increasingly negative views of the reforming Whigs.

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 the organisation and leadership that resistance in the south had lacked.[9] 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. The timing of implementation in the north was also unfortunate and occurred just as 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. 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 that led to implementation being postponed until the following year. [10]

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.

Poverty 7

Attack on the Stockport workhouse, 1837

Opposition to the 1834 Act did little to delay its implementation in southern England but in the north and Wales it was more successful. 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 successful reactions in the agricultural areas.


[1] Opposition to the introduction of the 1834 Act can be found in Edsall, N., The Anti-Poor Law Movement 1833-1844, (Manchester University Press), 1971 and Knott, J., Popular Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law, (Croom Helm), 1985. See also, Green, David R., ‘Pauper protests: power and resistance in early nineteenth-century London workhouses’, Social History, Vol. 31, (2006), pp. 137-159.

[2] See, Dyck, Ian, ‘William Cobbett and the rural radical platform’, Social History, Vol. 18, (1993), pp. 185-204 and William Cobbett and rural popular culture, 1790-1835, (Cambridge University Press), 1992, pp. 200-210.

[3] Apfel, William and Dunkley, Peter, ‘English rural society and the New Poor Law: Bedfordshire, 1834-47’, Social History, Vol. 10, (1985), pp. 37-68.

[4] Yr Haul, 1836, p. 214.

[5] Y Diwygiwr, 1837, p. 148.

[6] Ibid, Edsall, N., The Anti-Poor Law Movement 1833-1844, pp. 128-132, 136.

[7] Dewar, Ian, ‘George Clive and the Establishment of the New Poor Law in South Glamorgan, 1836-8’, Morgannwg, Vol. 11, (1967), pp. 46-70, and Thomas, J. E., ‘The Poor Law in West Glamorgan, 1834-1930’, Morgannwg, Vol. 18, (1974), pp. 45-69.

[8] Ibid, The Anti-Poor Law Movement 1833-1844, p. 132.

[9] Rose, M.E., ‘The anti-Poor Law movement in the North of England’, Northern History, Vol. 1, (1966), pp. 70-91.

[10] Hargreaves, John A., ‘“A metropolis of discontent”: popular protest in Huddersfield c.1780-1850’, in Haigh, E.A. Hilary, (ed.), Huddersfield: a most handsome town: aspects of the history and culture of a West Yorkshire town, (Kirklees Cultural Service), 1992, pp. 189-220.

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