Monday, 16 January 2017

The new Poor Law and the workhouse

‘Eventide’ by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1878)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 
There is a fantastic and comprehensive site (though a bit cluttered by ads) here. There is also a good summary on Wikipedia.

The Poor Law in the eighteenth century

The origins of the poor law go back to a series of sixteenth-century statutes that culminated in the Act of 1601. These were dealt with in my earlier post. There is a good blog post on poverty and the eighteenth-century poor law here.

The origins of the workhouse can be traced back to the Poor Law Act of 1576, which encouraged the setting up of Houses of Correction where the idle and disorderly could be punished and set to work. Towards the end of the seventeenth century some workhouses were started in individual parishes, and in large towns special authorities known as Guardians of the Poor ran Houses of Industry.

In 1723 the Kentish MP, Edward Knatchbull, put forward a bill that authorised the setting up of workhouses by individual parishes or groups of parishes without the need to obtain a special Act of Parliament. This gave a considerable impetus to the spread of workhouses. 

Gilbert’s Act of 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, with each county being divided into large districts. These unions of parishes could set up a common workhouse which was to be used only for the aged and infirm and for children, not for the able-bodied. In practice, however, workhouses were often used to relieve the able-bodied. 

The distribution of relief was carried out by a paid guardian in each parish supervised by a visitor, both officials being appointed by the justices of the peace. This represented a major shift of power from the parish to the landed gentry.

By 1834 more than 15,000 parishes in England and Wales were grouped into about 600 unions, which were run by boards of guardians elected by local ratepayers. Many of these pre-1834 union workhouses survive, such as the one at Nantwich in Cheshire, built in 1780.

The workhouses had three functions, in part contradictory; places of punishment, places of refuge, and places of employment.

The end of the old Poor Law

By the end of the eighteenth century the Poor Law was beginning to break down, unable to cope with the multiple crises of the rise in population, the growth of the industrial towns, the displacement of much of the rural population because of enclosure and the strains caused by the war with France. As poor rates increased spectacularly, reform of the existing poor law seemed an urgent necessity.

In 1795 the magistrates of Speen in Berkshire had set up a system to deal with the growing problem or rural poverty. The Speenhamland system offered outdoor relief  to those in paid
employment when they could not make ends meet. By the 1820s this was under attack.  It was argued that the allowances merely encouraged large families and took away the incentive for individual endeavour. The 1824 parliamentary select committee argued that the system converted the labourer into ‘the degraded and inefficient pensioner of the parish’. (The modern term is ‘dependency culture’.)

The Poor Law Amendment Act

By the 1820s utilitarian reformers were arguing for a radical remodelling of the poor law. The able-bodied poor should be kept in workhouses in conditions ‘less eligible’ than those which might be enjoyed by the most wretched independent labourer. Such a sweeping objective could only be achieved by a rational administrative structure run from the centre. Such centralisation was foreign to the traditions of the British state. 

In February 1832 parliament agreed to the establishment of a Royal Commission to enquire into the poor law and suggest changes. The Commission saw what it wanted to see and the evidence supported the case it had always wanted to make. By a careful selection of evidence the Commission concluded that the primary cause of poverty was the old Poor Law itself. Its report contained sentences such as 
‘With very few exceptions the labourers are not as industrious as formerly’. 
It had a case up to a point, but the solution was very drastic.
  1. It was to reduce poor rate expenditure by forbidding outdoor relief for the able-bodied; the destitute would keep themselves alive by seeking relief within the workhouse, where they would receive food and shelter but their lives would be ‘less eligible’ than those of the lowest independent labourers. 
  2. Parishes would come together and form Unions for this purpose. The ratepayers would elect Poor Law Guardians in each Union in order to reduce the excessive powers of landowners and substantial tenant farmers.
  3. A central board was to be set up in Somerset House, with power to appoint assistant commissioners and to frame and enforce regulations (this was a very Benthamite solution).

The Poor Law Amendment Act (which can be read here) was passed in 1834, and based on these recommendations. 

Results of the Act

The Act did not bring about an immediate centralisation - decisions continued to be made locally. Old style JPs became Guardians ex officio and continued to make vital decisions on the administration of relief. No clear central directions were forthcoming, and local resources were the key determinants of policy. 

Progress in implementing the policy was slow. In many areas no new workhouses were built (eg in Norwich, where the policy was very unpopular, and it would have been political suicide to bring a workhouse test to the city). Rural workhouse building proceeded apace in the 1830s and 1840s but not in urban areas until the 1850s. However by 1870 about four-fifths of the 647 Poor Law Unions had built new workhouses.

Workhouse scandals (such as at Andover and Farnham) were given wide publicity by the many opponents of the Act, but these were almost invariably the responsibility of sadistic workhouse masters or cheese-paring Boards of Guardians rather than the central administrators.

A newspaper illustration from The Penny Satirist
(6 September 1845),
depicting the inmates of Andover workhouse
fighting over bones to eat.
Public domain

The ratepayer franchise for Board of Guardian elections often prevented local expenditure on pauper education, medical services and even basic workhouse sanitation. ‘

Outdoor relief continued to be more or less freely available for destitute women and children at least until the 1870s. About 4 or 5 per cent of the population were in receipt of poor relief in the 1850s and 1860s, and of these more than four fifths were relieved outside the workhouse. However, men were finding it increasingly difficult to obtain relief, and in the industrial North where unemployment was high and workhouse accommodation inadequate large numbers of men were denied relief altogether. Outdoor Relief Orders of 1844 and 1852 allowed local Unions the discretion to provide fit men with outdoor relief.

‘Less eligibility’ soon proved unworkable since the condition of so many independently supported labourers in the late 1830s and early 1840s was so low that it was almost impossible to have a ‘less eligible’ diet.

Scandals, such as that at Andover, were very much the exception. However local Guardians had psychological weapons to keep the poor at bay: these included the wearing of uniform, the imposition of  demeaning tasks and sexual segregation. As intended the workhouse came to symbolise degradation and shame, and, in particular, the break-up of families. Critics attacked the  'pauper Bastilles' and the injustices and cruelty of 'less eligibility', but in many cases the deterrence principle seems to have worked. Nobody wanted to go to the workhouse.

For a possibly rose-tinted view of a visit to a pauper school in the Anerley workhouse, see here. There is an excellent post on workhouse education here.

See here for the history of the Bromley workhouse.


  1. By the end of the century only about 20 per cent admitted to workhouses were unemployed or destitute, but about 30 per cent of the population over 70 were in workhouses. 
  2. Old age was clearly the greatest cause of poverty. 
  3. The whole system was dismantled in 1929 and most of the workhouses became hospitals.

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