Source: Report of His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws (1834), pp. 294-357. Transcribed and added by Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.

Jeremy Bentham's ideas of utilitarianism were influential in shaping government policies in the 1830s. One major piece of legislation of this period changed the means of poor relief that had been established by the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law. This legislation had been modified in the interim by such further legislation as the 1662 Settlement Laws, Gilbert's Act (1782) and the implementation of the Speenhamland System after 1795. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act is an excellent example of Benthamite Utilitarianism run mad, not least through the concept of some kind of central control for as much government administration as possible. This extract details the recommendations of the Royal Commission. It is interesting to note that the Central Board was seeking approval for executive powers without having to have recourse to parliament. Effectively, the Central Board was able to do much as it wished without any form of control from outside.

decorated initial 'W' itnesses, when speaking of the necessity of withdrawing all discretionary power from the distributors in their own parishes, usually express a hope that the relief may be fixed, and to the 'smallest detail unalterably prescribed by the legislature'. The evidence, however, proves that little more reliance can be placed on the voluntary execution by the present agency of any regulations, than on their correct execution of any general principle of management prescribed to them.

It appears, too, that the actual condition of the pauperised districts does not admit of legislation in detail. The differences in administering the law in different districts have produced habits and conditions of the population equally different. The best-informed witnesses have represented that the measures applicable to adjacent districts are totally inapplicable to their own; and it appears to us, that measures which might be safely and beneficially introduced into the majority of parishes in a district might, if immediately introduced, be productive of suffering and disorder to the remainder. Even if the simultaneous and complete execution of so great a change of system throughout the country were practicable, we consider it desirable to avoid it.

It must be remembered that the pauperised labourers were not the authors of the abusive system, and ought not to be made responsible for its consequences. We cannot, therefore recommend that they should be otherwise than gradually subjected to regulations which, though undoubtedly beneficial to themselves, may, by any sudden application, inflict unnecessary severity. The abuses have grown up in detail, and it appears from our evidence that the most safe course will be to remove them in detail. We deem uniformity essential; but, in the first instance, it is only an approximation to uniformity that can be expected, and it appears that it must be obtained by gradations in detail, according to local circumstances. And although uniformity in the amount of relief may be requisite, it may not be requisite that the relief should be invariably the same in kind. In Cumberland, and some others of the northern counties, milk is generally used where beer is used in the southern counties. The requisite equality in diet would probably be obtainable without forcing any class of the inmates of the workhouses in the northern counties to take beer, or those of the southern counties to take milk...

By many it is considered that the only means by which the system can be effectually amended, is the management of the whole poor law administration as a branch of the general government. The advocates of a national rate, and those who are willing and desirous that the Government should take upon itself the whole distribution of the funds for the relief of the poor, do not appear to have considered the expense and difficulties in the way of obtaining such an agency throughout the country.

We have received no definite plan for the purpose, and have prepared none. We trust that immediate measures for the correction of the evils in question may be carried into effect by a comparatively small and cheap agency, which may assist the parochial or district officers, wherever their management is in conformity to the intention of the legislature; and control them wherever their management is at variance with it. Subject also to this control, we propose that the management, the collection of the rates, and the entire supervision of the expenditure, under increased securities against profusion and malversation [corrupt practises by someone in a position of trust], shall continue in the officers appointed immediately by the rate payers. This course, we believe, will be the most easily practicable, and will best accord with the recommendations of the majority of the witnesses, and with the prevalent expectation of the country.

The course of proceedings which we recommend for adoption, is in principle that which the legislature adopted for the management of the savings' banks, the friendly societies, and the annuity societies throughout the country. Having prescribed the outline and general principles on which those institutions should be conducted, a special agency was appointed to see that their rules and detailed regulations conformed to the intention of the law. This agency, we believe, has accomplished the object effectually. ...

We recommend, therefore, the appointment of a Central Board to control the administration of the poor laws, with such Assistant Commissioners as may be found requisite; and that the Commissioners be empowered and directed to frame and enforce regulations for the government of workhouses, and as to the nature and amount of the relief to be given and the labour to be exacted in them, and that such regulations shall, as far as may be practicable, be uniform throughout the country.

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[The members of the Poor Law Commission then itemised their recommendations. Each item was prefaced by 'We recommend, therefore ...'. This has been omitted in the following transcript and individual recommendations have been bullet-pointed for ease of reading]

We recommend, therefore,


Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 12 November 2002