ne of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation of the entire Nineteenth Century was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act [PLAA] which abolished systems of poor relief that had existed since the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 . The new legislation established workhouses throughout England and Wales. It was extended to Ireland in 1838. Legislation for Scotland did not appear until 1845.
Prior to the PLAA, poor relief took several forms based on the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601: outdoor relief was one type of relief where people would be given a 'dole' of money and remain in their own homes. The aged, infirm and sick were looked after either in almshouses, hospitals, poor houses or in their own homes. Orphans were looked after in orphanages. However, by the 1830s, many poor houses were vile and insanitary establishments; the sick were not nursed, children were not educated and paupers could starve to death in them.
There was no single system of relief and no centralisation. However, all relief was based on the parish, the smallest unit of local government as well as the smallest ecclesiastical division. Some parishes were more generous than others in the amounts of relief they gave. The advantage of a parish based system was that 'everyone knew everyone else' and it was in the interests of all that the poor were looked after. The disadvantage was that the poor rates were borne by the same people who paid all other types of rates and from the outbreak of the French Wars (1793), poor rates tended to increase.
Until around the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, poverty was accepted as a fact of life: at some point, most of the lower orders would suffer from poverty and would need help. Then, in 1798, Thomas Malthus published his Principles of Population in which he said that the continued 'breeding' by the poor would lead eventually to starvation but that was one way of checking the size of population. Also, attitudes towards the poor began to change as the levels of poor relief increased during the French Wars (1793-1815) and continued to rise after the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
During the French Wars, it became almost impossible to import cheap grain into Britain from Europe so corn prices - and therefore the price of bread - increased; wages did not increase and the result was widespread distress among the agricultural labourers. In the 'heavy industry' areas of the country [coal and iron], workers did fairly well since their products were needed for the war effort although some trades did suffer during the wars. Among these were those that produced luxury goods and ones where new technology was causing unemployment among skilled craftsmen.
In 1815 the Tory government of Lord Liverpool passed the Corn Laws which artificially raised the price of bread by prohibiting the import of foreign grain until the domestic price reached 80 shillings a quarter. This was intended to maintain the profits made by farmers, to which they had become used during the French Wars. The legislation caused further distress at a time when unemployment was rising rapidly. In 1832 the Whig government of Earl Grey passed the Reform Act which gave the vote to many of the middle classes; it was essential that the government kept the confidence of these electors. Also, the electors in the countryside were angry at the levels of poor relief.
In 1832, Grey set up a Commission to enquire into the operation of the Poor Laws. The Commission presented its report in 1834 and the legislation followed rapidly. The effects of it resounded down the Nineteenth Century: the last remnants of it were removed from the Statute Books with the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.
Last modified 8 November 2002