he event that precipitated the idea of establishing a Royal Commission to investigate the operation of the existing poor laws was the "Captain Swing" riots of 1830. These were caused by high prices and under- and un-employment among the agricultural labourers. The riots frightened landowners, who saw the fabric of rural society disintegrating. In an attempt to regain some social control, they wanted to reform the poor laws: if the landowners — who were also the employers — controlled the way in which poor relief was administered, then the behaviour of the labourers could be monitored.
The suggestion of a Royal Commission came from Thomas Hyde Villiers, the brother of the Earl of Clarendon. Villiers sent his proposals to Lord Howick, the Under-secretary of the Home Office and the son of Earl Grey, the Prime Minister. From these two men came the recommendations for membership of the Commission. The secretary to the Commissioners was Edwin Chadwick.
The Royal Commission was set up in 1832 in order to facilitate the passing of 'scientific' legislation: this was a time when utilitarianism held sway in Britain. The remit of the Commission was to investigate the administration of the poor laws rigorously, produce a report on the various types of relief and suggest changes to the existing law. However, in letters to Sir Robert Peel on 26 December 1841 and 17 September 1842, Sir James Graham said that when it established the Commission, the Whig government already knew what it wanted to do. The Royal Commission provided the evidence to support the government's proposed plans. The aim was to produce self-sufficient workhouses: however, many able-bodied adults were skilled men and if they were in the workhouse, their craft probably was depressed anyway.
Twenty-six Assitant Commissioners were paid a daily allowance and went to collect their evidence from around England and Wales. Between them, they visited three thousand parishes. They were given specific written instructions to talk with magistrates, overseers of the poor and clergymen; they were empowered to examine parish books to ascertain the payments given to the poor. The questions that they asked were aimed at exposing the 'evils' of the existing system and pointed towards the 'solution' of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.
Nassau Senior, a political economist, took a special interest in the work of the Commission. On 7 January, Senior said that he wanted a central administration for poor relief to be set up in London, with paid inspectors, each looking after a district of about 70 parishes; that he wanted paid overseers of the poor for every three parishes. The result would have been the employment of three central inspectors, two hundred magisterial inspectors and 4,700 overseers instead of the existing two thousand magistrates and thirty thousand overseers. He was in favour, also, of a deterrant workhouse.
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, took an interest in the Commissioners' reports: he did not favour stringent measures. The Royal Commission was also opposed by The Times and the Tory Quarterly Review, for making poverty 'penal' and for its advocation of the centralisation of control over poor relief. The idea of centralisation was a typically Benthamite philosophy; it was supposed to introduce a greater degree of uniformity and efficiency into any system. There was a great deal of opposition throughout the country to the removal of magistrates from their poor law duties and the reduction or elimination of their authority over poor relief. Many MPs favoured the maintenance of local autonomy in the administration of poor relief, on the grounds that local men were more aware of local needs.
Harriet Martineau published Illustrations of Political Economy between 1832 and 1834: the publications contained stories illustrating the evils of the existing poor laws. Furthermore, a reforming circle of Quakers, centred on Elizabeth Fry and her brother JJ Gurney, was convinced of the need for drastic poor law reform — allegedly after reading Martineau's Cousin Marshall.
Given the long-term implications of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, it was most unfortunate that the investigation of the Royal Commission was wildly inaccurate and unstatistical. The Commissioners sent out questionnaires to 15,000 parishes and received 1,500 responses: only 10%. The Commissioners did not seem to realise (or ignored the fact) that most relief went to the 'deserving poor' and not to able-bodied males. Only 20% of those claiming relief were able-bodied adult men. Those receiving relief comprised 13% of the total population, increasing to perhaps 20% between 1817 and 1821 (of a total population of 12 million). Of those,
- 50% were children under 15 years old
- 9% to 20% were sick, aged or infirm
Able-bodied male (pauper) labourers comprised about 2% of the entire population
The Commissioners assumed that work would always be available to those denied outdoor relief, despite the agricultural depression. They tried to sponsor emigration from overpopulated parishes to the industrial north where there was work to be had. However, factory owners wanted to employ children, not able-bodied adult males. The Commissioners also tried to simplify the Settlement Laws: the assumption was that the poor would relocate in order to find work. No thought seems to have been given to the logistical problems in moving from the south to the north of England, nor to the implication of breaking of family ties.
The questions that were asked were full of holes and pitfalls. For example, one question asked:
"Have you any, and how many, able-bodied labourers in the employment of individuals receiving allowance or regular relief from your parish on their own account, or on that of their families: and if on account of their families, at what number of children does it begin?"
Not only was the grammar and syntax confused, the question confuses outdoor relief to the able-bodied with allowances to larger families. The responses to the questions were not always relevant and/or clear. Some questions were simply ignored by the respondents.
The Report was full of moral judgements that were without foundation. Worse still, the Commissioners were preoccupied with the alleged adverse effects of the Speenhamland system but did not appreciate that the operation of the system was declining and most parishes in the rural south were paying a 'family allowance' to keep families who were unable to earn enough to keep themselves, at a time when help was essential. The Royal Commission claimed that Speenhamland (type) systems of poor relief meant that
- paupers claimed relief regardless of their merits
- large families received the most relief, therefore improvident marriages were encouraged and this led to larger families
- women were able to claim relief for their illegitimate children, so the system encouraged immorality
- labourers had no incentive to work hard and be thrifty, when worthless idlers got more relief than could be earned by honest hard work
- employers kept wages deliberately low
- paupers had no respect for an employer when they knew that their wages would be supplemented by the parish
- men were discouraged from providing for their families and aged parents because they could 'be put on the rates'
The result of this, said the Royal Commission, was that the existing poor law undermined the prosperity of the country because it interfered with the 'natural' laws of supply and demand. They fell into the trap of assuming that employers and workers could bargain on equal terms, which they could not and did not. The Commissioners argued that the existing means of poor relief allowed unscrupulous employers and farmers to force down wages and deliberately to keep a pool of surplus labour because they knew the workers could 'fall on the rates' if it suited business. It was accepted that poverty was inevitable ("the poor are always with you") so nothing was done to tackle that problem. It was thought that a deterrant workhouse would cause a moral reformation among the poor: that they would go out and find work rather than submit to "the House". Unfortunately, there was little work to be found in the rural south so the whole basis of the legislation was unsound.
However, in the 1820s the cost of poor relief was NOT growing faster than
- the population
- the Gross National Product
The cost of poor relief fell unequally: poor parishes paid more in poor rates than rich ones. Perhaps more to the point, the Poor Law Guardians were local men so the control they exercised over the workhouses in their jurisdiction was never uniform. Rather, relief was fitted to meet the demands and requirements of local needs. The objective of the Royal Commission's investigation was to supply the evidence to support the idea of a deterrant workhouse that would be a self-acting test of poverty and/or destitution.
Last modified 8 November 2002