One 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. What the PLAA did was to alter the administration of poor relief; what it did not do was reform the financing of poor relief. Finding the money locally to provide for the poor was a continuing problem

The legislation was framed and passed without any apparent difficulties. It went through parliament in four months; there was very little discussion on the Bill and no detailed examination of its details. Although he had been instrumental in the collection of evidence and in producing the Bill, effectively Edwin Chadwick was excluded from the parliamentary process because the final negotiations with the Cabinet were undertaken by Nassau Senior and Sturges-Bourne.

On 30 April 1834, The Times came out strongly against the Poor Law Bill and held an on-going debate about the legislation with the Morning Chronicle. The Tory publication, the Leeds Intelliegencer opposed the PLAA while the Manchester Guardian and the Leeds Mercury supported it. William Cobbett opposed the law because he said that it took the administration of poor relief out of the hands of the gentry and destroyed the powers of the local magistracy.

The PLAA was intended to impose both order and conformity on the provision of outdoor relief. It was not long before the regulations were adapted to fit existing conditions by the Poor Law Guardians and magistrates who were responsible for poor relief. Some MPs and landowners resented the power of the Poor Law Commissioners because they saw the administrators at Somerset House as a threat to local independence. The implementation of the legislation took a long time and the Act met with a great deal of opposition in the textile areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

In the early years of the PLAA, gentry and aristocrats were prominent on many Boards of Guardians because they served as ex officio member in their capacity as Justices of the Peace: magistrates automatically were Guardians. Elected members in rural areas were mainly farmers; in the urban areas, tradesmen made up the Boards. In all cases, these men became politically influential because they wielded great local powers. Nepotism was rife in the appointment of salaried officials and the giving of contracts for supplies. Under these circumstances, the Tories who opposed the PLAA were able to depict their oponents as 'workhouse Whigs'.

The new Unions of parishes as administrative units for poor relief used the existing power and authority of local elites; the Unions were seen as 'local authorities' for implementing other major government legislation such as the 1837 Registration Act. In this sense, the Boards of Guardians were seen as an executive authority for the government.

The Poor Law Report had recommended — and Somerset House preferred — four separate institutions for the relief of poverty: the categories were for

Boards of Guardians saw a single, large workhouse as a symbol of the 'new order' so the Poor Law Commissioners withdrew their requirement for separate buildings. Ultimately, it proved difficult to adapt the single building as demand grew for the specialised treatment of different classes of pauper. Further, it was believed that a single workhouse was cheaper and more efficient to operate: in reality, outdoor relief cost half that of indoor relief and was more efficient because

  1. it kept labourers 'on hand' for work and
  2. it kept labourers in their own localities in winter at a lower cost than wages

Interestingly, the central Poor Law Commission could order the alteration and/or enlargement of existing workhouses but could not compel Poor Law Unions to build a workhouse. Therefore the ability of the Commission to force the implementation of the PLAA was weak and it had to rely on the Assistant Commissioners and the Inspectors to ensure the Act's effectiveness.

Early in 1837 a Select Committee was set up to investigate the administraion of relief 'under the orders and regulations issued by the Commissioners'. This limited the scope of the investigation to the regulations coming from Somerset House; it excluded the actions of the local Poor Law Guardians. The committee sat for three months and heard 64 witnesses, of whom 16 were labourers. The committee looked at

The committee reported favourably on the legislation and in the general election later that year, the PLAA barely featured as a political issue although Disraeli was elected at Maidstone after a speech denouncing the Act.

In August 1837 new regulations were issued by the Poor Law Commission, repeating the ban on outdoor relief to able-bodied men and women and their families. The regulations did give broader powers to Boards of Guardians by providing exceptions to this rule, based on policies already adopted by many Boards. The exceptions were

Edwin Chadwick's comment on the exemptions was that they allowed the resumption of 'relief in aid of wages': effectively a return to the old methods of relief that the PLAA had been designed to abolish. He seems to have been right because in 1844 the southern Unions were issued with an Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order: eight specific exceptions were allowed which meant that most Unions were able to continue giving outdoor relief:

Allowances became more common after 1842 because of the downturn in the economy and there are many instances of Unions citing "sickness" as a reason for outdoor relief to able-bodied adult males. It is estimated that sickness — real or alleged — was responsible for 75% of all claims for poor relief in the 19th century.

The 1842 Labour Test Order said that where workhouse accommodation was insufficient to take all who had applied for relief, the needs of the adult able-bodied applicants should be tested by task work. That is, if a man could undertake hard work, he should not be allowed poor relief. It would seem that the order was not very effective because in 1852 the Poor Law Board (renamed in 1847 from the Poor Law Commission) attempted to introduce more stringent regulations to London, the large provincial towns and the north of England. This led to a storm of protest and the issuing of the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order in December: this omitted

Consequently, outdoor relief continued in many areas and especially in Unions or incorporations that had been founded before 1834 by local legislation or by Gilbert's Act.

In 1842, the choice of one building to house everyone in receipt of poor relief did allow the number of Poor Law Inspectors to be reduced to nine because it was easier for them to visit single establishments; in any case, separate workhouses did create administrative problems since families were admitted and discharged together. If families were housed in different accommodation, co-ordination was more difficult. Nine Poor Law inspectors for the whole country were unable to do an effective job of ensuring that workhouses were properly run. This allowed episodes such as the Andover and Huddersfield scandals to occur.

The harshness of the workhouse regime was psychological rather than physical, in most cases. Inmates were depersonalised through being made to wear a uniform and through regimentation.There is no doubt that the stigma of the workhouse was deeply felt and continued for many years after the abolition of the system. People preferred to starve rather than enter 'the House'. Inmates also lost their right to vote — after the extension of the franchise in 1867

On the positive side

  1. the workhouse provided better physical accommodation than most agricultural labourers' cottages
  2. the workhouse diet contained about 33% more in solid food than most agricultural labourers would have: the food was solid if unappealing and boring
  3. children in the workhouse were provided with a free education and were found work
  4. inmates were provided with free health care

Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 12 November 2002