In 1601 the Poor Law Act (43 Eliz) was passed, putting the administration of the poor rates into the hands of each individual parish. Some parishes were more generous than others, which led to some people moving into the more generous parishes. The ratepayers objected to this abuse and in 1662 the Settlement Laws were passed in order to prevent it.

In 1723, Sir Edward Knatchbull's legislation For Amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Imployment and Relief of the Poor allowed the establishment of workhouses where poor relief would be provided. This could be done either by an individual parish or through the combining of a number of neighbouring parishes which would share the cost: parishes had the authority to rent or buy appropriate accommodation. The local JPs could also sub-contract the administration of relief to someone who would feed, clothe and house the poor for a weekly rate from the parish. Between 1723 and 1750, about 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales.

The legislation also marked the first appearance of the 'workhouse test' — that anyone who applied for relief would have to enter the workhouse where s/he would be obliged to undertake set work in return for relief. The principle was that entering the workhouse should be a deterrent to casual in irresponsible claims on the poor rates. Only the truly desperate would apply to 'the house'. This principle was adopted under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

In 1776, the first official workhoue returns were made showing the existence of about 2,000 workhouses, each with between 20 and 50 inmates. The cost of indoor relief was high; inefficient workhouse management led to increased social pressure for more sympathetic treatment of the poor. This led to the passing of Gilbert's Act in 1782.

In 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations in which he said that the State should not interfere with the economy but should let the laws of supply and demand operate freely. Historians have often mistakenly assumed that Smith opposed helping the poor and, furthermore, that he accepted that those who could not work should be allowed to fend for themselves — and starve if necessary — rather than having the State provide any form of relief. Further, it was thought that men would work for any wage rather than starve themselves and their families; lower wages would benefit employers and reduce the price of food. In fact, although 'laissez-faire' came to be used as an argument against poor relief, this interpretation does by no means follow directly or compellingly from Adam Smith's work, nor was it a stance political economy was destined to take from its very beginning.

Related material


Victorian History Poor Law

Created 2001; last modified 29 August 2015