n 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act [PLAA] was passed by the Whig government headed by Earl Grey: the legislation replaced the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law. Although it was called an 'amendment' Act, in reality it completely replaced the earlier legislation. The main feature of the new Poor Law was the establishment of deterrent workhouses. Anyone claiming relief would have to enter 'the House'. If a man claimed relief, his entire family would also have to enter the workhouse and it would be split up in accordance with the rules of separation. The main demands for a reform of the poor laws came from landowners in rural south where poverty was at its worst. The Act was implemented efficiently and rapidly there.
Edwin Chadwick, the Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, believed that the most pauperised areas — the rural south and midlands — should have been left alone until after the law had been implemented in the north. He thought that the north should have been unionised first because in the period 1834-6 there were few economic problems. At the time of the passing of the Act, food was cheap, the harvests had been good, there was full employment and the poor rates were light. However, the economy in the area was unstable because of its relatively narrow base. When there was work, everyone was employed but in times of slump, virtually the entire population was unemployed. This made the practice of a deterrent workhouse difficult to impose because of the physical impossibility of building a workhouse big enough to accommodate everyone who claimed relief. Even Chadwick was concerned about attempting to force the northern Poor Law Guardians to end outdoor relief. This could not be stopped until an efficient workhouse system existed but most northern districts did not have a workhouse.
James Kay-Shuttleworth, an Assistant Commissioner, supported the implementation of the PLAA in the north because he thought that pauperism there was caused by the 'recklesness and improvidence of the native population [and the] barbarism of the Irish immigrants' (Kay to Frankland Lewis, 27 October 1835). Kay recommended a cautious, slow approach to the introduction of the legislation but Alfred Power wanted the wholesale creation of Unions to launch the Act 'with more dispatch, regularity and effect' than creating them individually. This also would allow the infrastructure of the PLAA to be used as the machinery for the Registration Act. Power, who had been a Factory Commissioner in 1833, was the Poor Law inspector with responsibility for the enactment of the PLAA in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Powers' plan led to suspicions in the north that it was a plot by the 'Three Bashaws of Somerset House' to quieten the opposition to the PLAA by creating 'registration unions' and then adding Poor Law functions when it suited them. In fact, there was some substance to the suspicions.
By coincidence, when the attempt was made to put the PLAA into operation in the north in 1837, the manufacturing areas were hit by a severe depression which led to massive unemployment lasting for several years. Invariably, it went hand in hand with misery and desperation for the working classes. The requirement that those applying for relief should enter the workhouse appeared to be punishing the unemployed poor for their plight, when there was little that they could do to avoid poverty.
There were pro-Poor Law landowners including Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, although many Tory gentry and farmers opposed the Act. In Yorkshire, the Earl of Wharncliffe at Wortley and Earl Fitzwilliam of Milton and Wentworth Woodhouse supported the legislation and Fitzwilliam became chairman of the Rotherham Poor Law Guardians.
In the textile towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire and Lancashire, there was a well-organised, widespread and violent opposition to the legislation from both propertied and popular sources. The West Riding had a large, densely-packed population and existing organisations had been involved in radical agitation for parliamentary reform (1830-32), the campaign for factory reform (1830-33) and spearheaded trade union activity (1829 onwards). These various movements had skilful leaders and agitators, some from the upper classes. They included
- Richard Oastler
- John Fielden (MP)
- the Rev. GS Bull
- Joseph Rayner Stephens
- Feargus O'Connor (the Chartist leader)
Often, the anti-Poor-Law movement was an extension of the Ten Hour movement and was orchestrated by the Short-Time committees and the Chartists. The movement brought together Tories who opposed centralisation and radicals who opposed the inhumanity of the 'poor law Bastilles'. The most severe opposition came from Bury, Keighley, Preston, Oldham, Bolton, Huddersfield, Bradford and Todmorden. In Bradford the Poor Law Guardians had to be protected by troops when rioting broke out; the Huddersfield Guardians defied the law for over a year and at Todmorden, John and Joseph Fielden led a rate-revolt.
Other tactics of the Anti-Poor-Law movement included
- attempting to prevent the election of Guardians
- electing as Guardians, men who opposed the PLAA
- intimidating the new Boards so that they did not elect clerks — without whom no business could be conducted
- physical harassment of Poor Law officials
- fighting with police and troops who were sent to assist with the implementation of the law
Oastler and his colleagues addressed anti-Poor Law meetings and wrote pamphlets and letters to sympathetic newspapers like the Leeds Intelligencer and the Sheffield Iris in which they denounced the Poor Law Amendment Act as being cruel, unChristian and dictatorial. Most of these speeches and writings consisted of highly charged emotional outbursts full of prophetic violence and often of lurid tales of cruelties inflicted on the paupers in workhouses in the south of England. Most of the alleged cruelties were investigated by the Poor Law Commission which found that although some of them were true, many were at best half-truths and others — like the Marcus affair of 1839 — were total fabrications. The anti-Poor Law agitators were determined to portray the Poor Law Commissioners as inhuman tyrants.
Emotional speeches and tales of cruelty, such as those published by George Wythen Baxter in his Book of Bastiles, roused northern workers to fury. In some areas, attempts to put the new system into operation were met with riots. The job of the Assistant Commissioners was made more difficult because many overseers, magistrates and members of the new boards of guardians were determined to obstruct the operation of the new system.
Henry Goulburn, the Home Secretary in Peel's first ministry, thought that the poor harvest of 1836 would lead to further opposition to the PLAA. In 1837, Alfred Power claimed that press reports of resistance in the north to the Act were greatly exaggerated and said that the Leeds Mercury overplayed the incidences of violence in Huddersfield. Power wanted to force the Guardians there to comply with the law but Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary in Lord Melbourne's ministry, told the Poor Law Commissioners to withdraw their instructions to the Huddersfield Guardians.
There was much evasion of the PLAA in the north of England and outdoor relief continued because it was a much cheaper way of giving help to the poor. The Poor Law Guardians did not build workhouses and they paid the Oversees very poor wages, to discourage applicants for the jobs. The PLAA was unsuited to northern conditions where existing forms of relief were adequate. Chadwick was blind to the social problems that made the workhouse test irrelevant: in 1852 the northern Unions were ordered to apply a labour test to those requesting poor relief and in 1854, the Guardians at Bolton were told to build a workhouse.
Most workhouses were erected in the 1850s and 1860s and until then the 'workhouse test' did not operate. In the West Riding, the new Unions were not set up as geographical entities until the 1860s although the PLAA was implemented after 1847 on local initiative as a way of discouraging applications for relief from the 'mobile poor' — especially the Irish who had come to Britain in huge numbers during the Famine.
In Wales, there was some physical resistance to the Act from labourers but also the farmers and gentry opposed the PLAA and maintained their opposition to directives from the Poor Law Commissioners. The main reason for resistance in Wales was because of the dislike of control by central government. The ratepayers also claimed exemption to the Act on the grounds that the economic structure and poor relief systems were different in Wales from that in England. William Day, the Assistant Commissioner in North Wales said, in a letter to Sir John Walsham, the Poor Law Inspector for the north-east:
You cannot know the miseries of thirty or forty Welsh Guardians who won't build a workhouse, and consequently meet in the parlour of a pot-house twelve feet by fourteen and keep all the windows shut and spit tobacco on your shoes — to say nothing of knowing not a work of what they are talking of in an unknown tongue.
(9 August 1840)
The anger of the Welsh labourers over the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act spilled over into the Rebecca Riots of 1842-43.
Last modified 12 November 2002