In 1601 the Elizabethan Poor Law Act was passed, making the relief of poverty the responsibility of each parish. This legislation was modified on several occasions:

However, it was still believed that the poor should be given help. At the end of the French Wars (1793-1815) attitudes towards poverty and the poor began to change. Politicians and writers thought that some form of poor relief had to be retained but that the existing systems had to be overhauled thoroughly. In the post-war era, 'moral economy' was being replaced by 'political economy': that is, the moral obligation of the rich to assist other people in society who were ill, aged, unemployed, widowed or orphaned (for example) was replaced by a cash nexus that had no moral obligations. The 'traditional rights' of the poor to claim poor relief in times of hardship were eroded.

The cost of poor relief had increased by 75.5% during the French Wars

1802-3 £5.3 million
1813 £8.6 million
1817-18 £9.3 million

and per capita expenditure on poor relief had also risen from 12/- in 1816 to 13/- in 1819. By the early 1830s the cost of poor relief had fallen to between 9/- and 10/- per capita but this fall coincided with the eruption of the "Captain Swing" riots in the rural south of England.

Political economists said that statutory poor relief distorted the free market mechanism that determined the natural levels of prices and wages. They thought that the laws of supply and demand should be allowed to regulate these levels: where there was a shortage of labour then wages would be higher but where the workforce exceeded demand, wages would fall and employers would be able to choose the best workers.

In his pamphlet, Principles of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus asserted that the existing poor laws created the poverty that the laws were designed to relieve. He argued that because a family could claim poor relief, people contracted earlier marriages and had larger families. The Royal Commission on Poor Relief in 1832 started with this premise when it began its investigation. Malthus also opposed the Settlement Laws as contradicting all ideas of freedom and aid they obstructed the free movement of labour. This assertion has been questioned because the operation of the Settlement Laws probably was not as restrictive or expensive as contemporaries claimed.

In 1816 a Parliamentary Select Committee into the operation of the Poor Laws was set up through the work of JC Curwen. He spoke for the landed interest and wanted the government to undertake a reform of the poor laws in order to reduce the levels of relief. The Select Committee was chaired by Sturges-Bourne and one of the members was Thomas Frankland Lewis. Both were Canningites and therefore were at the 'liberal' end of the Tory party. Sturges-Bourne went on to become a member of the 1832 Royal Commission that investigated the poor laws and Frankland Lewis became one of the three Poor Law Commissioners in 1834.

The Report of the1816 Committee called for a restoration of the discretionary powers of landowners to set their own financial assessment for the relief of the poor. It also praised the Gilbert Act Unions as being beneficial and recommended that the voting in each parish vestry should be dependent on the amount of property held by landowners. Two pieces of legislation emerged from the Report: the 1818 Act for the Regulation of Parish Vestries and the 1819 Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor, together known as the Sturges-Bourne Acts.

Beginning in the early 1820s, substantial reforms were made in Nottinghamshire in an attempt to reduce the cost of poor relief. The 'reformers' there were George Nicholls, the Rev. JT Becher and the Rev. Robert Lowe. Their idea was to establish deterrent workhouses in which poor relief would be given; all outdoor relief was abolished. In these workhouses, conditions were deliberately harsh, the routines were monotonous and families were separated. All this was intended to discourage people from applying for poor relief and it was remarkably successful.

In 1832, the Reform Act was passed, giving the franchise to about ½ million more people and doubling the electorate. The new electors tended to come from the unlanded middle classes: the franchise was no longer tied to land-owning. The Whig government of Earl Grey needed to appease the new electorate and one of the major grievances at that time was the level of poor relief in the rural south. One area where the government could win support was in the reduction of poor rates so in 1832 it set up a Royal Commission to investigate the relief of poverty, with a view to amending the existing legislation. This was the first time such a body had conducted an investigation prior to the enactment of a law.

The Commissioners claimed that the existing poor laws were a cause of population growth, under-employment and low wages. In reality, the poor laws were a response to these problems rather than causing them. However, based on questionable evidence produced by the Commission, the government of Lord Melbourne passed the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act — which did not 'amend' but totally replaced the existing laws.

Last modified 12 November 2002