Nottingham was the centre of the stocking knitting and lace making industries, both of which were declining in the 1830s because of the increase in machine-manufacturing of these goods; it was in this area that the Luddite riots occurred during the 18-teens. Furthermore, in the late 1830s there was an economic depression and an increase in unemployment in Britain, sparked by a severe downturn in the American economy. Concurrently, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was implemented in the north of England, causing much discontent among the working classes who now were — apparently — being punished for being out of work, usually through no fault of their own.

Most of the important manufacturing areas in the midlands of Stafford, Nottingham and Leicester were organised into Poor Law Unions before 25 March 1837. [MB]

In these Unions the administration of relief by the Boards of Guardians had hardly been undertaken before the interruption of the American trade produced a cessation in the demand for labour, more sudden in its approach and more extensive in its operation than has been know on any former occasion. Your Lordship is aware that an opinion has prevailed with many persons, that the provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act, though useful in the agricultural districts of the south and east of England, are both uncalled for and inapplicable in the populous manufacturing districts of the north. We hold ourselves prepared to show that these views and opinions are unfounded, but it is a matter of deep regret to us that the new system was so imperfectly organised and established in the central manufacturing districts when the pressure of distress and difficulty arose, as to render it impossible for us to show all the benefits which might have been effected under it, if its organisation had been complete and mature.

It is, however, to the proceedings in Nottingham that we are chiefly desirous of drawing your Lordship's attention, as they appear to throw considerable light on the working of the Act in a manufacturing district, under circumstances as trying and difficult as can at any time be expected to occur.

This Union, which consists of the three parishes constituting the town of Nottingham, and containing an aggregate population amounting to 50,000 was formed in July 1836. It was distinguished at the ouset by this peculiarity, that the rule prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied male paupers was issued at once on the formation of the Union. Our object in at once establishing this rule was to make the administration of relief to the poor conform to the practice already established in the parish of St. Mary (the principal and most populous parish in the Union), in which, for three years previous to the formation of the Union, no relief had been given to able-bodied males, excepting in the workhouse.

Under the operation of this rule our attention could not fail to be specially drawn to the working of this Union, when in the early part of the spring the pressure of commercial distress and the suspension of employment caused the manufacturers to discharge a large proportion of their workmen; and we directed our Assistant Commissioner, Mr. Gulson, to give as large a portion of his time and attention as could be spared from the rest of his extensive district to the Nottingham Union, and to aid the Board of Guardians to the utmost with his advice and assistance.

We knew that the Union was very inadequately provided with workhouse accommodation. It was possessed of a very old workhouse capable of containing about 520 persons, but not admitting of that arrangement and classification which is found practically to be so essential to good order in such establishments. As the applications for relief increased, it was satisfactory to us to find that the Guardians took steps to increase the workhouse accommodation by occupying certain premises belonging to the parish as nurseries for children and as houses for old men, and finally by using a workhouse belonging to the parish of St. Nicholas as a hospital for the sick. They were by these means enabled to provide room for nearly 700 persons within their houses.

A constant communication was kept up with the Board of Guardians, from whom we received a weekly report, as well as with our Assistant Commissioner; and it soon became evident that a necessity would speedily arise for relieving more persons than could be provided for within the walls of the workhouses, and after full consideration we felt it to be our duty to authorise Mr. Gulson to assure the Guardians that the rule which prohibited them from giving relief to able-bodied male persons excepting in the workhouse should be suspended whenever they should find the pressure such as that, in their opinion, there existed a necessity for so doing. Preparation was thus made for placing the Guardians in a situation to meet the whole difficulty, (whatever might be its extent,) of affording the necessary relief to such destitute persons as might be unable to maintain themselves when thrown out of work.

At this stage of our proceedings it was determined by the principal inhabitants of the town to resort to a subscription for the purpose of relieving the unemployed operative, this being considered a better mode of affording them support than by having recourse to the poor-rate. The kind feeling and praiseworthy benevolence of the principal persons in the town and its neighbourhood succeeded in raising about £4,000 for this purpose, and a committee of inhabitants was formed to superintend the application of the money.

Bearing in mind the important question which has been pressed upon us, namely, in what way could the neccesities of the working classes in the manufacturing districts be provided for in so sudden and so unforeseen an emergency, if no such subscription existed, as in the case of Nottingham, and if the relief of the necessitous poor should have to be provided for out of the poor rate only, we think that the experience of what has occurred, and is still occurring g in Nottingham, enables us confidently to state that the Union authorities would be enabled to meet any exigencies which might arise in the manufacturing districts out of a distressed state of trade or other contingency, notwithstanding there should be no fund subscribed, or other means for the support and employment of those operatives who might be suddenly thrown out of work; and we entertain no doubt that in Nottingham, if the subscribed funds shall be exhausted before the distress ceases, the Board of Guardians will be able to meet the pressure out of the funds placed by law at their disposal.

In attempting clearly to exhibit to your Lordship the grounds of this opinion, we think it right to state that it has not been the custom in Nottingham to give relief to able-bodied individuals when the usual amount of employment prevailed, and that the practice of resorting to outdoor labour as a medium of relief is adopted only when there is a pressure on the workhouse beyond what could conveniently be managed. Assuming therefore that the rule prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied male persons has been put in force in any Union comprising a manufacturing population before the access of pressure from commercial distress shall have arrived, we have shown by the course pursued in Nottingham, that whenever a necessity for relaxing that rule shall have arisen, such relaxation may forthwith by made, and, further, that the rules under which relief should then be administered might at once be adapted to local circumstances, and to the emergency, however sudden or urgent it might be.

It is needless for us to undertake to prove the superior efficacy of an elected Board of Guardians, consisting of men chosen by the rate payers on account of their habits of business, firmness of character, and knowledge of the law, and the advantage which could not fail to be derived from their superintendence under such an emergency as is here adverted to, as compared with that of annual parochial overseers, or even with a select vestry elected under Sturges Bourne's Act; and still less do we think it necessary to show that subordinate officers who could efficiently carry the directions of the Guardians into effect, would be much more easily provided under the new system than the old; but what we are desirous of pointing out to your Lordship is, that by adopting an outdoor labour test in addition to the indoor workhouse test, and applying it according to sound rules similar to those which have been generally adhered to by the Committee superintending the distribution of the subscribed funds in Nottingham, that almost any conceivable amount of pressure might be net and adequately provided for. It must be admitted that indoor relief is more certain, simple, and easy in its application; but the outdoor labour test is the same in principle. In both cases a man's time it taken in exchange for his maintenance, and he must be withdrawn from other modes of gaining subsistence in order to test the reality of his present want and destitution.

In providing the description of work necessary to meet an extensive pressure of the description alluded to, it was correctly held at Nottingham that it should be of permanent and public utility, and of a description which would not otherwise be undertaken. In conformity with these principles the Committee of management resolved to construct a road through some property belonging to the corporation.

No doubt appears to be entertained on the part of those best informed upon the subject, that on the recurrence of such emergencies some such work may always be found it it be diligently sought for.

The persons employed were paid by the piece, and vigilantly superintended., In spite of such precautions, however, some men of bad character appear to have conducted themselves in so improper a manner as to make it doubtful whether the subscription may not thereby be discouraged.

Nothing appears to have been more clearly proved in the experience of such cases as this of Nottingham, than that no payment should be made, either from subscribed funds, or from the poor rates, in the shape of allowances to make up wages: an error of this kind was committed during a period of commercial distress which occurred a little before the close of the late war, when a number of parishes commenced manufacturing hosiery in order to employ the framework knitters although stockings were already sold at such low prices as to be ruinous to those who made them. As this example is both curious and pregnant with instruction, we think it fight to give it in detail.

It was thought right by the parish authorities to employ the paupers at their own trades: the parish purchased cotton, and manufactured goods which they afterwards sold at a loss of 50 percent or more. These goods being brought into the marked necessarily reduced the price of labour for that description of article, and the consequence was that it immediately effected a large reduction in the men's wages. In the framework knitting trade it is customary for the master workmen to take from the hosier or other manufacturer a number of frames, for which they pay a weekly rent. In times of depression of trade it is in the interest of the hosier to keep the frames going, and he will give a partial employment to the workers of these frames. If the workman can obtain the aid of parish allowance, his employer will obtain his frame rent, and thus be enabled to keep his workmen together at the expense of the parish.

Last modified 7 November 2002