The Poor Law Commission was the body established to administer poor relief after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The entire organisation comprised three Poor Law Commissioners (the "Bashaws of Somerset House"), their secretary and nine clerks. Assistant Commissioners were responsible for local inspections. The Commission lasted from 1834 to 1847. Between 1847 and 1871 it became the Poor Law Board: for this, the Chief Executive Officer was a civil servant who was the Permanent Secretary to the Poor Law Board. The President of the Board was an MP. In practise, the "Poor Law Board" did not exist as an organisation.

The Poor Law Commission was based at Somerset House in London; even before the legislation had passed, men were canvassing for the post of Commissioner. William Day was one of the first applicants; Francis Place was another but he was ignored because he was a tailor by trade and the government wanted to appoint men of rank and station to the posts. Edwin Chadwick — who had been influential in writing the Report of the Royal Commission and in framing the legislation — had the strongest hope and expectation of being appointed but he was ignored by ministers as well. Lord Althorp saw Chadwick as a doctrinaire, abrasive Benthamite who was likely to create mistrust and resentment. The three men appointed were

They were each paid a salary of £2,000 per annum. Chadwick grudgingly accepted the post of Secretary to the Board, at an annual salary of £1,200.

On 23 August 1834 the three Commissioners took the oath of office and began work, the volume of which increased rapidly. At that point, the problems of rising unemployment that invariably occurred in wintertime had not yet been encountered. However, it was decided that Assistant Commissioners should be appointed to carry out the work of establishing 'unions'. They were to be paid £700 a year plus expenses. Patronage was used in the making of the appointments and a military background was seen as an 'excellent qualification'. Four of the original appointees were former officers in the armed forces but as landed gentlemen, they were able to speak with local dignitaries as equals. The nine men who were appointed initially were:

  • Major Francis Bond Head (who held his appointment for a year)
  • Charles Ashe A'Court (who resigned in 1842)
  • Danile Goodson Adey (who resigned in 1840)
  • Edward Gulson (who served until 1868)
These men were the original appointees
  • Charles Mott
  • Henry Pilkington
  • WHT Hawley (who served until 1874)
  • WJ Gilbert
These men were named in early November 1834

In January 1835 a further three Assistant Commissioners were appointed to ease the burden of work. The appointment of more Assistant Commissioners meant that Chadwick no longer dominated the Poor Law Commission because the Assistant Commissioners took over the tasks of dealing with local officials and sending reports to Somerset House.

The Assistant Commissioners were sent out to form the new Poor Law Unions. They used the existing local govenment areas of hundreds and boroughs; they called meetings of the local landowners, magistrates, squires and other important men. The Assistant Commissioners suggested the boundaries of the Unions and then fixed them, having taken into consideration existing Gilbert's Act unions and any incorporations that had been made under local Acts. It was intended that Unions would be about equal in size, based on the market town but this idea was abandoned in the face of local opposition. The landowners had a great deal of influence in their own areas and so Unions were formed to suit their interests, leading to some oddly-shaped Unions.

The Assistant Commissioners worked from the south of England to the north, forming Unions. It was necessary for all the Unions to be established so they could act as units for the implementation of the 1837 Registration Act. Other duties of an Assistant Commissioner included:

The Poor Law Commissioners edited the reports of the Assistant Commissioners so the reports presented to parliament do not reflect actual conditions 'on the ground', since they wanted to give a positive image of their work. For example,

What they did not report on was the opposition to the creation of Unions and implementation of the Act. The Reports did not detail "abuses" where the Poor Law Guardians exercised their wide discretionary powers to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied in contravention of the law. Also, the intended central supersivion of local Poor Law Boards was ineffectial because it was limited to the biannual visit of the Poor Law inspector and regular returns — accounts - to Somerset House of paupers and expenditure.

The first annual Report (1835) gives an account of Somerset House's successful initiatives with some manufacturers and a "trial run" at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire which led to the resettlement of 83 people in Lancashire. The efforts at resettlement were extended and by the end of 1835, the Poor Law Commission employed an 'emigration agent' at £400 p.a. to facilitate this work. Between 1835 and 1837, the Poor Law Commission organised the migration of 4,323 families to the industrial north. They arrived just as the economic depression hit the textile mills: most of them returned to the rural south where at least they had a support network.

Last modified 12 November 2002