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When the Poor Law Commission sent the Assistant Commissioners into northern England to organise the new system, they found themselves faced with a resistance whole organisation and ferocity was unlike anything they had met before. In 1837 economic depression was spreading fears of unemployment and short-time working amongst industrial workers in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, particularly amongst those employed in declining handicraft industries such as wool-combing or calico-weaving. The proposal to introduce the Poor Law Amendment Act into these areas increased the workers' fears since they might now have to go into the dreaded workhouse in periods of distress rather than receive a small 'dole' from the Poor Law Guardians. Not only working men were the ones to fear and distrust the new system. Many local officials, overseers of the poor, members of select vestries, magistrates and ratepayers felt that they had already reformed their administration. The low poor rates proved that the current system was efficient and it was adapted to the needs of the local area. They felt that a strict workhouse system was useless in the face of the massive distress caused by industrial depression. They also resented the interference of London men and methods into northern and local affairs.
The northern counties not only distrusted the Poor Law Amendment Act but also were well organised to resist it. The Ten Hour Movement of the early 1830s had led to the establishment of a network of Short-time Committees throughout the textile districts of Lancashire and the West Riding and these committees now opposed the implementation of the Poor Law. Local anti-Poor Law committees were set up and their work was co-ordinated by a West Riding anti-Poor Law Committee and a south Lancashire anti-Poor Law Association. Meetings were organised and petitions calling for the repeal of the legislation were sent to Westminster. The leaders of the Ten Hour Movement - Richard Oastler of Fixby near Huddersfield, William Busfeild Ferrand the squire of Bingley, Joseph Rayner Stephens a Non-conformist preacher from Ashton Under Lyne, and John Fielden the cotton manufacturer of Todmorden - now became the leaders of the anti-Poor Law movement.
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 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. In the face of this hostility, the Poor Law Commission was forced to tread carefully and were urged to proceed with caution by Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, who was alarmed by the amount of violence in the north. Consequently, Boards of Guardians were initially set up to carry out the provisions of the Registration Act of 1836. Even when they were asked to take over poor relief duties from the parishes, the regulations given to them by the Poor Law Commission allowed then to continue to give relief under the old system.
Popular resistance to the Poor Law Amendment Act in the north did not survive long. When the workhouse system and its alleged cruelties failed to materialise in northern towns, many working men left the paternalistic anti-Poor Law movement for Chartism, which seemed to have more to offer. Suspicion of the Poor Law Commission did remain strong among many members of Boards of Guardians, however. Having been granted considerable powers of discretion in the performance of their duties, they were determined to defend them against central interference. One Assistant Commissioner noted in 1838, 'The rabble are easily quieted but where a majority of a Board of Guardians is opposed to the Commissioners, the whole proceedings are attended with extreme difficulty.'
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Last modified 4 March, 2016
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