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One of the principles of the new system of poor relief that was introduced by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was that of 'less eligibility'. The principle did not apply to children, who were held to be blameless for their predicament. They were educated and then found apprenticeships or other work. The definition of 'less eligibility' was that the situation of the able-bodied recipient of poor relief on the whole shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.
By this, it was meant that the condition of a pauper in the workhouse should be not as attractive as that of the poorest labourer outside the workhouse. Effectively, a person who was able-bodied had to be destitute in order to qualify for poor relief. Often, the phrase has been taken to mean that the workhouse inmates were to be made to endure conditions worse than those outside; it has also led to accusations that the Poor Law Commissioners had no idea about the conditions in which the poor lived. As Dickens says, "we have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper".
'Less eligibility' was to rest on discipline and not material conditions. It was not intended that inmates of the workhouses would be receive treatment worse than that of the poorest independent labourers; neither was it intended that workhouse conditions would be untenable. The Poor Law Commission was aware of the problems of rural poverty and made the following statement in its Report of 1834.
All labour is irksome to those who are unaccustomed to labour; and what is generally meant by the expression 'rendering the pauper's situation irksome', is rendering it laborious. But it is not by means of labour alone that the principle is applicable, nor does it imply that the food or comforts of the pauper should approach the lowest point at which existence may be maintained. Although the workhouse food be more ample in quantity and better in quality than that of which the labourer's family partakes, and the house in other respects superior to the cottage, yet the strict discipline of well-regulated workhouses, and in particular the restrictions to which the inmates are subject in respect to the use of acknowledged luxuries, such as fermented liquors and tobacco, are intolerable to the indolent and disorderly, while to the aged, the feeble, and other proper objects of relief, the regularity and discipline render the workhouse a place of comparative comfort.
The Poor Law Amendment Act was the first national attempt at institutional care and mistakes were made. It was almost impossible, for example, to shape workhouses to be both a deterrent to the able-bodied poor and a humane refuge for the sick and helpless. Workhouses functioned as schools, asylums, hospitals, old people's homes, refuges for the homeless and a last resort for the unemployed.
The new system of poor relief differentiated between 'the poor' and the destitute and the workhouse was intended to be the only means of accessing poor relief. It was also intended that the condition of less eligibility, together with the deterrent conditions offered by workhouses, would become a self-operating test. People who were not totally destitute would not apply for relief. The standards set by the Poor Law Commissioners were relatively high in terms of food, clothing and accommodation so the problem then arose, how to make the workhouses repellant to the poor. This led to the enforcement of a monotonous routine, strict discipline and the requirement for useless 'work'. It was also responsible for the prison-like appearance of many workhouses.
The work that was provided for the inmates deliberately was "irksome": stone-breaking, oakum picking, bone crushing (which featured in the Andover scandal) or one of the local industries such as straw plaiting (Buckinghamshire) or punnet-making (Kent). Similar tasks were given to the inmates of prisons. In urban areas many workhouse Masters chose to make inmates hand-grind the corn that was used in the workhouse kitchens. Sometimes, paupers were allowed to undertake gardening so that food could be grown for the inmates. At Southwell, for example, the workhouse stood in ten acres of land, including an orchard.
The system of less eligibility included the enforcement of various requirements:
The separation of married couples led to great hostility. The Commissioners took the view that a man who chose to become a pauper by accepting 'the house' had relinquished his obligation to support his family; therefore he should be separated from them. By keeping married couples separated, the problem of them 'breeding' was not an issue but it provided no justification for separating children from their parents. It was no justification for keeping elderly couples separated, either - although there were occasional cases where the separation was welcomed.
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