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The Old Poor Law 1795-1834

Features of the Old Poor Law

The Working of the Old Poor Law

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law divided the poor into two groups

  1. the impotent poor - the sick, elderly, those unable to work - who were to be helped via outdoor relief or in almshouses. These people were classed as "would work but couldn't".
  2. this group were the able-bodied paupers and it was thought that these people "could work but wouldn't". They were to be severely beaten until they realised the error of their ways.

Relief was given in variety of ways, and not all parishes had a poor-house or house of correction. It soon became obvious that some parishes were more sympathetic towards their poor, and this tended to result in paupers moving into that area from less generous parishes. To prevent this, parliament passed the

1662 Settlement Act

This stated that a person had to have a 'settlement' in order to obtain relief from a parish. This could be secured by:

If a labourer moved away from his parish of origin in search of work the JPs issued him with a certificate of settlement saying that if the man fell on hard times his own parish would receive him back and pay for him to be 'removed'.

The Settlement Laws caused problems because they:

The Workhouse Test Act

In 1723, Sir Edward Knatchbull's legislation For Amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Imployment and Relief of the Poor allowed the establishment of workhouses where poor relief would be provided. This could be done either by an individual parish or through the combining of a number of neighbouring parishes which would share the cost: parishes had the authority to rent or buy appropriate accommodation. The local JPs could also sub-contract the administration of relief to someone who would feed, clothe and house the poor for a weekly rate from the parish. Between 1723 and 1750, about 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales.

The legislation also marked the first appearance of the 'workhouse test' - that anyone who applied for relief would have to enter the workhouse where s/he would be obliged to undertake set work in return for relief. The principle was that entering the workhouse should be a deterrent to casual in irresponsible claims on the poor rates. Only the truly desperate would apply to 'the house'. This principle was adopted under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

A refuge for the destitute that was maintained by charitable donations

In 1776, the first official workhouse returns were made showing the existence of about 2,000 workhouses, each with between 20 and 50 inmates. The cost of indoor relief was high; inefficient workhouse management led to increased social pressure for more sympathetic treatment of the poor. This led to the passing of Gilbert's Act in 1782.

Also in 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations in which he said that the State should not interfere with the economy but should let the laws of supply and demand operate freely. The implication of this for poor relief was that those who could not work should be allowed to fend for themselves - and starve if necessary - rather than having the State provide any form of relief. Further, it was thought that men would work for any wage rather than starve themselves and their families; lower wages would benefit employers and reduce the price of food.

1782 Gilbert's Act

Thomas Gilbert, an MP, attempted to have this Act passed in 1765 but failed; he then spent the next 17 years attempting to have his Bill passed. He finally succeeded in 1782. The Act allowed groups of parishes to form unions and build joint poor-houses for the totally destitute, in order to share the cost of poor relief through 'poor houses' which were established for looking after only the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers explicitly were excluded from these poor-houses: instead, either they were to be provided with

  1. outdoor relief
  2. employment near their own homes

Land-owners, farmers and other employers were to receive allowances from the parish rates so they could bring wages up to subsistence levels. Gilbert's Act is often used to demonstrate the government's humanitarianism but it was even more important in expanding the scope of poor relief and attempting to bring the gentry into closer involvement in poor relief administration.

The Speenhamland System

This first saw light of day in 1795. It was introduced by the magistrates in the Berkshire village of Speenhamland (or Speen) in an effort to relieve the extreme poverty which existed and was adopted widely. The administration of poor relief was in the hands of about 15,000 parishes and few public men had any precise idea of the true situation. The general feeling was that poor relief was increasing on an unprecedented scale and the reaction to this came after 1815. The Speenhamland system became widespread in southern England and was extensively used in the so-called 'Swing' counties. It offered any one, or several forms of relief:

  1. allowances to supplement earned wages, which was the basis of the Speenhamland and other similar systems. The amount of relief to be given was calculated on the price of a gallon loaf of bread (weighing 8lb. 7oz.) and the number of children a man had. Some areas allowed between 1/6d and 2/6d per child and it was this method which caused Malthus to comment that poor labourers had large families so they could claim on the poor rates although there was no proof of this. The idea of a 'supplementary benefit' of cash or flour was not new and it was intended only as a temporary measure.
  2. the labour rate operated by a price being put on a labourer's work. The rate-payers could choose between paying a labourer or paying the rate. If the wage was less than the fixed rate, the employer had to pay the difference also. Labourers were sent round to ratepayers who employed whoever they wished, paying a set wage per man, the best workers costing more. This was not a common system
  3. under the roundsman system, the able-bodied unemployed worked in rotation. They were sent in turn to farmers who paid a part of the wages and the parish paid the rest.

By 1796 outdoor relief was given without a workhouse test because it was a period of widespread distress and unrest. Also many paupers were not able-bodied and parishes were not big enough to cope with the problems.

The Select Vestries Act

In 1818 the Act for the Regulation of Parish Vestries (58 Geo. III c. 69 was passed. This set up a plural voting system in a parish vestry, depending on the rateable value of property. A landowner of property worth £50 was eligible for one vote; for every further £25 a man was given another vote up to a maximum of six votes. This scale was used later by the Poor Law Amendment Act for the election of Guardians of the Poor.

The following year, the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor (59 Geo. III c.12) was passed. This added a resident clergyman to the ex-officio members of the vestry. Vestries were told to distinguish between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The latter group was deemed to be idle, extravagant and/or profligate. This Act provided for the employment of salaried overseers, better-kept accounts and either the building or enlargement of workhouses. Also, under this legislation, two JPs were needed to agree to force the Vestry to give poor relief, rather than only one JP as before. This was intended to prevent "generous" JPs from helping anyone who appealed for assistance. Together these two pieces of legislation are known either as the Select Vestries Acts or the Sturges-Bourne Acts after the MP who was responsible for them.

Conflicting Views of the Old Poor Law

The allowance system became common during the French Wars and the general adoption of the Speenhamland (type) system met with little opposition. The cost of poor relief reached new peaks even in relation to the increased population.

In 1815 there was much political and social unrest because of the ending of the French Wars, the industrial and agricultural depression and the increase in unemployment. Attitudes towards the poor changed. There was a growing belief in the rural south that charity, over and beyond the relief of dire necessity, led to idleness and vice. There was also a belief that allowances and subsidies created excess rural population and idleness. The problem of poor relief was considered by parliamentary enquiries which led to the Poor Law Commission of 1832-34. Its report was influential and affected poor relief policy into the 20th century.

However, in the industrial north, attitudes towards poor relief were different from those to be found in the south. As industry developed, there was a need for workers and if there was work, then most people were employed. If there was no work, then everyone was unemployed. This was particularly true in the textile districts where the anti-Poor Law campaign was at its strongest. It was generally believed that the existing systems of poor relief were more than adequate to meet the needs of the unemployed and others in need of relief.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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