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The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834

Prior to 1834, the relief of poverty was left in the hands of individual parishes but this system was deemed to be badly organised and it was thought that it led to idleness among the poor. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act led to immediate and visible economies and a rapid fall in the cost of relief in most areas because conditions deliberately were made harsh. However, some of the 'evils' it was designed to destroy were exaggerated. These included the accounts of population growth in areas where the Speenhamland and similar systems operated and the social and economic evils of giving money to the lower orders. It heralded a new administrative structure but probably harmed the relatively defenceless, rather than the idle able-bodied. On the positive side, it limited the power of the local rural tyrant, although it was less flexible than the old poor law.

The Relief of Poverty after 1834

19th-century society was poor by modern standards. Most members of the working classes were likely to be in poverty at some point in their lives because of unemployment, sickness, old age and so on. They had to rely on their children, friends or credit for support in times of hardship. The contemporary attitude was that this was right and proper, because it encouraged the poor to work.

Poverty was not seen as a social problem: destitution was felt to be the result of character weakness. This attitude led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. It was believed that those in dire need would accept the workhouse. However, the alleged demoralising effects of the old Poor Law were not as bad as they were made out to be.

The new Poor Law was seen as the final solution to the problem of pauperism, which would work wonders for the moral character of the working man, but it did not provide any such solution. It improved neither the material nor moral condition of the working class However, it was less inhumane than its opponents alleged. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was ruthlessly and efficiently enforced in rural southern England as soon as it was passed, and was exceedingly unpopular. It was not implemented in the north until later.

In 1837 anti-Poor Law propaganda reached its climax when attempts were made to form Unions in the industrial north. The Anti-Poor Law movement was formed in Lancashire and the West Riding, led by Oastler, Fielden and Stephens. The new Poor Law was attacked in the press and on the platform.

1837 also saw the start of the 'Hungry 40s', beginning with a trade depression. Industrial workers feared the workhouse which they called the Poor Law 'Bastilles'. There were riots in Bradford (1837), Huddersfield and Dewsbury (1838). The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was one of the causes of northern Chartism. Sir Charles Napier and his troops were based in the north of England to deal with the Chartist threat but Napier was sympathetic towards them and blamed the Poor Law Amendment Act for much of the trouble.

In 1839, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

The New Poor Law is an announcement ... that whosoever will not work ought not to live. Can the poor man that is willing to work always find work and live by his work? A man willing but unable to find work is ... the saddest thing under the sun.

Administrators of the old relief system were outraged at the interference of central government because they felt the old system worked well. They said that there were few able bodied poor when trade was good, and too many for even the biggest workhouse when trade was bad. The Poor Law guardians obstructed the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act: their activities in Huddersfield were particularly extreme

In September 1834, R.H.Gregg of Styal wrote to Edwin Chadwick, the secretary of the Poor Law Commissioners, after having spoken to a friend, Ashworth, who owned a cotton mill near Bolton in Lancashire. The letter inspired the migration scheme from the south of England, where there was deemed to be an increasing and largely unemployed pool of labour, to Lancashire and the West Riding where there was a shortage of workers. Unfortunately, the scheme got under way just as the "Hungry Forties" hit the industrial north.

In the north, the Poor Law Commission had to tread warily because of the dangerous amalgamation of the working classes and middle classes, as had happened during the 1832 Reform Act crisis. This opposition came in the shape of the anti-Poor Law Movement. The workhouse test was never enforced in industrial Unions in Lancashire and Yorkshire: outdoor relief and supplements to incomes continued.

The Poor Law Commission concentrated too much on the rural able-bodied poor. They paid too little regard to problems of pauperisation caused by

These three groups were the largest sections of the community receiving relief. The Commission did not try to deal with the problem of urban poverty.

The Investigation of Poverty

Until private social investigation stirred the national social conscience, the typical attitude to poverty was unconcern/ complacency OR moralising, patronising charity. This is epitomised by Samuel Smiles in his pamphlet Self Help (1859)

The greatest results in life are usually attained by simple means ... The common life of every day... provides the workers with scope for EFFORT and SELF IMPROVEMENT. It is not eminent talent that is required to ensure success in any pursuit so much as PURPOSE - not merely the power to achieve, but the WILL TO LABOUR ...PERSEVERINGLY. Even if a man fails in his efforts it will be a great satisfaction to him to enjoy the consciousness of having DONE HIS BEST. In humble life nothing can be more cheering than to see a man combating suffering by PATIENCE ... and who when his feet are bleeding and his limbs failing him, still walks upon his COURAGE.

The idea of 'less eligibility' influenced Victorian social policy; self-help and independence were valued as virtues. Even the 'labour aristocracy' looked down on labourers but evangelicalism and concern for social stability led to private charity.

In 1849, Mayhew investigated urban poverty and showed that destitution was because of inadequate wages. By this time the middle class was becoming more conscious of the poverty around them. Reformers emerged in the mid-19th century. Information was collected by these reformers and Poor Law medical officers. This helped to improve standards in the workhouses and also led to the 1848 Public Health Act. Many elements of the old system remained, although the government disliked this. The new system was adapted to local circumstances although the Poor Law Commission preferred indoor relief (the workhouse) to outdoor relief because it was cheaper and parishes wanted to reduce the poor rates. The parish remained the centre for the collection of poor rates until 1865. Outdoor relief often was inadequate.

Those sent to workhouses usually were unable to look after themselves: the old, the ill, the young. One large workhouse was favoured because it was cheaper but it also led to abuses such as the Andover scandal of 1845-6. Conditions varied from workhouse to workhouse. The Poor Law Amendment Act came into force on 21 August 1834 and was specifically and explicitly aimed at discouraging people from applying for relief.

Between 1834-47 the central board was called the Poor Law Commission but after 1847 it was called the Poor Law Board. The Board had overall responsibility for relief, and its headquarters was at Somerset House. The first Commissioners were Shaw-Lefevre, Frankland Lewis and George Nicholls. Their secretary was Edwin Chadwick.

Parishes were linked into Unions, each Union controlling relief in its area, hopefully with one large workhouse. Boards of Guardians were elected by ratepayers. They supervised daily matters of relief and were helped by paid experts. By 1838, the Assistant Commissioners had incorporated 13,427 (of 15,000) parishes into 573 Unions. By 1868 the whole country had been finally unionised. Virulent objections to workhouses were not sustained for long because:

  1. the economy improved
  2. Chartism distracted attention
  3. Chadwick's doctrinaire influence waned after 1841
  4. The Poor Law Amendment Act treated the symptoms, not the causes of poverty

In 1847 a Suffolk labourer commented on rural poverty:

These mushroom great people have all grown up since I remember, and if I speak to them of the hard times, they tell me to look at the great improvements, the new docks, the cheap postage, the fine railways; really, say they, this is a grand and glorious country; Sir Robert hath repealed the Corn Laws and Lord John will drain our streets and erect baths. Oh! What a blessed land this is. Well, say I, very good, but what benefit has it conferred on me? Here I am working harder than ever, poorer than ever, with no remedy for want and no hope but death.

The railway whizzes past my door, but I never had my foot in a railway carriage. I have no correspondence but with my neighbours ... my brown bread is dearer, my wages are no higher. The great docks with their many ships, the great railways and fast-running mail carts, have added not a stone to my cottage, nor a crumb to my table.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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