Poor Laws 1795-1834

Posted by Admin on August 3, 2007

East Preston workhouse infirmary from the south-west, c.1910.©Peter Higginbotham. The Poor Laws date back many centuries and were subject to many amendments. Their brief inclusion here is merely as background to the activities of the London Metropolitan Asylums Board (formed as a result of the 1867 order by the Poor Law Board to combine the parishes and unions of the metropolitan area into one Metropolitan Asylum District) in their creation of Mental hospitals, Infectious Disease hospitals and Sanatoriums in different parts of the country. The building of the Millfield Home at Rustington between 1898 and 1903 was one small part of this process.

Features of the Old Poor Law

  1. It relied greatly on the parish, which was often impoverished and had only non-professional unpaid administrators.
  2. Parishes had a more democratic tradition of life and as the ratepayers were the ones who provided the money for poor relief, they were able to change the rules
  3. It had a profound adherence to the principles of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, which aimed to provide social stability. In reality, it created a vast and inefficient social welfare system. After 1750 extensive adjustments were needed because of population increase, greater mobility and price increases
  4. The 1662 Settlement Laws were based on the practice of returning paupers to the parish of their birth but this was later modified to requiring residence of a year and a day for a person to qualify for relief.
  5. Application of the old Poor Law was inconsistent, very adaptable and had much geographical variation.
The Working of the Old Poor Law

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law divided the poor into two groups
  1. the impotent poor - the sick and elderly, those unable to work - classed as 'would work but couldn't'.
  2. the able-bodied paupers - those who 'could work but wouldn't'. They were to be severely beaten until they realised the error of their ways.
Some parishes were more sympathetic towards their poor, resulting in more paupers moving into that area. To prevent this, parliament passed the 1662 Settlement Act which meant that to qualify for relief a person had to have a 'settlement' in the parish by:
  1. birth in the parish
  2. marriage (in the case of a woman)
  3. working in the parish for a year and a day
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:
  1. it hindered the free movement of labour
  2. it prevented men from leaving over-populated parishes in search of work on the 'off-chance' of finding employment
  3. it led to short contracts of, for example, 364 days or 51 weeks. A man might live in a parish for 25 years, working on short contracts, and still not be eligible for poor relief later in life.
The poor relief was increasing and reaction to this came after 1815 with the introduction of the 'Speenhamland' system which offered several forms of relief:

  1. allowances to supplement earned wages. 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.
  2. the labour rate operated by a price being put on a labourer's work. Employers paid 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.
Conflicting Views of the Old Poor Law:

In 1815 there was much political and social unrest because of the ending of the French Wars. In the South it was believed that charity, beyond the relief of dire necessity, led to idleness and vice. Parliament instituted the Poor Law Commission of 1832-34 and this influenced poor relief policy right into the 20th century. Attitudes towards poor relief were different in the North because as industry developed, there was a need for workers and if there was work, then most people were employed. It was generally believed that the existing systems of poor relief were more than adequate to meet the needs of the unemployed. The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834:

East Preston workhouse from the north, c.1910.

The 1834 the 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. 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 powers of the local rural tyrants, although it was less flexible than the old poor law. After 1834
19th-century society was poor by modern standards. One had to rely on children, friends or credit for support in times of hardship. The contemporary attitude was that this was right, because it encouraged the poor to work. Destitution was felt to be the result of weakness and it was believed that those in dire need would accept the workhouse. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was ruthlessly enforced in rural southern England as soon as it was passed, and it was most unpopular. It was not implemented in the north until later. By 1837 anti-Poor Law movement attempted to form Unions in the industrial north and coincided with the start of the 'Hungry 40s', beginning with a trade depression. Industrial workers were afraid of the workhouse which they called the Poor Law 'Bastilles'. Riots began in the north and most of the trouble was blamed on the Poor Law Amendment Act. 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."