The Reform Of The Poor Law

 Poor Law Reforms from 1601 onwards

The English poor law dates back to around the reign of Elizabeth I. At the time of the Reformation poverty was rampant. The Parliament of the time had to pass several laws for the relief of the poor. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 being the most important. This statute decreed that any destitute person could claim assistance from his or her parish. The Justices of the Peace (assisted by parish officials known as overseers) were responsible for the administration of relief.

The Act of 1601, with very little alteration was still the law of the land in the early 1800s, but the way in which it was administered had changed a great deal. 50 years previous to 1830, poor relief had been distributed on a grand scale, especially in the rural districts.

The most interesting method of relieving the poor at this time was a system called the Allowance System. Under this scheme, the parish authorities granted each labourer an allowance to make his wage up to a living wage, (ever heard of working tax credit!!!). The allowances varied with the price of bread and the number of members in the labourer’s family.

All over England the parish authorities granted allowances to supplement wages. The inventors of the Allowance System meant well but they underestimated the consequences that were to follow from it. As long as the parish authorities were willing to pay allowances, the farmers did not care if their labourers got a living wage or not. They knew that if they paid their workers starvation wages the parish would make up the difference. This was unfair because it meant that the ratepayers were contributing to part of the farmers’ wages bill. It also accustomed the working classes to rely on poor relief for part of their livelihood.

A labourer often found that he was unable to find employment unless he first became a pauper. In any job vacancy a pauper was always given preference.

In 1832 the government commissioned an enquiry into the Poor Law. The report unanimously condemned the practice of giving relief to the poor in their own homes. They also recommended that no able-bodied pauper should be given relief outside the workhouse.

A recommendation was also made that the management of poor Relief should be taken out of the hands of the Justices and entrusted to the Boards of Guardians elected by the ratepayers.

Finally it was suggested that a central committee, consisting of three poor law commissioners, should be appointed to supervise the work of the Board of Guardians. The recommendations of the Poor Law Commission were accepted by the government of the day and incorporated into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which remained in operation for nearly a century.

Parishes were combined into large districts called unions, each one managed by a separate board of guardians and each provided with a workhouse.

Oliver Twist








The new workhouses or “bastilles” as the poor referred to them were large comfortless buildings in which the paupers were poorly nourished and badly treated. The idea was to make life in the workhouse as uncomfortable and intolerable as possible to discourage the poor from entering and to promote their leaving again as soon as possible to earn their own living.

The Poor Law Commission did not find the abolition of outdoor relief as easy as they thought it would be. The new workhouses took a long time to build and it was 1844 before the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order could be issued. Even then, outdoor relief wasn’t abolished altogether. Some of the poor, such as the sick, widows with children or other dependants, and servicemenÂ’s wives were still allowed relief in their own homes. Anyone else who was able-bodied were forced to enter the workhouse if they needed relief.

The application of this policy caused a great deal of hardship because the working classes had been taught to rely on poor relief and were suddenly deprived of it. It was some time before they adapted to the new regime.

With the Poor Law amendment putting an end to the system of doles in aid of wages which had turned workers into paupers, masters now had to pay their employees a living wage and the working classes gradually recovered their self respect.

The Poor Law Commissioners maintained their position until 1847, when they were replaced by the Poor Law Board, the president of which was always a member of the government. The Poor Law Board in their turn were replaced in 1871 by the Local Government Board.

In 1919,( the newly created) Ministry of Health was made responsible for poor law administration.

Eleven years later (1930) the Board of Guardians were abolished and their powers transferred to Borough and County Councils.

During the second half of the nineteenth century conditions in the workhouse became less severe as it was accepted that the poor were not always to blame for their reduced circumtances. These were the sick, the elderly and people who genuinely could not find employment.

It seemed unfair that the genuine poor should be treated the same as the indolent many of whom were work-shy. Consequently the Guardians of the workhouse tried to make conditions a lot more favourable for the honest poor.

Eventually the poor law was replaced by the Social Insurance scheme.

A. Kershaw
AngelaKershaw (in a new window)

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