In Britain, the term poor law was commonly applied to various laws that provided for the sick, disabled, and unemployed. A body of legislation from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries was known collectively as the Poor Law or, after 1834, the Old Poor Law. In that year the old legislation was superseded by the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which became known as the New Poor Law.
Under the Old Poor Law, poor relief was managed at the parochial level by an annually appointed overseer of the poor. In the main, provisions consisted of what was called outdoor relief: supplemental payments made to individuals or families living in their homes, rather than in workhouses or debtors' prisons. The Old Poor Law also included a series of acts of settlement designed to prevent vagrants and other outsiders from receiving the aid of the parish. The most significant of these was the Settlement Act of 1662, which facilitated the eviction of paupers, who were to be returned to the parishes of their birth.
The Old Poor Law was clearly designed to accommodate a society of small villages and limited mobility. Its provisions were by and large successful in such an environment, and the poor in England were generally regarded as being better off than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. But with demographic and other change in England, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, this increasingly failed to match reality.
In the face of inadequate wages and high food prices (exacerbated by the Napoleonic Wars), Speenhamland Parish in Berkshire experimented with a modified project of poor relief in 1795. The plan instituted a sliding-scale of outdoor relief, based on wages, number of dependents, and the current price of food. The scheme's intent was charitable, but an unfortunate (if hardly unforeseeable) consequence was that unscrupulous wage-payers could become even more ruthless, on the grounds that if wages were not adjusted to reflect living costs, the parish authorities would meet the difference. In spite of its shortcomings, some variant of the Speenhamland system, as it was called, quickly spread to most of the southern counties of England, and the amount English parishes paid for poor relief skyrocketed. In 1785, English parishes paid out about £2 million on poor relief. At its height, in 1818, English parishes provided £7,871,000 in poor relief, and in the last decade of the Old Poor Law, outdoor relief averaged around £7 million per year.
The abuses of the Speenhamland system, together with changing liberal attitudes regarding poverty and self-help, produced an environment that demanded reform. In 1832, the Whig government of Earl Grey (Charles Grey, 1764–1845) established a royal commission to investigate the workings of the Old Poor Law. Twenty-six commissioners visited about three thousand parishes, and filed their report in 1834. The government accepted its proposals and pushed through the Poor Law Amendment Act the same year. More commonly known simply as the New Poor Law, its major provisions included widespread establishment of workhouses and the curbing of outdoor relief. A workhouse was built for every parish or, in the case of small parishes, for a union of parishes. Outdoor relief was discontinued, so the able-bodied poor no longer received aid unless they agreed to live in the workhouses. To further discourage recourse to poor relief, workhouse inmates lived under extremely harsh conditions. (In the language of the Poor Law Amendment Act, conditions offered in a workhouse were to be "less desirable" than the poorest private dwelling.) A poor law commission was set up in London to supervise and support the work of parish poor law guardians, previously the sole responsibility of elected local officials.
In some respects, the New Poor Law was highly effective. From the point of view of expenditure, the poor rate dropped from about £7 million per year from 1830 to 1834 to between £4 and £5 million annually thereafter. Ratepayers and others who were convinced the poor were simply lazy and had brought their troubles on themselves could rest assured that the "less desirable" clause of the act guaranteed in most cases that only those truly in need would apply for aid. Moreover, meager and unappealing though it was, the diet provided in the workhouse was probably more nourishing than what many low-paid workers could have afforded.
Nonetheless, there was widespread opposition to the implementation of the New Poor Law. Under the Old Poor Law, the "deserving" poor—the aged, sick, handicapped, or widowed—and their dependents had come to expect relief in the comfort and dignity of their own homes. Similarly, the families of the "able-bodied" poor had come to rely on the Speenhamland system or other projects. But with the termination of outdoor relief, a pauper had to enter a workhouse to be eligible for aid, and many poor families suffered. Furthermore, workhouse inmates were housed by sex and age, so husbands, wives, and children were separated. As well as a stark and unappealing diet, other "less desirable" conditions in a workhouse included harsh, menial, and monotonous tasks. The aloof oversight of the workhouses by the London-based Board of Guardians was another source of resentment.
Anger with the New Poor Law occasionally led to riots, abuse of poor law officials, and attacks on the workhouses, which were popularly derided as Bastilles, after the hated prison of pre-Revolutionary Paris. Probably the most famous contemporary critic of the provisions of the New Poor Law was the novelist Charles Dickens who, in Oliver Twist (1838), aimed to arouse middle-class consciences. Indeed, it is chiefly through Dickens that the work-house and the plight of the poor in nineteenth-century England remains part of current vocabulary and imagination.
Although amended repeatedly throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vestiges of the New Poor Law persisted until 1929, when Public Assistance Committees (PACs) replaced the Board of Guardians.
Brundage, Anthony. The English Poor Laws, 1700–1930. New York, 2002.
Kidd, Alan J. State, Society, and the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England. New York, 1999.
This parochial system was undermined when tithe incomes began to be appropriated for other uses. For example, papal licences permitted tithe revenues to be claimed by other institutions within the church. In England some of the richer abbeys acquired tithe income in this way. The situation worsened when tithes became a fixed levy rather than a true tenth of incomes within a parish. By the beginning of the reign of Richard II in 1377, about one-third of parishes no longer had any tithes available for the support of the poor and others had depleted resources.
The state intervened to make good the shortcomings in the parochial system with the Acts of 1388 and 1391. These legitimized begging and stipulated that the able-bodied poor should look to their birth parish or the parish where they usually lived for support. Poor relief through the allocation of tithe income, where it existed, and begging elsewhere, continued until the Poor Law of 1536. This required the better-off members of each parish to collect money to support the ‘impotent’, who were defined as the infirm and children. Those who were fit but unemployed could expect no direct help. However, parish funds, where available, could be used to provide employment for them. Initially, giving to the parish collection was a matter of strong moral obligation, but in 1563 it became a legal requirement. Justices of the peace (magistrates) were given the task of determining what should be paid by each householder and an Act of 1572 required that the basis of payment should be reviewed regularly.
Such piecemeal legislation was replaced by a coherent system for England and Wales by the Poor Law Act of 1601. This required each parish to be responsible for its own poor. Justices of the peace had the duty of setting up a framework for the administration of the law, together with the minister of the parish and those householders designated as members of the parish meeting or vestry. The vestry had the authority to raise the necessary money by collecting a rate, the level of which depended on the estimated value of each property in the parish. In practice, some parishes, mainly in large towns, came under the control of a small group of powerful ratepayers including the magistrates and minister, who formed a select vestry. The decisions of all vestries were enforced, on a day-to-day basis, by the parish constable and, where appropriate, by paid officials, who collected rates and acted as overseers of the poor.
Care of the poor varied from place to place. Some parishes bought cottages to house the homeless or built a house where the poor might live. In small rural parishes relief, in money and in kind, was sometimes provided for the poor in their own home. Such a system assumed a settled agrarian society with few itinerants seeking help. In an effort to control the consequences of increasing population movements following the civil wars of the mid-17th cent., the Act of Settlement of 1662 obliged parish authorities to give poor relief only to those either long resident or born in the parish. All others seeking assistance had to return to their place of origin.
During the 18th cent. there were changes in response to increasing numbers of poor amongst those who had migrated to work in expanding industrial areas. The earlier system continued, but the law was amended to allow Poor Law authorities to attempt novel solutions to the problem of the increasing numbers of those seeking relief. Some parishes combined to form a union, which built a workhouse and required those who were poor but able to work to live within it. The poor who entered the workhouse had to wear a uniform and were referred to as paupers. It was hoped, not always justifiably, that the work undertaken in the workhouse would cover its costs. At the end of the 18th cent. rural poverty in southern England grew so persistently that the Berkshire magistrates met at Speenhamland and devised a system of poor relief in cash which supplemented inadequate wages. This system was taken up by other authorities and persisted in some places until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
The Act of 1834 put into practice a system which had operated in the previous decade in the parish of Southwell (Notts.). Relief was given only to those poor who agreed to accept the strict regime of the workhouse, where the conditions provided were funded at a level below that affordable by a person in work. In addition, the new Act created a commission to supervise the establishment of unions of parishes in England and Wales. These unions were to be administered by boards of guardians comprising magistrates and parish ministers of the Church of England, ex officio, and representatives of parishes elected by ratepayers.
All the evidence from official reports and popular literature shows that the Act was loathed by the poor. However, although it was amended on several occasions to make it more appropriate to meet the needs of large urban areas and to respond to the problems of trade depressions and the special needs of children, the basic system remained in place until 1929 when provision for the poor was transferred to county and county borough councils.
Ian John Ernest Keil