Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

What is Poor Law Reform

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (PLAA), known widely as the New Poor Law, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Earl Grey. It completely replaced earlier legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601. It attempted to fundamentally change the poverty relief system in England and Wales (Scotland made similar changes to its poor law in 1845). It resulted from the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws, including Edwin Chadwick, John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. Chadwick was dissatisfied with the law that resulted from his report. Two years after the 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to the middle-classes, the act was passed. Some historians have argued that this was a significant factor in the PLAA being given.

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Background of Poor Law Reform

The government created a royal committee to review the Poor Law's workings and provide proposals for modification in 1832. The commissioners distributed questionnaires and collected data from approximately 3,000 parishes (out of 15,000).

One of the most powerful commissioners, Edwin Chadwick, was already determined that the system needed to be brought under strict central control in London. It also needed to be changed to discourage people from making unjustified demands on government finances.

The commission's findings and recommendations were released in 1834 and won widespread acceptance in Parliament. The commissioners had devised a method of offering an effective government solution to the problem while minimising state involvement and cost.

Finally, the Poor Law Amendment Act was quickly passed by Parliament in 1834, with separate legislation for Scotland and Ireland. It implemented a significant overhaul of the old Poor Law by adopting all the commission's main recommendations. A 'Poor Law Commission' (a new government department, in effect) was set up in London employing inspectors to supervise the work of local officials. Instead of an administrative system based around parishes, about 600 locally elected 'boards of guardians' were set up, each board having its own workhouse.


Significance of Poor Law Act 1834

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was the classic example of the fundamental Whig-Benthamite reforming legislation. Preceded by the massive and well-publicised report of a Royal Commission, it received general parliamentary support and passed into law with comparatively little discussion. The machinery of the new law in itself constituted a virtual administrative revolution: a central commission not under direct ministerial or parliamentary control, with wide powers to

  1. establish efficient local administrative units
  2. supervise the work of locally elected guardians
  3. prescribe the qualifications of local officials
  4. make regulations for the general administration of relief.

Principles of Poor Law 1834

The principles on which the commissioners were to act followed from the recommendations of an earlier report:

  1. the principle of 'less eligibility' (workhouse conditions should be made less preferable than those of the lowest-paid labourer)
  2. the prohibition of outdoor relief (relief outside the workhouse)
  3. the segregation of different classes of paupers (including the separation of married couples)
  4. the abolition of the 'rate-in-aid' (grants to supplement low wages).


Basic Assumptions of Poor Law 1834

(a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse;

(b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help;

(c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes;

(d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission;

(e) the three-man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and responsible for supervising the Amendment Act.

It proved impossible to apply these principles rigorously for political and administrative reasons, particularly in the northern and midland industrial districts. As early as 1837, the commissioners modified their instructions to permit outdoor relief at Nottingham, where the creation of the new poor-law union coincided with a period of acute unemployment. In 1841 a general order was issued to several northern unions prescribing rules for the administration of outdoor relief to able-bodied men, half of which was to be in kind (bread, potatoes etc.), in return for some form of supervised work. In practice, the local boards of guardians in both town and country enjoyed a greater latitude in relief administration than commonly supposed. The widespread belief that assistance could only be obtained by entering the workhouse (the workhouse test) was utterly erroneous. In 1841, of the 1,300,000 persons who received the relief, only 192,000 were in workhouses, the remaining 1,108,000 being assisted in their own homes. Of the total sum of £3,884,000 spent on poor relief from the rates, only £892,000 was spent in the workhouses, while nearly £3 million was spent on outdoor relief. The figures for 1839 and 1840 show similar proportions.


What did people think about Poor Law 1834?

A new Poor Law was enacted in 1834. Specific individuals welcomed it because they believed it would:

  1. reduce the cost of looking after the poor
  2. take beggars off the streets
  3. encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves

The new Poor Law mandated that the poor be housed in workhouses and fed and clothed. Children who entered the workhouse would be educated. All workhouse paupers would be required to work for several hours each day in exchange for this care.

However, this was not the case for all Victorians. Some, like Richard Oastler, spoke out against the new Poor Law, referring to the workhouses as "prisons for the poor." The poor despised and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that riots broke out in northern towns. Use this lesson to learn how some people reacted to the new Poor Law of 1834.


Problems with the Poor Law Amendment Act

Following 1834, the Poor Law program sought to relocate unemployed rural workers to urban regions with available jobs and safeguard urban ratepayers from paying excessive rates.

Both of these objectives were impossible to accomplish, as the principle of reduced eligibility drove individuals to seek jobs in towns and cities. Workhouses were constructed, and the poor were sent to these metropolitan regions. However, the Settlement Laws were enacted to safeguard ratepayers against excessive charges. Construction of workhouses and union consolidation took time. Outdoor relief was maintained following the enactment of the PLAA.

The board issued further edicts on outdoor relief:

  1. Outdoor Labour Test Order
  2. Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order

The act's implementation proved impossible, especially in the industrial north, which suffered from cyclical unemployment. The cost of enforcing the Settlement Laws, which had been in place since the 17th century, was also high, so they were not fully implemented: it was frequently too expensive to enforce the removal of paupers. The commission could issue directives, but they were frequently not fully implemented and, in some cases, ignored to save money (the commission's finances were overseen by Darwin Leadbitter, 1782–1840).

The PLAA was implemented in England and Wales haphazardly and unevenly. One of the criticisms levelled at the 1601 Poor Law was its inconsistent implementation. The law was also interpreted differently in different parishes because these areas differed significantly in their economic prosperity and levels of unemployment, resulting in an uneven system. Local Boards of Guardians interpreted the law to suit the interests of their respective parishes, resulting in even more local variation.

The poor working class, including agricultural labourers and factory workers, also opposed the New Poor Law Act, claiming that the diet in workhouses was insufficient to maintain workers' health and nutrition. The New York Times dubbed this act "the starvation act." Furthermore, the act required workers to relocate to workhouse locations, separating families.

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