1834 Poor Law

1834 Poor Law

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A few Sundays ago, I formed one of the congregation assembled in the chapel of a large metropolitan Workhouse. With the exception of the clergyman and clerk, and a very few officials, there were none but paupers present. The children sat in the galleries; the women in the body of the chapel, and in one of the side aisles; the men in the remaining aisle. The service was decorously performed, though the sermon might have been much better adapted to the comprehension and to the circumstances of the hearers.

The usual supplications were offered, with more than the usual significancy in such a place, for the fatherless children and widows, for all sick persons and young children, for all that were desolate and oppressed, for the comforting and helping of the weak-hearted, for the raising-up of them that had fallen; for all that were in danger, necessity, and tribulation. The prayers of the congregation were desired "for several persons in the various wards, dangerously ill"; and others who were recovering returned their thanks to Heaven.

Among this congregation, were some evil-looking young women, and beetle-browed young men; but not many - perhaps that kind of characters kept away. Generally, the faces (those of the children excepted) were depressed and subdued, and wanted colour. Aged people were there, in every variety. Mumbling, blear-eyed, spectacled, stupid, deaf, lame; vacantly winking in the gleams of sun that now and then crept in through the open doors, from the paved yard; shading their listening ears, or blinking eyes, with their withered hands, poring over their books, leering at nothing, going to sleep, crouching and drooping in corners. There were weird old women, all skeleton within, all bonnet and cloak without, continually wiping their eyes with dirty dusters of pocket-handkerchiefs; and there were ugly old crones, both male and female, with a ghastly kind of contentment upon them which was not at all comforting to see. Upon the whole, it was the dragon, Pauperism, in a very weak and impotent condition; toothless, fangless, drawing his breath heavily enough, and hardly worth chaining tip.

When the service was over, I walked with the humane and conscientious gentleman whose duty it was to take that walk, that Sunday morning, through the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls. It was inhabited by a population of some fifteen hundred or two thousand paupers, ranging from the infant newly born or not yet come into the pauper world, to the old man dying on his bed.

In a room opening from a squalid yard, where a number of listless women were lounging to and fro, trying to get warm in the ineffectual sunshine of the tardy May morning - in the "Itch Ward", not to compromise the truth - a woman such as Hogarth has often drawn was hurriedly getting on her gown, before a dusty fire. She was the nurse, or wardswoman, of that insalubrious department - herself a pauper - flabby, raw-boned, untidy - unpromising and coarse of aspect as need be. But, on being spoken to about the patients whom she had in charge, she turned round, with her shabby gown half on, half off, and fell a crying with all her might. Not for show, not querulously, not in any mawkish sentiment, but in the deep grief and affliction of her heart; turning away her dishevelled head: sobbing most bitterly, wringing her hands, and letting fall abundance of great tears, that choked her utterance. What was the matter with the nurse of the itch-ward? Oh, "the dropped child" was dead! Oh, the child that was found in the street, and she had brought up ever since, had died an hour ago, and see where the little creature lay, beneath his cloth! The dear, the pretty dear!

The dropped child seemed too small and poor a thing for death to be in earnest with, but death had taken it; and already its diminutive form was neatly washed, composed, and stretched as if in sleep upon a box. I thought I heard a voice from Heaven saying, It shall be well for thee, O nurse of the itch-ward, when some less gentle pauper does those offices to thy cold form, that such as the dropped child are the angels who behold my Father's face!

In another room, were several ugly old women crouching, witch-like, round a hearth, and chattering and nodding, after the manner of the monkeys. "All well here? And enough to eat?" A general chattering and chuckling; at last an answer from a volunteer. "Oh yes gentleman! Bless you gentleman! Lord bless the parish of St. So-and-So! It feed the hungry, Sir, and give drink to the thirsty, and it warm them which is cold, so it do, and good luck to the parish of St. So-and-So, and thankee gentleman!" Elsewhere, a party of pauper nurses were at dinner. "How do you get on?" "Oh pretty well Sir! We works hard, and we lives hard - like the sodgers!"

In another room, a kind of purgatory or place of transition, six or eight noisy madwomen were gathered together, under the superintendence of one sane attendant. Among them was a girl of two or three and twenty, very prettily dressed, of most respectable appearance, and good manners, who had been brought in from the house where she had lived as domestic servant (having, I suppose, no friends), on account of being subject to epileptic fits, and requiring to be removed under the influence of a very bad one. She was by no means of the same stuff, or the same breeding, or the same experience, or in the same state of mind, as those by whom she was surrounded; and she pathetically complained, that the daily association and the nightly noise made her worse, and was driving her mad - which was perfectly evident. The case was noted for enquiry and redress, but she said she had already been there for some weeks.

This life of mine started in the year 1907 at the Wangford Union, a Workhouse near Beccles, Suffolk. I can still vaguely remember the cold uncharitableness of the place and its inhuman poverty. Most of the two or three hundred inmates were very old, and many were treated as hospital patients. Looking back through memory's years, I see an atmosphere of hopelessness which gave me, surrounded as I was by the old, the infirm and even the insane, the feeling that all had come here to die. Life was a continuous repetition of work, sleep and funerals. I could never make out why so many people had to die.

All the ground floors, with the exception of the Master's quarters, were of stone. The upper walls and ceilings were a dirty cream, the lower part a monotonous battleship grey. The dining hall to me was a huge place. It had lines of well scrubbed tables and stools on the stone floor. There was one small, round, closed-in iron stove, with a long chimney reaching to the ceiling. The dormitories were on the first and second floors, with the infirm people in two wings, one for men and the other for women. There were buildings attached to either wing for the male and female tramps, who appeared to have a life of their own organised separately from the Workhouse itself. The tramps, curiously enough, were the envy of the inmates because of their freedom to leave at will.

My mother was a little old lady, thin and frail, and almost totally deaf. She seemed unhappy. She always seemed to be discussing what she would do when her ship came home. All the inmates had this habit and talked constantly of what they would do when they got out. Very few of them ever left, however.

I would often meet Mother, scrubbing the stone passages which, to me, were miles long. It seemed that she did all the work. She was perpetually on her knees, and her hands were rough and sore from being so much in cold and dirty water. Talk between us was difficult, and for that reason she seldom showed her feelings. Even at that age I felt pity for her, coupled with hatred for those who were better off. I compared her with the Master, the cooks or the women who worked in his quarters. They appeared well off in comparison.

Our Sundays were never the happy time they might have been, sitting at the table in the bare dining hall separated from the others, because her deafness made us shout, causing much noise. This drew attention to us, making us feel we were the joke of the crowd. George often cried. How I hated all of them for it. Looking back, I realise that Mother had a real deep love for us. Though she never displayed it openly, I sensed it all the same. Often I saw her crying, but could not get to know the reason. I never knew a father, and if he existed she seldom mentioned him.

The leaders of the Liberal Party advised women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in municipal offices, especially the unsalaried offices. A large number of women had availed themselves of this advice, and were serving on Boards of Guardians, on school boards, and in other capacities. My children now being old enough for me to leave them with competent nurses, I was free to join these ranks. A year after my return to Manchester in 1894 I became a candidate for the Board of Poor Law Guardians. I was elected, heading the poll by a very large majority.

When I came into office I found that the law was being very harshly administered. The old board had been made up of the kind of men who are known as rate savers. They were guardians, not of the poor but of the rates… For instance, the inmates were being very poorly fed.

I found the old folks in the workhouse sitting on backless forms, or benches. They had no privacy, no possessions, not even a locker. After I took office I gave the old people comfortable Windsor chairs to sit in, and in a number of ways we managed to make their existence more endurable.

The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad, summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change in the fashion of their clothes.

I also found pregnant women in the workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world. Many of them were unmarried women, very, very young, mere girls. These poor mothers were allowed to stay in the hospital after confinement for a short two weeks. Then they had to make a choice of staying in the workhouse and earning their living by scrubbing and other work, in which case they were separated from their babies. They could stay and be paupers, or they could leave - leave with a two-week-old baby in their arms, without hope, without home, without money, without anywhere to go. What became of those girls, and what became of their hapless infants?

My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor. She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed all the children, whom she boarded out with village families… When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died, many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me… and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."

The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."

"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year."

I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.

Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.

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The Old Poor Law 1795-1834

Features of the Old Poor Law

  • It relied greatly on the parish as the unit of government, and therefore on unpaid, non-professional administrators. Parishes were small and their finances were feeble so unusually heavy burdens such as those experienced between 1815 and 1821 might seem disastrous at parish level
  • Overseers/Justices of the Peace/contractors/Vestrymen might be petty despots. This was removed by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act but the old Poor Law was more humane because those responsible for the administration of relief knew the recipients personally
  • Relief may well have been greater, more well-meant and indiscriminate to individuals. Parishes had a more democratic tradition of life but by the 1820s this was breaking down. Since the ratepayers were the ones who provided the money for poor relief, they were able to change the rules
  • It had a profound adherence to the principles of the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, which had aimed to provide social stability, to alleviate discontent and distress and to prevent riots and disaffection through outdoor relief. Actually, it created a vast and inefficient social welfare system which originally was based on the village/hamlet and was adapted in 1601 and 1750. After 1750 more extensive adjustments were needed because of
    • population increase
    • greater mobility
    • price changes

    The Working of the Old Poor Law

    The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law divided the poor into two groups

    1. the impotent poor - the sick, elderly, those unable to work - who were to be helped via outdoor relief or in almshouses. These people were classed as "would work but couldn't".
    2. this group were the able-bodied paupers and it was thought that these people "could work but wouldn't". They were to be severely beaten until they realised the error of their ways.

    Relief was given in variety of ways, and not all parishes had a poor-house or house of correction. It soon became obvious that some parishes were more sympathetic towards their poor, and this tended to result in paupers moving into that area from less generous parishes. To prevent this, parliament passed the

    1662 Settlement Act

    This stated that a person had to have a 'settlement' in order to obtain relief from a parish. This could be secured by:

    • birth in the parish
    • marriage (in the case of a woman)
    • 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 because they:

    • hindered the free movement of labour
    • prevented men from leaving overpopulated parishes in search of work on the 'off-chance' of finding employment
    • 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 Workhouse Test Act

    In 1723, Sir Edward Knatchbull's legislation For Amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Imployment and Relief of the Poor allowed the establishment of workhouses where poor relief would be provided. This could be done either by an individual parish or through the combining of a number of neighbouring parishes which would share the cost: parishes had the authority to rent or buy appropriate accommodation. The local JPs could also sub-contract the administration of relief to someone who would feed, clothe and house the poor for a weekly rate from the parish. Between 1723 and 1750, about 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales.

    The legislation also marked the first appearance of the 'workhouse test' - that anyone who applied for relief would have to enter the workhouse where s/he would be obliged to undertake set work in return for relief. The principle was that entering the workhouse should be a deterrent to casual in irresponsible claims on the poor rates. Only the truly desperate would apply to 'the house'. This principle was adopted under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

    A refuge for the destitute that was maintained by charitable donations

    In 1776, the first official workhouse returns were made showing the existence of about 2,000 workhouses, each with between 20 and 50 inmates. The cost of indoor relief was high inefficient workhouse management led to increased social pressure for more sympathetic treatment of the poor. This led to the passing of Gilbert's Act in 1782.

    Also in 1776, Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations in which he said that the State should not interfere with the economy but should let the laws of supply and demand operate freely. The implication of this for poor relief was that those who could not work should be allowed to fend for themselves - and starve if necessary - rather than having the State provide any form of relief. Further, it was thought that men would work for any wage rather than starve themselves and their families lower wages would benefit employers and reduce the price of food.

    1782 Gilbert's Act

    Thomas Gilbert, an MP, attempted to have this Act passed in 1765 but failed he then spent the next 17 years attempting to have his Bill passed. He finally succeeded in 1782. The Act allowed groups of parishes to form unions and build joint poor-houses for the totally destitute, in order to share the cost of poor relief through 'poor houses' which were established for looking after only the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers explicitly were excluded from these poor-houses: instead, either they were to be provided with

    Land-owners, farmers and other employers were to receive allowances from the parish rates so they could bring wages up to subsistence levels. Gilbert's Act is often used to demonstrate the government's humanitarianism but it was even more important in expanding the scope of poor relief and attempting to bring the gentry into closer involvement in poor relief administration.

    The Speenhamland System

    This first saw light of day in 1795. It was introduced by the magistrates in the Berkshire village of Speenhamland (or Speen) in an effort to relieve the extreme poverty which existed and was adopted widely. The administration of poor relief was in the hands of about 15,000 parishes and few public men had any precise idea of the true situation. The general feeling was that poor relief was increasing on an unprecedented scale and the reaction to this came after 1815. The Speenhamland system became widespread in southern England and was extensively used in the so-called 'Swing' counties. It offered any one, or several forms of relief:

    1. allowances to supplement earned wages, which was the basis of the Speenhamland and other similar systems. 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. Some areas allowed between 1/6d and 2/6d per child and it was this method which caused Malthus to comment that poor labourers had large families so they could claim on the poor rates although there was no proof of this. The idea of a 'supplementary benefit' of cash or flour was not new and it was intended only as a temporary measure.
    2. the labour rate operated by a price being put on a labourer's work. The rate-payers could choose between paying a labourer or paying the rate. If the wage was less than the fixed rate, the employer had to pay the difference also. Labourers were sent round to ratepayers who employed whoever they wished, paying 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.

    By 1796 outdoor relief was given without a workhouse test because it was a period of widespread distress and unrest. Also many paupers were not able-bodied and parishes were not big enough to cope with the problems.

    The Select Vestries Act

    In 1818 the Act for the Regulation of Parish Vestries (58 Geo. III c. 69 was passed. This set up a plural voting system in a parish vestry, depending on the rateable value of property. A landowner of property worth £50 was eligible for one vote for every further £25 a man was given another vote up to a maximum of six votes. This scale was used later by the Poor Law Amendment Act for the election of Guardians of the Poor.

    The following year, the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor (59 Geo. III c.12) was passed. This added a resident clergyman to the ex-officio members of the vestry. Vestries were told to distinguish between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The latter group was deemed to be idle, extravagant and/or profligate. This Act provided for the employment of salaried overseers, better-kept accounts and either the building or enlargement of workhouses. Also, under this legislation, two JPs were needed to agree to force the Vestry to give poor relief, rather than only one JP as before. This was intended to prevent "generous" JPs from helping anyone who appealed for assistance. Together these two pieces of legislation are known either as the Select Vestries Acts or the Sturges-Bourne Acts after the MP who was responsible for them.

    Conflicting Views of the Old Poor Law

    The allowance system became common during the French Wars and the general adoption of the Speenhamland (type) system met with little opposition. The cost of poor relief reached new peaks even in relation to the increased population.

    In 1815 there was much political and social unrest because of the ending of the French Wars, the industrial and agricultural depression and the increase in unemployment. Attitudes towards the poor changed. There was a growing belief in the rural south that charity, over and beyond the relief of dire necessity, led to idleness and vice. There was also a belief that allowances and subsidies created excess rural population and idleness. The problem of poor relief was considered by parliamentary enquiries which led to the Poor Law Commission of 1832-34. Its report was influential and affected poor relief policy into the 20th century.

    However, in the industrial north, attitudes towards poor relief were different from those to be found in the south. As industry developed, there was a need for workers and if there was work, then most people were employed. If there was no work, then everyone was unemployed. This was particularly true in the textile districts where the anti-Poor Law campaign was at its strongest. It was generally believed that the existing systems of poor relief were more than adequate to meet the needs of the unemployed and others in need of relief.

    These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
    Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.


    English workhouses have their origins in sixteenth-century European ideas, when anxieties about vagrancy and unemployment prompted the generation of compulsory work schemes. The first experiment in this vein in the British Isles was founded at the former palace of Bridewell in London during the 1550s, where food and lodging were offered in exchange for labour. Provincial towns opened their own ‘bridewells’ from the 1560s onwards.

    Bridewell Hospital: a ruined corner of the courtyard and staircase, with a vignette of a room. Engraving by B. Howlett 1813 after T.H. Shepherd: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/epp3bkxn

    The Elizabethan poor laws of 1598 and 1601 incorporated the idea of setting the poor to work, to be funded by an annual local tax. Parishes were permitted to acquire a stock of materials for employing paupers. In the case of textiles, for example, a parish might buy wool and then insist that poor people spin it into yarn in exchange for a small cash payment or other benefit. Most parishes that tried to apply this policy quickly found it too expensive to maintain. The money earned from selling the finished produce, such as spun wool, rarely covered the costs of the materials. The law had not specified a location for work, and parishes did not try to supply a single workplace for this activity.

    The second half of the seventeenth century saw the rise of a new ideology, that of setting the poor to work at a profit. It was thought that proper management of the right sort of work would not only cover costs but also remove the need to raise a local tax. This encouraged some towns to apply for an individual Act of Parliament to become a Corporation of the Poor. Corporations allowed multiple urban parishes to work together to raise a tax and run a large institution collectively. Bristol was the first town to take up this option, and Exeter was the first place to construct a large, purpose-built workhouse.

    It soon became apparent to Corporations that it was not possible to render the workhouse poor self-supporting. The sorts of people who required relief – the young, the elderly, the sick or disabled – were often not well-placed to undertake work of any kind. Nonetheless, the hope of finding the right formula for making the poor profitable remained beguiling, and parishes continued to establish workhouses on this basis throughout the eighteenth century. A workhouse policy was promoted early in the century by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, or SPCK, and the process of opening a workhouse was made easier by a general Act of Parliament in 1723. This Act allowed parishes to buy, rent, build or collaborate with each other to run workhouses. The Act also introduced a new element to the use of workhouses, because it enabled parishes to insist that poor people enter them, if they wanted to receive parish poor relief (rather than receiving cash or other benefits in their existing homes). This workhouse ‘test’ was applied inconsistently, with some places never making relief dependent on workhouse entry and others trying to impose the rule sporadically. Nonetheless, it became a very important precursor to the insistence on delivering relief only in workhouses, that dominated ideas from the 1820s onwards.

    Regulations for the workhouse at Dymock, Gloucs: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ma25kafs

    By 1800 it was no longer thought feasible to make the workhouse poor generate a profit, but a new goal emerged to render the poor as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Benjamin Thompson, an American known to history as Count Rumford, devised a workhouse diet based around soup that yielded the maximum number of calories for the lowest possible cost. After 1815 and the economic disruption that followed the Napoleonic wars, sentiments towards the poor became more harsh. Selected parishes made their workhouse as punitive as possible: Southwell in Nottinghamshire followed this policy, and became a model for the ‘reformed’ workhouses established after 1834.

    Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford: Wellcome Images https://wellcomecollection.org/works/w3tavr7h

    Many parishes made use of workhouses in the approximate century 1723-1834 but not all of them were influenced by these ideas about workhouses, or applied them consistently. A parish might begin with the intention of delivering all poor relief in the workhouse, and setting the poor to work, but would typically lose enthusiasm for both of these requirements. Instead workhouses became places to accommodate the elderly poor, and offer nursing to them at scale, or to give homes to the young and orphaned poor before they were apprenticed at parish cost. By 1776 there were around 2000 workhouses across England, with some in every county. The majority were fairly small-scale, housing 20-50 people, and did not have stringent rules. Some paupers even used them flexibly, seeking admission to their local workhouse in winter or in times of unemployment or sickness and moving out as opportunities came their way for independence.

    Detail from ‘A Consultation’ by C.J. Winter (1869), after Rowlandson: Wellcome Images, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/d2xacjzt

    Therefore, it should be no surprise that this project has already revealed a number of different parish approaches to workhouse management. Volunteers in Staffordshire have contrasted the Uttoxeter workhouse, which set adult men to work in a brickyard, with the Tettenhall workhouse that held around 30 residents at one time who tended to be elderly or very young. Cumbria volunteers have studied parishes with or without workhouses, and archival volunteers in East Sussex working on East Hoathley have encountered no workhouse so far. This level of variation is what we would have expected, but the vouchers allow us to look in much greater detail at the way workhouses operated for their resident poor and for their local economies. Even when there was no work in workhouses, they represented an important component of parish relief.

    1834 Poor Law - History

    The major reason for the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was to cut the poor rates, particularly in the rural south of England. This document from the Poor Law Commissioners details the effectiveness of the legislation. It is clear that no attention is paid to the humanitarian effects of the PLAA and that the Commissioners were interested mainly in the financial savings made by the implementation of the legislation.

    Our Assistant Commissioners . are frequently met with assurances that our instructional letters have been acted upon with as much promptitude and exactness as if they had been orders and the state of the administration, especially in the progressive substitution of relief in kind for relief in money, and the check put to the extension or continuance of outdoor relief, wherever there is a workhouse, verify these assurances. Another motive frequently impels the adoption of this course, namely, that of meeting investigation and preparing for the approaching change, by reducing the future averages of contribution to the expenses of the Union establishment. The Returns from the united parishes contain numerous announcements that these preparatory proceedings have been successfully adopted. The extensive effect of the impulse given by the change of the law, and the wide promulgation of its principles by means of the Reports which His Majesty's Government have caused to be published, as well as the correspondence, admonitory and instructional, of this office, is shown in the reduction of the rates in those parishes which have not yet been placed under the control of Boards of Guardians. Amongst the reductions which are general, must be included the reductions of the expense of litigation. The effect of the new machinery is however marked by the fact, that whilst the reductions in the best managed of the separate parishes generally average about 20%, the reductions in the new Unions, which have been for more than half a year in operation, average about 43%, often including expenses for furniture and alterations constituting a portion of the expenses of the first outlay.

    We are not aware of any parish, distinguished for its improved management previously to its being included in a Union, where the ratepayers have not participated in the advantages of management on a larger scale. So far as the Returns have yet been received, it appears that in the best managed parishes, those in some of which petitions were preferred against being included in the new Unions, setting forth, as the grounds of exemption, their former good management, and that they could sustain nothing but loss from the Union, a reduction has nevertheless taken place. In one of the best managed parishes in the kingdom, the rural parish of Cookham in Berkshire, a parish where the poor rates at one time amounted to nearly £4,000 per annum, it appears that the expenditure for 1834-5 was £700 for 1835-6, £580 the average expenditure for three years preceding the Union was £852. The average expenditure for the present year, formed on an estimate of the two last quarters, is £560.

    In the parish of Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, . the poor rates in 1835, before the formation of the Union, amounted to £1,716 after the Union they were reduced to £496.

    The parish of Swallowfield, in the Wokingham Union [Berkshire], expended annually an average sum of £540, for the relief of the poor in 1833, 1834 and 1835 during he year ended March 1836, the sum so expended was £231.

    The rates of the parish of Uley, in Gloucestershire, now included in the Dursley Union, were, before the Union, £1,408 the rate of expenditure for the last year was £428.

    In a parish from whence petitions were presented to both Houses of Parliament, protesting that their own good management could not be exceeded, the parish of Stoke Pogis [Poges], in Buckinghamshire, the expenditure has been reduced, from £853, in 1834-5 to £490 in 1835-6.

    We . have added other parishes to some of the existing Unions as originally constituted and the experience already obtained under the Commission indicates that the direction of future alterations of Unions will be in the addition of other parishes. The extent of many of the Unions was regulated by emergencies at the time of their formation, and some doubts as to the local capabilities for management on a larger scale. With reference to any opposition to the extension of the field of management . the principles upon which that extension was determined are fully borne out, not only by a comparison of the progress of the parishes in Union with the progress of the parishes ununited, but by a comparison of the progress of the larger with the smaller Unions. Thus, if of the 110 Unions which we have specified as having been in operation more than 12 months, we take the 43 largest, and compare the results with the 24 positively smallest, and the 27 intermediate, in area, population, and rates we find that the savings effected in these Unions are in the following proportions:

    43 largest Unions, rate of saving 46%
    24 smallest Unions, rate of saving 29%
    26 intermediate Unions, rate of saving 42%

    So, if of the 64 Unions that have been in operation six months and upwards, we compare the 22 largest with the 15 smallest and 27 intermediate sized Unions, the reductions have been in the

    Social circumstances that drove the need for legislation included the following:

    • Population is believed to have stagnated during the 15th Century giving a temporary easing of the demands for Poor Relief, estimates have the population of England at 2.1m in 1401 and 2m in 1481 (England & Wales only.)
    • 16th Century Population growth is significant 1521 being 2.3m that had nearly doubled to 3.89m by 1591 which combined with the impact of Dissolution of the Monasteries further compounded the growing need.
    • Growing tide of migration: seeking work and food: moving from village to town, crowded towns to margins of the heavy woodlands all exacerbated the problem.
    • 1590s brought acute hardship: poor yield from arable farming led to shortages, price increases , social unrest and actual famine. It was the culmination of these circumstances that drove the codification of the ‘Old Poor Law’ in the period 1597-1601

    The Old Poor Law included:

    • 1338 Statute of Cambridgeestablished core principles of poor relief in England as early as Richard II’s reign.
      • Distinguished between beggars considered ‘sturdy’ and capable of work and those who were ‘impotent’ infirm old and unemployable for work.
      • Attempt to settle the Poor in a fixed place, nt as wandering nomads.
      • IHR Analytical Index to Analytical index to the series of Records known as Remembrancia (1579-1664)
      • Parish Overseers were appointed to literally oversee the administration of Poor Relief in each Parish.
      • Their responsibility included levying and collecting a local tax.
      • The tax was assessed based on property and used as the fund for providing for the poor.
      • This basic organisation continued right up until the 1834 Amendment Act
      • The definition required that the parish be responsible for the poor if they had lived in the parish for 40 days or more.
      • However it also required certain status to be actually eligible for payment of relief
        • Proven paternal descent in the parish
        • a £10 holding
        • completed apprenticeship
        • or prior working/ hire for a year

        Whilst you would expect that English law and society would progress the amendment to this body of codified law sadly that was not to be. In 1834 following the review commissioned in 1832 sadly nothing was done to improve the plight of the poor. It was more draconian and harshly administered. Relief would be limited to the aged sick and orphaned, with no provision for the unemployed. For what happened as a result of the 1834 Amendment Act click here.

        Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 - History bibliographies - in Harvard style

        Your Bibliography: Higginbotham, P., 2017. The New Poor Law. [online] Workhouses.org.uk. Available at: <http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/newpoorlaw.shtml> [Accessed 31 May 2017].

        Inglis, B.

        Poverty and the industrial revolution

        1972 - Panther - London

        In-text: (Inglis, 1972)

        Your Bibliography: Inglis, B., 1972. Poverty and the industrial revolution. 1st ed. London: Panther.

        Malthus, T.

        An essay on the principle of population

        1999 - Routledge/Thoemmes Press - Bristol

        In-text: (Malthus, 1999)

        Your Bibliography: Malthus, T., 1999. An essay on the principle of population. 1st ed. Bristol: Routledge/Thoemmes Press.

        Martin, H.

        Britain In The 19th Century

        1996 - Thomas Nelson and Sons - Walton on Thames

        In-text: (Martin, 1996)

        Your Bibliography: Martin, H., 1996. Britain In The 19th Century. 1st ed. Walton on Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, p.233.

        May, T.

        An economic and social history of Britain 1760-1970

        1995 - Longman - New York

        In-text: (May, 1995)

        Your Bibliography: May, T., 1995. An economic and social history of Britain 1760-1970. 1st ed. New York: Longman, p.125.

        Workhouse Timeline

        The Vagabonds and Beggars Act threatened "vagabonds, idle and suspected persons" with three days in the stocks on a diet of bread and water. However, beggars too infirm to work could stay in their Hundred and be allowed to beg.

        Dissolution of smaller monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

        Dissolution of remaining monasteries.

        The Statute of Legal Settlement provided for the branding or enslavement of sturdy beggars. The impotent poor were to receive relief and have cottages erected for their use.

        An Act For Setting of the Poor on Work, and for the Avoiding of Idleness stipulated:

        • Every town to set up stocks of materials for the poor to work on.
        • Every county to set up a House of Correction for anyone refusing to work.

        An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore required Churchwardens and four overseers in each parish to:

        • Set children and poor to work
        • Relieve the impotent
        • Bind out pauper children as apprentices
        • Tax 'every inhabitant and occupier of lands' in the parish for above purposes.

        An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore consolidated and replaced a variety of previous legislation and aimed at:

        • Establishment of parochial responsibility, with churchwardens or overseers (from two to four in number, depending on the size of the parish) allocating relief.
        • Suppression of begging.
        • Provision of work.
        • Use of county Houses of Correction for vagrants.
        • Setting to work and apprenticeship of children.

        London Corporation of the Poor set up to:

        • Erect workhouses and houses of correction
        • Enforce laws against vagabonds
        • Set the poor to work

        An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom (The Settlement Act) stipulated that newcomers to a parish who were deemed "likely to become chargeable" could be removed upon the orders of two Justices of the Peace if a complaint was made against them within 40 days of arrival, provided they had not rented a house worth at least £10 a year.

        Bristol Incorporation formed by a local Act giving it powers to erect a workhouse etc.

        An Act For supplying some Defects in the Laws for the Relief of the Poor stipulated:

        • Newcomers with certificates to be removed only when chargeable
        • Those receiving relief to wear identifying badges
        • Fines for those who refuse to take pauper apprentices

        Knatchbull's Act (The Workhouse Test Act) Enabled workhouses to be set up by parishes either singly, or in combination with neighbouring parishes. In addition, relief was to be offered only to those willing to enter the workhouse.

        The Foundling Hospital was founded by Captain Thomas Coram.

        An Act "for the keeping regular, uniform and annual Registers of all Parish Poor Infants under a certain Age, within the Bills of Mortality" required Metropolitan parishes to maintain proper records of children admitted into their workhouses.

        Hanway's Act , promoted by Foundling Hospital governor Jonas Hanway, required that all pauper children under six from Metropolitan parishes be sent to school in the countryside at least three miles from London or Westminster. The nursing and maintenance of each child was to cost at least two shillings and sixpence per week.

        Sunday School movement begins with opening of a school in Gloucester by Robert Raikes.

        Gilbert's Act Authorised parishes to unite and set up a common workhouse controlled by a board of guardians appointed by JPs. Able-bodied poor to be dealt with outside the workhouse e.g. by providing them with work and supplementing wages.

        Act of Union makes Ireland part of Great Britain.

        First British School set up by British and Foreign Schools Society .
        Badging of the Poor abolished.

        First National School set up by The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church .

        First Ragged School opened by John Pounds.

        Sturges Bourne's Act allowed parishes to appoint:

        Passing of the The Vestries Act (Houbhouse's Act) which allowed parishes to adopt a procedure for the management of the parish, particulary in relation to poor relief, based on a vestry elected from the ratepayers.

        Passing of the Vagrancy Act

        Royal Commission on the Poor Laws appointed.
        Allotment's Act - authorised Vestries to let small portions of land, from a quarter of an acre up to an acre, to industrious cottagers for cultivation. The rental income was to be used to buy winter fuel for the poor.

        Report of the Royal Commission published in March.
        Poor Law Amendment Act received royal assent on August 14th.
        Poor Law Commissioners sworn in on August 23rd.

        Abingdon declared as first new Poor Law Union on January 1st &mdash its new workhouse received its first inmates in November of the same year.

        Report of the Royal Commission on Ireland published. George Nicholls tours Ireland.

        An Act For the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland passed on July 31st

        The Vaccination Extension Act provided for the vaccination of infants to be made free to all. It was locally administered via Poor Law Unions and their Medical Officers.

        The Outdoor Labour Test Order , issued by the PLC in April, allowed relief (at least half of which was to be in food, clothing etc.) to be given to able-bodied male paupers satisfying a Labour Test.

        A further Poor Law Amendment Act improved numerous details of the 1834 Act. One of its most significant changes was a revision to the bastardy laws whereby mothers were granted the civil right of claim against the putative father, regardless of whether she was in receipt of poor relief.
        The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order issued by the PLC in December, prohibited all outdoor relief to able-bodied men and women apart from in exceptional circumstances.
        Hanway's Act of 1766 repealed.

        An Act For The Amendment and better Administration of the Laws Relating to the relief of the Poor in Scotland proposed keeping poor relief in Scotland primarily at the parish level. Parishes, particularly in urban areas, could unite and build poorhouses for the old and infirm.
        Andover Workhouse Scandal - conditions were so bad that inmates were revealed to be fighting over scraps of rotten meat left on bones they were crushing.

        The Great Famine in Ireland.

        An Act granted settlement after five years' residence in a parish.
        Start of annual government grant of £30,000 towards the salaries of teachers in pauper schools.

        Poor Law Board replaced Poor Law Commission.

        Irish Poor Law Unions reorganised with creation of 33 new Unions.

        The Poor Law Board's Outdoor Relief Regulation Orders in August and December broadened the conditions under which outdoor relief could be provided.

        The Industrial Schools Act aimed to make better provision for the care and education of vagrant, destitute and disorderly children who were considered in danger of becoming criminals.

        Workhouse Visiting Society founded by Louisa Twining

        Another Industrial Schools Act defined the classes of children who could be placed in an Industrial School: under-14s found begging under-14s wandering, and not having any home or visible means of subsistence, or frequenting the company of reputed thieves under-12s committing an affence punishable by imprisonment under-14s whose parent claims he is unable to control him, and is prepared to pay for the child to be detained in an Industrial School.

        The Houseless Poor Act made it obligatory for Metropolitan Boards of Guardians to provide casual wards for "destitute wayfarers, wanderers, and foundlings".

        The Union Chargeability Act based each parish's contribution to the union's funds on its rateable value not how many paupers it had. The union also became the area of settlement and the period of residency required for irremovability was reduced to one year.
        The Lancet exposed the terrible conditions that existed in many London workhouse infirmaries.

        A further Industrial Schools Act required that children on remand for charges punishable by committal to an industrial school should be kept in workhouses rather than prsions.

        The Metropolitan Poor Act set up a Common Poor Fund to finance the construction and operation of new fever hospitals and asylums for London's poor. It also gave the Local Government Board powers to abolishe the Local Act status of many of London's parishes and to reorganise and dissolve unions.
        The Metropolitan Asylums Board was set up to take over the provide care for paupers with infectious diseases such as smallpox or who were classed as 'harmelssimbeciles'.

        Abolition of Gilbert's Unions still in existence.

        Education Act introduced compulsory elementary education adminstered by local School Boards.
        The MAB's North-Western Fever Hospital opened in Hampstead, becoming England's first state hospital .

        Local Government Board replaced Poor Law Board.

        Public Health Act set up nationwide system of rural and urban sanitary authorities.
        First Woman Guardian elected &mdash to the Kensington Union Board.

        The Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act gave the Local Government Board new powers to reorganise and dissolve unions.

        Once-a-week fish dinners allowed in workhouses.

        Prior to 1918, receipt of poor relief disqualified the recipient from voting. The 1885 Medical Relief Disqualification Removal Act meant that anyone who was in receipt only of poor-rate-funded medical care no longer lost their vote.

        The Public Health (London) Law Consolidation Bill extended free access the MAB's fever hospitals to all Londoners (not just paupers) thus creating England's first free state hospitals.

        Education Act replaced School Boards by Local Education Authorities and raised school-leaving age to 14.

        The Registrar General requested that workhouse births be disguised by the use of euphemistic addresses.

        Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the Unemployed appointed

        Children's Act gave local authorities new powers to keep poor children out of the workhouse

        Old Age Pension introduced on January 1st.
        Royal Commission Majority Report and Minority Report published

        Unemployment Insurance and Health Insurance began in a limited form.

        Workhouse now referred to as Poor Law Institution in official documents

        Ministry of Health replaced Local Government Board

        Irish Free State created - former workhouses become County Homes, County Hospitals, and District Hospitals

        Board of Guardians (Default) Act enabled dismissal of a Board of Guardians and its replacement with government officials.

        Local Government Act abolished all Poor Law Authorities and transferred their responsibilities for "public assistance" to local councils.

        Education Act introduced primary and secondary schools merged boys and girls schools at the primary level raised school-leaving age to 15.

        National Health Service Act came into force on July 5th.

        Unless otherwise indicated, this page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.


        page 90 note 1 The principal source used here is the Poor Law Papers in the Ministry of Health archives in the Public Record Office. I am grateful to the Research Fund of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne for a grant to facilitate study of these documents. The correspondence with local Boards of Guardians is contained in the MH 12 series. In addition I have drawn upon an undergraduate dissertation on the Hexham Union by Miss Gloria Cadman, BA in the Department of Modern and Medieval History, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

        The following papers may be cited as useful background material for the contents of this paper: Roberts , David , “ How cruel was the Victorian Poor Law? ”, in: Historical Journal , Vol. VI , 1963 , pp. 97 – 107 CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ursula Henriques, “How cruel was the Victorian Poor Law?”, ibid., Vol. XI, 1968, pp. 365–371 Blaug , Mark , “ The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New ”, in: Journal of Economic History , Vol. XXIII , 1963 , pp. 151 – 184 CrossRefGoogle Scholar Mark Blaug, The Poor Law Report Reexamined”, ibid., Vol. XXIV, 1964, pp. 229–245.

        page 91 note 1 MH 12/3201. Thomas Wilson/Poor Law Commission (hereafter referred to in notes as PLC), 3/11/1834. For All Saints Parish, Newcastle, MH 12/9096, All Saints Vestry/PLC, 7/11/1834.

        page 92 note 1 MH 12/9002. Anthony Watson/PLC, bearing dated stamp of receipt 17/11/ 1834.

        page 92 note 2 A very similar spirit not infrequently appears in the columns of some of the more popular British newspapers of the present day. Even in the age of the Welfare State this attitude of the Poor Law Commission can command a sympathetic echo.

        page 93 note 1 “Out-door relief” means the giving of relief in the form of doles, without stipulating that the recipient must enter the workhouse. The reports of both the Poor Law Enquiry Commission and the Poor Law Commission itself frequently stressed this regional difference.

        page 93 note 2 Rose , Michael E. , “ The Anti-Poor Law Movement in the North of England ”, in: Northern History , Vol. I , 1966 , pp. 70 – 91 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar

        page 94 note 1 Some information about Bell appears in McCord , N. and Carrick , A. E. , “ Northumberland in the General Election of 1852 ”, in: Northern History , Vol. I , 1966 .Google Scholar An aunt of Walsham was the wife of Sir Francis Burdett.

        page 94 note 2 The first baronet inaugurated a tradition of family service the son of the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner enjoyed a diplomatic career of modest distinction, while I fear that some readers may derive a grim satisfaction from the circumstance that the Poor Law Assistant Commissioner's grandson was an Inspector of Chinese Labour in the Transvaal.

        page 95 note 1 These statistical reports appear in the MH 12 series for each Union for example, the South Shields report quoted here is in MH 12/3201, Walsham/PLC, 16/30/1836.

        page 96 note 1 The figure cited for South Shields in the report mentioned in note 9 was an average recent annual expenditure of £9049, or about 7s. 6d. per head. For the predominantly rural Castle Ward Union, Walsham cited £5744 and 7s. 5d. MH 12/9002, Walsham/PLC, 24/8/36.

        page 97 note 1 McCord , N. , “ Gateshead Politics in the Age of Reform ”, in: Northern History , Vol. IV , 1969 .Google Scholar

        page 97 note 2 MH 12/3068, Walsham/PLC, 18/10/1836.

        page 97 note 3 MH 12/9156, Walsham/PLC 7/9/1836.

        page 100 note 1 Cadman, op. cit., for detailed description of building of Hexham Union workhouse. MH 12/3201, draft of PLC/South Shields Board, 23/3/1837, for the insistent detailed corrections cited here in text.

        page 100 note 2 This passage occurs in a very illuminating letter – MH 12/9002, Walsham/ PLC, 5/9/1841 – in which Walsham argues against a scheme for the employment of workhouse inmates in the fields. In this letter Walsham sets out at considerable length many of his conceptions of the proper principles on which the poor law should operate.

        page 100 note 3 MH 12/9096, contains a lengthy correspondence of the spring of 1837 on this question. Many of the local dietaries of these years exist in the MH 12 series and elsewhere in general they support the idea that the workhouse diet, though monotonous and far from Lucullan, nevertheless was better than the food of many of the “independent” poor outside. I am indebted to D. Bird and J. Nightingale of this University for their comments on the Newcastle workhouse dietary.

        page 101 note 1 MH 12/9096, Walsham/PLC 23/2/1839. If dissatisfied by the reception given by the interviewing Guardians, the poor had a right to appeal to the general Board meeting.

        page 102 note 1 Cadman, op. cit., pp. 99–100. One example must suffice here in April 1838, Thomas Hedley of Chollerton was given a loan of £8 to replace a horse which had recently died, his business depending upon his having a horse.

        page 103 note 1 MH 12/3068 contains a lengthy correspondence on this matter one point of interest which emerges is that the property of this town “boss” was rated at a lower figure than its true value warranted. The Brockett Papers in Gateshead Central Reference Library contain material on the administration of the poor law in that area.

        page 104 note 1 The Times, 17/7/1838, and a number of relevant letters of July 1838 in MH 12/9096. Letters of May 1840 are in same volume.

        History in Focus

        During the 19th and early 20th centuries a considerable number of Irish people were vulnerable to want. How to respond to poverty in Ireland and to the social problems associated with it, exercised the minds of economists, politicians and philanthropists throughout this period. After more than three decades of inquiry and debate over the desirability and feasibility of introducing a statutory system of poor relief, the Irish poor law was passed by the Westminster parliament in 1838. Modelled on the new English poor law of 1834, this act introduced a nationwide system of poor relief based on the workhouse and financed by a local property tax. The poor law remained the primary form of poor relief in Ireland until the 1920s, and in Northern Ireland until after the Second World War.

        The popular view of the Irish poor law is dominated by the image of the workhouse. Built according to a standard plan, Irish workhouses were forbidding structures that became a significant architectural feature of the Irish countryside. The workhouse reformer, Laura Stephens, observed that a visitor to an Irish town would have no difficulty in recognising the workhouse 'for the great gloomy pile of grey stone buildings, surrounded with high walls is unmistakable'. (2) Prior to the Great Famine (1845-50), relief was only available within the workhouse. Under the pressure of mass starvation and with many workhouses full to overflowing, the system was extended in 1847 to allow poor law boards to grant outdoor relief to the sick and disabled, and to widows with two or more legitimate children. Outdoor relief could only be granted to the able-bodied if the workhouse was full, or a site of infection. Anyone occupying more than one quarter of an acre of land, however, was excluded from receiving relief. The effect of this provision, when combined with falling rent rolls, and the liability of landlords to pay the poor rates on holdings worth less than £4 per annum, was to encourage landlords to evict their smallest tenants. Workhouse occupancy rose from around 417,000 in 1847, to around 932,000 by the end of 1849. (3)

        The experience of the Famine was crucial to the development and perception of the Irish poor law, not least because the association in the public mind between workhouses and famine deaths intensified popular aversion to the system. Moreover, the rate-in-aid scheme by which loans to distressed unions were repaid by means of a levy on more prosperous unions represented a departure from one of the fundamental principles of the poor law, that poor relief should be a local charge. And by making relief a national but not imperial charge the government missed the opportunity to make the political union of 1800 a practical reality, a fact that Irish nationalists were quick to exploit. The Famine became a central component of nationalist ideology in the second half of the 19th century, providing compelling evidence of the failure of the British government and the Irish landed elite to act in the interests of the Irish people.

        Once the demands imposed by large-scale distress had eased, most Irish boards of guardians sought to minimise outdoor relief, accepting the official view that this form of relief was expensive and demoralising. As the century continued, however, the number of people receiving outdoor relief began to creep up, although levels of outdoor relief remained low in comparison with Britain. At the same time total expenditure on poor relief also rose. Inmates of Irish workhouses were drawn predominantly from the most vulnerable groups in society, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the homeless and children. For those on the fringes of society the workhouse was a central element of the mixed economy of makeshifts. However, large sections of the population and especially the prominent class of agricultural labourers and small farmers had little if any experience of indoor or outdoor relief in the post-Famine years. This was to alter in the closing decades of the 19th century, when acute economic distress once again acted as a catalyst to change. After a period of relative economic prosperity, Ireland underwent an economic crisis in the years 1879-81. With the threat of famine once again hanging over the country, restrictions on the granting of outdoor relief were relaxed in distressed districts so that all destitute people, including the able-bodied and land-holders, could receive relief outside the workhouse. The lifting of these restrictions meant the temporary abandonment of the workhouse test in distressed areas. Government-sanctioned use of outdoor relief to assist people during times of economic crisis encouraged, and by implication legitimated, its use more generally.

        By the mid-1880s, recipients of outdoor relief made up 56 per cent of the average daily total receiving relief compared with just over 10 per cent in the early 1860s. This was the reverse of the situation in England where levels of outdoor relief declined in many areas in the period from the 1870s to the 1890s. Increases in Ireland were particularly marked in the provinces of Munster and Connacht (see map). Between 1878 and 1894, the per centage of the daily total receiving outdoor as opposed to indoor relief increased from 40 per cent to 65 per cent in Munster and from 37 per cent to 60 per cent in Connacht. (4) In Westport Union in County Mayo, the total number of people granted outdoor relief in any one year had not exceeded 50 in the decades prior to 1881. After this date, total numbers returned were in the hundreds in normal years and in the thousands in bad years. In most Ulster unions by contrast, outdoor recipients remained a minority of both daily and yearly totals. There were both economic and political reasons for this. Rateable land values in Munster and Connacht were generally lower than in Ulster indicating lower agricultural incomes and greater vulnerability to economic downturns. And at a time when many boards of guardians in Munster and Connacht were coming under the control of locally elected, tenant guardians, those in Ulster remained largely landlord-dominated. Landlord-controlled boards across the country adhered more closely to the workhouse test than those controlled by tenants, the latter being more responsive to local sentiment in favour of outdoor relief which was popularly regarded as being both more economical and more acceptable to the respectable, deserving poor. (5)

        The concept of the deserving and undeserving poor was central to welfare provision throughout this period. Generally associated with middle-class values and perceptions, and often assumed to be an English importation to Ireland, the concept nevertheless became deeply rooted in Irish popular culture. The respectable poor, those who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, such as the elderly and disabled, were regarded as deserving of sympathy and relief while those lacking respectability such as vagrants and prostitutes were felt to deserve not assistance but punishment. One of the main criticisms of the poor law system in Ireland was that it failed to discriminate adequately between the respectable and the non-respectable since all destitute people were eligible for relief within the workhouse. Speaking at a public meeting in Granard, County Longford, in 1885, a local Catholic priest asserted that the workhouse system had 'failed miserably. The old and the young, the sane and the crazy, the impure and the virtuous were all huddled into the one institution'. (6)

        Irish nationalists seized on the popular view of the workhouse system as an alien imposition unsuited to Irish culture and society to argue that there would be no need for workhouses in a home rule Ireland. Put an end to evictions and increase employment through industrial development, the nationalist activist and land campaigner, Michael Davitt argued, and 'the workhouse will disappear from the social life of Ireland', to be replaced by a system that did not degrade, but would provide succour 'for the helpless and deserving poor against the inevitable misfortune of life'. (7) As the struggle for independence intensified, the British came to be held responsible not just for the workhouse system but for the social evils associated with it. Vagrancy, like prostitution, was linked to the presence of the British army in Ireland. A free and independent Ireland would see a radical reduction in the ranks of the undeserving poor as well as more equitable treatment of the deserving poor. Even Unionists who supported the link with Britain, criticised the workhouse system as wasteful and inefficient. Poor law guardians in Ulster were in the forefront of a campaign in the 1870s and 1880s to amalgamate union workhouses on the grounds that the majority of them were under-utilised and excessively costly to maintain.

        The rising levels of expenditure on poor relief in the post-Famine period, together with the increasing use of the workhouse as a refuge for the elderly and the sick, paralleled developments in England. On the first Saturday in January 1900, 73 per cent of the inmates of Irish workhouses were classified as elderly, infirm or sick. (8) But in Ireland poor law boards became involved in wider range of functions than was the case in England. Their responsibilities encompassed the administration of a dispensary medical service and the provision of social housing as well as the implementation of public health legislation. Poor relief became one element of a general system of health and welfare administration. The character and evolution of this system reflected the particular circumstances of Ireland as well as the efforts of British governments to counter the appeal of Irish nationalism through the promotion of social and economic development. In England the growth in state spending in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected a developing consensus around the benefits of centrally-sponsored welfare initiatives. In Ireland state spending was associated with waste and inefficiency and widely regarded as a tardy and inadequate response to centuries of neglect and misgovernment. Despite general agreement on the evils of the workhouse system, there was little public debate on the kind of welfare system that should replace it, or how this should be financed.

        Workhouses were formally abolished in independent Ireland in 1925 when boards of guardians were replaced by boards of health and public assistance, financed by a county rate and empowered to grant outdoor relief to all needy persons. Workhouse buildings were mostly converted into hospitals or county homes for the elderly and infirm. But if the poor no longer lived in fear of the workhouse, it is questionable whether in terms of the relief available to them they benefited significantly from the transition. In Northern Ireland the poor law survived until 1948 although there was a significant reduction in the numbers receiving indoor relief in the inter-war period. Amalgamation allowed for the conversion of a number of workhouses into district hospitals and by 1948 only a handful of workhouses were still operating. The poor law system was finally swept away in the reorganisation of local government administration and health services that took place between 1946 and 1948 when Northern Ireland followed Britain in the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state with universal benefits and free to all health services.

        A harsh regime

        The meagre workhouse diet consisted of gruel, bread and cheese, with soup or meat and potatoes once a week. Water was the only drink (tea was a privilege for the elderly) and work was punishing women made sacks or worked in the kitchen and laundry while men chopped wood or ground corn.

        In 1856 the Lunacy Commission commented that the huge insane wards in some workhouses were asylums "in everything but the attendance and appliances which insure (sic) … proper treatment". But asylums were intended only for those who could be cured or who were disruptive. This excluded 'harmless and incurable idiots', 10,000 of whom remained in the workhouses.

        Later on the workhouses were renamed 'public assistance institutions', and dwindled, but the last few lingered until 1948.

        Watch the video: Irelands Workhouses: TwistedHistory