The Poor Law

The Reformed Poor Law after 1834

From its institution in 1603 to its final abolition in 1929, the provision of relief under the Poor Law was continually fluctuating between giving relief outside the workhouse and giving relief within the workhouse. This applied to all parishes from time to time and at different times as local circumstances dictated. Under the New Poor Law created in 1834 by the Poor Law Amendment Act, the norm was that relief should be provided within the Union Workhouse, although outdoor relief did not entirely disappear. The workhouse was not to be made too comfortable. A certain amount of extra provision was supposed to be made for the old and infirm (old couples could be together if sufficient double bedrooms were available); but the inevitable harsh conditions for these persons was justified on the grounds that they should have provided for their old age or that children should be prepared to look after their parents.

The insistence on the separation rules was not just to make life harder but was also an administrative convenience. Married couples together would lead to quarrels, difficulties and disturbance unless there was sufficient provision for privacy. But privacy cost money. Employment for the able-bodied was insisted on. Women did the laundry and cleaning. So many were without trades that menial and mindless work was preferred to occupy the pauper’s time like picking oakum or breaking stones for roads. Women would do knitting, weaving or some straw plaiting. Gangs of men would do work about the area like clearing public places of weeds and rubbish or repairing roads. The most useful work was in the allotments attached to the Workhouse where much of the food for the inmates was grown. Rules were established for the sorts of work to be carried out. In 1840, for instance, an able-bodied man was expected to be provided with and pick 1lb of oakum a day. It appears that bureaucratic red tape is not a modern invention.

The Workhouse in the early days was very much like a prison; inmates were not normally allowed to leave its bounds unless under supervision. Church going on a Sunday was expected and considered morally uplifting. Some workhouses would have an Anglican service within it or the inmates would go to the local parish church. Nonconformists were allowed out to go to their own chapels and congregations. Some inmates, given a chance, would use the Workhouse to rest up for a while and then abscond, normally still wearing the Workhouse clothes. These absconders, if caught, would be taken before magistrates. If the official accounts can be believed, there was little punishment of inmates within the workhouse itself. Most miscreants would be sent before the magistrate for punishment. In 1850, punishments within the workhouse could be confinement to the house. In 1860, a diet of bread and water could be prescribed.

The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 created a standard hierarchy of officials: the Governor(Master)*, a Matron, a Relieving Officer*, a Clerk*, a Schoolmaster, a Schoolmistress and a Medical Officer. The “*” represents those who handled money. Their appointment required two sureties.

All these officers were subject to the Guardians of the Poor as set up by the Act. While this number of officers was the ideal, a school master or mistress was often a little while in coming. This is not surprising when one considers that education was not a universal provision outside the workhouse and could not easily be regarded as mandatory within it.

The duties of the Governor or Master of the Workhouse were all embracing, much like the Captain of a ship. He had to bring in the poor, read to them the rules, enforce them, feed and clothe and employ the inmates, generally run the place down to the finest detail. The Governor was responsible to the Guardians, particularly for monies received and the manner spent.

In Hitchin, 1841, there were four Guardians. They employed a Governor at GBP100 a year plus food and, probably, board as well. The Matron was normally the Governor’s wife so that she was employed for nothing. An unmarried Governor would be discouraged or have a cut in annual income. At Hitchin in 1834, a schoolmaster/mistress was advertised for at £50 a year plus coals and candles. Therefore, the wages for the time were not that bad but there was not much status in any of the jobs except that of Governor or Relieving Officer. The first governor in Hitchin was “poor, fat John Manning” (William Lucas Jr.). Hitchin was remarkable in that there was a considerable amount of conflict among the Guardians - a clash between those members of the Established Church and the many Nonconformists in the town. The well known William Lucas was a member of the Society of Friends. The position which eventually became the most important was that of Clerk. He became the registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. He became eventually the lowly named but important Town Clerk.

The Guardians as a class were men of some presence in the community. They expected to have authority and tended to retain it. They were the only semblance of a public authority presence outside the Boroughs. As a class, they were the men who took up responsibility for the water supply, sewerage, rubbish collection etc., separate authorities gradually required during the 19th Century but of necessity and by inclination active at a local level. They were a class increasingly requested to supply the government’s Commissioner of the Clerk for Statistics the number of Children under 9, the sorts of diseases prevailing, the numbers infected etc. It was the same class of men who worked closely with the Justices of the Peace in the well ordering of the neighbourhood and, when the powers of the Justices declined in the administration of local matters, joined with them in standing for election to the local and county councils created in the local government reforms of 1888.

Under the reformed Poor Law, in spite of the insistence that those receiving relief should enter the workhouse, outdoor relief was never abolished entirely. Often it was cheaper to provide and more expedient. Sometimes it suited the local landowners and farmers, normally represented on the Board of Guardians, not to have a cheap source of labour bottled up in the workhouse when they could have a partially subsidised workforce working for them. Widows could receive six month’s relief to tide them over. Widows with children would generally get outside relief in any event unless they then proceeded to have a bastard. They would then be packed bag and baggage into the workhouse. The parish was not in favour of giving outside relief to “whores”.

There were no moral guidelines for outside relief. Half of it had to be given in kind (fuel, food etc.). Stories circulated of the poor being given poisoned bread. Whether true or not, such stories indicate a prevailing view that there was an overall lack of generosity and a tendency to humiliate the needy. The framers of the Poor Law Amendment would have applauded this because the Workhouse and poor relief was designed as the last resort for the poor and the poor, themselves, were not backward in realising this. Many would rather starve than go into the workhouse. Outdoor relief, however, was more acceptable, the old way of doing things. The Guardians employed contractors to supply bread and flour, also things like coffins, for the outdoor relief of the poor. Lists had to be kept of all those on outdoor relief, the non-regulars of the district, and tightly control the disbursement of funds.

The Problem of Settlement

The history of poor relief, both before and after 1834, is plagued by the problem of Settlement, even up to the 20th century until the Unions were finally abolished. The principle behind Settlement was that each person had his place: a place of birth, a place of residence, a place of work. There is this continual distinction between the worthy poor that belong to the district and the beggar or vagrant who, if passing through, must be pushed on his way with harsh words or transported back to his place of settlement where he could receive relief. It led to some atrocious anomalies and injustices. For instance, up until the 1720’s, families could be split up, children being sent back to their place of birth even if only a few month’s old. Even after 1834, the children of widows receiving relief would be separated from their mothers as early as possible, probably as young as seven years, to be sent back to their place of birth.

The Poor Law acts instituted by Elizabeth I did not include the rules of settlement. The various acts to control vagrancy and migrating travellers were thought sufficient. But acts passed after that date sought to control and codify those entitled to relief in greater detail. The rules of Settlement and the Acts of Settlement should be considered part of but separate from the various acts for Poor Law relief.

The final version of the rules of Settlement, before they were radically amended by the Act of 1834, stated that settlement could be obtained as follows:

BIRTH - A legitimate birth where the child received the settlement of the parent, be it father, mother or grandparents;

MARRIAGE - By lawful marriage to a man with a legal settlement in the parish. A wife was considered the property of the husband and could adopt his rights.

UNDERTAKING PARISH OFFICE - One could obtain a settlement through being elected as Constable, Overseer etc.

PROPERTY OWNERSHIP - Owning property valued at £10 a year minimum. These rules changed over time but, generally speaking, property owners received a settlement in the parish. They would be obliged, after all, to contribute to the parish rates and have their names entered into the rate book

PAYING PARISH RATES FOR ONE YEAR - Similar to the previous rule

ARTICLES OF APPRENTICESHIP - A legally indentured apprentice would receive the Settlement rights of his employer. However, it was where he laid his head, his residence, rather than where he worked which controlled the rule.

HIRED SERVICE FOR ONE YEAR - Single men or women contracted for hire for a year would receive a settlement in the parish where they slept. This contract could be taken up at Statutory Hiring Fairs, of which there were many, or by a binding agreement between master and servant. Contracts were often terminated early by the employer to avoid a servant from receiving a settlement within a parish.

INHERITING A PARENT’S SETTLEMENT - Bastards would take the settlement of their parents, if known. Otherwise, they took settlement from their place of birth. By parents, this could also mean grandparents or even great grandparents.

The rules on settlement were to protect the ratepayers. The rates were to provide for one’s own, not strangers. The 1662 Poor Law Relief Act (Law of Settlement and Removal) established the basic settlement rules. People were not expected to move much. If they did want to move, the parish could give them a certificate of their place of settlement. After all, farmers did need labourers from outside the parish to bring in the harvest. In relatively recent times the migration to the hop and apple fields of Kent in due season was a well known and popular event for the able poor of London.

In 1834, Parliament moved to abandon all settlement provisions. However, lawyers talked out the proposals for the very good reason that settlement disputes were a very good source of income for them. Compare this with their opposition to contemporary proposals to simplify house buying and the transfer of property. Officially, settlement rules were not abolished until 1948.

During the 19th Century, the enforcement of the settlement rules got out of hand and ridiculously expensive. A receiving parish had to have at least one month’s notice before receiving a pauper found in another parish. Disputes would arise as to whether the pauper was removable or irremovable. To be irremovable, the pauper had to be resident in the parish, not his place of settlement, for 5 years. This pauper could not then be transported back but, with logical inefficiency, the cost of the pauper could be charged to the parish of Settlement. In 1865, the Union area, not the parish, was decreed the place of settlement. This avoided the nonsense of transporting people from one parish to another within the same Union (although, if the pauper was resident in the Workhouse, the movement could/must have been only an accounting entry).

A married woman was in a very precarious position if her husband died. Her goods and property were deemed belonging to her husband on marriage (The Married Woman’s Property Act of 1874 allowed married women to own goods and property in their own right). And children of the marriage, being considered non-persons, were an attachment to their parents until the child was aged 16. If both parents died, orphans could be and were sent back to any surviving grandparents. To summarise, the settlement rules brought parishes and Unions face to face in conflict. The lawyers had a wonderful time.

Health, Education and Charitable Provision

Because of the Poor Law, charities for the poor and needy continued apace. The 19th Century, indeed, is noted for the increase in charitable institutions. Almshouses tended to decline in number but charity schools became more numerous until the State took on its full responsibility for education.

The establishment of charity schools became more common from the 18th Century onward. They were not very uniform in style or status. They were often established for the education of local tradesmen. During the 19th Century, more so-called ragged schools were established to teach the 3Rs (Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic). It was not an uncommon idea that the poor needed no education. This compares with the view that the poor had no feelings when their children died - possibly because grief found expression in drunkenness, over exuberance or excessiveness in behaviour. But these reactionary views did change gradually. In a more refined form, the argument became transformed: because poverty was a disease of the working classes (“the surplus population”), education was required to maintain their station, to make them into “useful” citizens. In our day we would say that it makes economic sense to educate people.

The protection of children was considered important. Charles Dickens did much to horrify the middle-classes when describing baby farms and the harridans that ran them. He pointed out the social conditions that created such horrors. He did more than many official reports because he was a popular novelist and got into more homes. Who can forget Oliver Twist in the parish orphanage or the corruption Nicholas Nickleby found at Dotheboys Hall? But writing about it was far from doing anything about it. However, the climate for change improved. During the cholera epidemic of 1863, Dr. Barnado worked in Whitechapel at the London Hospital and was horrified by the number of newly orphaned children who could not be absorbed back into their families. This drove him to establish his children’s home. At the time he was also a “ragged school” teacher.

The Workhouse was expected to run a school. The poorhouse teacher was often untrained and very poor. Sometimes they would have a “Certificate of Competency”. Much of the schooling put emphasis on religion and subjects would run round religious topics: a map of the world would be on the wall, the Empire in red, together with a map of the British Isles and a map of Palestine. In 1847, John Strickland was the schoolmaster for the Hitchin Workhouse. He earned £35 a year plus rations and lodgings and had been previously employed as a schoolmaster. Apparently, he and the Governor did not get on.

Health of the Workhouse inmates was a further responsibility. The position of doctor to the Workhouse, a badly paid and troublesome duty, was farmed out to a local physician. This doctor would have to treat not only Workhouse inmates but those outside as part of outside relief (permission was needed from the Relieving Officer).

The medical service was sometimes grudging and poor. The physician would not always attend himself, sending instead his lowliest assistant. It was not unknown that a physician would claim attendance expenses and be found later not to have attended a patient at all. In 1842, it was ruled that medical attendants should have some medical qualifications. In 1852, smallpox vaccination became compulsory so the Guardians were obliged to improve the medical service somewhat. In 1854, the Poor Law Commission managed to force through the ruling that the post of medical attendant should be advertised at a salary, rather than being farmed out at cost. Then the attendant could stay in place until death, retirement or dismissal from the profession.

The limited hospital provisions in the Workhouse were under increasing strain. Patients with infectious diseases such as smallpox and typhus were unpopular in the Workhouse Infirmary (with good reason!) but they could not be turned away. The Workhouse Infirmary was used as a hospital for the poor. The Cholera epidemic was a major danger and there were pressing needs to establish a Fever Hospital or TB hospital for those needing special attention. It is no accident that many former Workhouses are now used as hospitals.

The building of hospitals was mirrored by the increased attention to public health. In 1880, Hitchin went onto mains water, having previously been supplied by wells. The change was pushed by the Hygiene Movement and the cholera epidemics between 1831 and 1864. Gradually, the Workhouse and provisions for the poor became more all embracing. The responsibilities of the Guardians were being continually constrained and guided by separate outside authorities set up to handle specialised duties with regard to health, water and education. Unions, too, joined together to handle local problems such as sewage disposal. For instance, Hitchin used the facilities of Bedford. By the end of the 19th Century, provision for the poor became transformed into the concept of provision for the public at large. When the Poor Law was abolished in 1929, it had already been overtaken by events and the poor were no longer considered on their own as a special case.

 
[Go top] top of page