New Poor Law of 1834 Worksheets
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- Background of the English Poor laws
- The 1832 Royal Commission
- Enactment of the New Poor Law of 1834
Key Facts And Information
Let’s find out more about the New Poor Law of 1834!
English Poor Laws had been established as early as the 14th century. During the reign of the Tudors, several legislations were passed dealing with vagabonds, beggars and the poor. Under Elizabeth I, the Old Poor Law of 1601 was issued, becoming the basis of the poor law system in England and Wales for many years. The New Poor Law of 1834 completely overhauled the old system, with the aims to reduce costs of looking after the poor and impose a system which would be the same all over the country. The implementation of the Act, however, proved difficult.
Background of the English Poor laws
- The English Poor Laws were a body of laws undertaking to provide relief for the poor in England and Wales that developed in the 16th century. Whilst there were much earlier medieval ordinances and Tudor laws that were concerned with the problems caused by vagrants and beggars, the first legislation to deal with the poor was passed in the 1530s.
- In 1349, Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in response to the outbreak of Black Death in England during the period that led to a rapid decline in population. There was a great demand and competition for surviving workers in the agricultural economy, driving wages and prices up across the economy. This worsened the shortage conditions. Workers took this opportunity to flee employers and become freemen. As a result, additional laws were passed to punish escaped workers.
- In 1388, Richard II passed the Statute of Cambridge, which placed restrictions on the movement of labourers and beggars. Any labourer was prohibited from leaving the borough or county where he was living without the permission of the Justice of the Peace. ‘Impotent poor’ were to remain in the towns in which they were living. This forced each county to be responsible for relieving its own impotent poor. Lack of enforcement limited the effect of the statute.
- In 1495, during the reign of Henry VII, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act was passed, granting officers the authority to arrest and hold vagabonds and to punish the poor of England for simply being poor.
- In 1530, during the reign of Henry VIII, the Vagabonds Act decreed that strong vagabonds should be whipped and returned to the place of their birth. Repeat offenders could be mutilated or even executed. Additionally, the act directed the Justices of the Peace to assign to the impotent poor an area within which they were to beg.
- In 1547, under Edward VI, a further Vagabonds Act declared that people caught begging, or those who refused to work, could be forced to become a slave. They could be branded and chained. If a slave ran away three times, they could be sentenced to death.
- In 1552, Edward VI passed a Poor Act which assigned a position of Collector of Alms in each parish and created a register of licenced poor. Parish collections were assumed to relieve all poor, hence begging was completely prohibited. This act was extended under Mary I in 1555 and added a provision that licenced beggars must wear badges.
- In 1563, the Act for the Relief of the Poor was passed under Elizabeth I. It extended the 1555 Poor Act and provided that those who refused to contribute to poor relief could be fined.
- The Vagabonds Act of 1572 stipulated that if a vagabond was caught, they could be whipped and have a hole burnt through their ear. Persistent beggars should face death penalty. This act also enabled Justices of the Peace to survey and register the impotent poor, determine how much money was required for their relief, and then assess parish residents weekly for the appropriate amount.
- Also during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Poor Act of 1575 required towns to create ‘a competent stock of wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff’ for the poor to work on and houses of correction for those who refused to work where careless workers could be forced to work and punished accordingly.
- The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 established the Overseers of the Poor, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses.
- The 1597 act was refined and came to be known as the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601. It created a poor law system for England and Wales that was administered at parish level and paid for by levying local rates on rate payers. This saw a move away from the practice of punishing the poor towards methods of ‘correction’. This established what became known as the Old Poor Law and was the basis of poor relief in Britain for many years.
- Several amending pieces of legislation can be considered part of the Old Poor Law, which included the Poor Relief Act of 1662, Workhouse Test Act of 1723, Gilbert's Act of 1782 and the Speenhamland system of 1795.
The 1832 Royal Commission
The end of the French Wars saw industrial and agricultural depression and high unemployment. The period after 1815 saw a change in social attitudes to poverty. Overhauls of the poor law system were considered as it was criticised to be distorting the free market.
- In 1816, a Parliamentary Select Committee looked into reforming the system, which led to the enactment of the Sturges-Bourne Acts of 1818 and 1819 being passed.
- The Sturges-Bourne Acts enabled parishes to employ an assistant overseer whose main task was to inspect the poor and distribute relief.
- In 1817, the Poor Employment Act was passed in order “to authorise the issue of Exchequer Bills and the Advance of Money out of the Consolidated Fund, to a limited Amount, for the carrying on of Public Works and Fisheries in the United Kingdom and Employment of the Poor in Great Britain”.
- By 1820, workhouses were established to reduce the increasing cost of poor relief.
- Following the widespread destruction and machine breaking of the Swing Riots, the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was formed.
- The commission was made up of nine members such as Charles James Blomfield, William Sturges Bourne, John Bird Sumner, Nassau William Senior, Walter Coulson, Rev. Henry Bishop, Henry Gawler, James Traill and Edwin Chadwick.
- The main concerns of the Royal Commission included looking into the practices of the Old Poor Law, which were feared to have undermined the position of the independent labourer.
- Two overarching principles governed the proposal of the Commission:
- The “workhouse test” - that relief for the able-bodied should only be available in the workhouse
- “Less eligibility”- that the pauper should have to enter a workhouse with conditions worse than those of the poorest 'free' labourer outside of the workhouse
- The findings of the Poor Law Commissioners were published in thirteen volumes and suggested radical changes to English Poor Laws such as:
- Separate workhouses should be created for different types of paupers including aged, children, able-bodied males and able-bodied females.
- Parishes should be grouped into unions in order to spread the cost of workhouses.
- A ban on outdoor relief, or relief given outside a workhouse, which would require people to enter workhouses to claim relief.
- A central authority should be appointed to implement the policies and to prevent the variation that occurred under the Old Poor Law.
- The recommendations of the report passed easily through Parliament, as there was strong support from both the Whigs and the Tories. They were quickly made into a bill. A few who opposed the bill were more concerned about the centralisation which it would bring rather than its philosophy.
Enactment of the New Poor Law of 1834
- The bill was passed by the government of Lord Melbourne and gained Royal Assent in 1834. It was called the Poor Law Amendment Act, also known as the New Poor Law of 1834, and largely implemented the findings of the 1832 Royal Commission.
- Despite being named an ‘Amendment Act’, the New Poor Law completely revamped the existing system.
- Whilst the aim of the Act was to reduce costs of looking after the poor and impose a system which would be the same all over the country, the method of financing of the poor law system was not reformed.
- It established a three-man Poor Law Commission that would oversee the national operation of the system, including:
- grouping small parishes into Poor Law Unions large enough to support a workhouse
- construction of workhouses in each union if they did not already have one
- election of a Board of Guardians by rate-payers and property owners in each union
- setting the number and salaries of employees and directing their dismissal
- setting the ‘classification’ of workhouse inmates and the extent to which outdoor relief could be given
- The Poor Law Commission was initially made up of:
- Thomas Frankland Lewis
- George Nicholls
- John George Shaw Lefevre
- The Commission's powers enabled it to specify policies for each Poor Law Union, which meant that policies did not have to be uniform.
- The rollout of the administration arrangements of the New Poor Law began with the southern counties.
- Problems with the New Poor Law
- The implementation of the Act proved impossible, most notably in the industrial north which suffered from cyclical unemployment.
- The Act’s aims to transfer unemployed rural workers to urban areas where there was work, and protect urban ratepayers from paying excessively proved impossible to achieve.
- The Act was implemented differently and unevenly across England and Wales, as local Boards of Guardians interpreted the law to suit the interests of their own parishes.
- The poor working-class, including the agricultural labourers and factory workers, opposed the Act because the diet in workhouses was inadequate to sustain worker’s health and nutrition and conditions inside the workhouse were deliberately harsh.
- The New Poor Law was generally unpopular. Many workers, politicians and religious leaders opposed the Act, demanding for its amendment and the removal of the harsh measures of the workhouses. The Andover workhouse scandal prompted an investigation of the Poor Law Commission. Consequently, the Commission was replaced with a Poor Law Board, which was under much closer government supervision and parliamentary scrutiny.