BoAr: Poor Law         Latest edit 35 Jun 2008


The Bourne Archive


The English Poor Law

This text is taken, with thanks, from Wikipedia (9 July 2006) and placed here so that its relevance to Bourne could be developed and bookmarks inserted to provide appropriate inward links for references. It includes also, some additional outward links relevant to Bourne.


The Poor Law was the system for the provision of social security in operation in England and later, the United Kingdom, from the 16th century until the establishment of the Welfare State in the 20th century. The need for it was felt after the relief work formerly done by monastic institutions was no longer available owing to the dissolution of the monasteries in the period 1536 to 39. The Poor Law was composed of several Acts of Parliament and subsequent Amendments. The developments made during its long life meant that some of the generalisations made about the Poor Law (for example the use of workhouses) refer to only a part of its history. 

The classification of the poor

During the time of the Poor Law system in Britain, the poor fell mainly into three categories:


·        The 'impotent' poor could not look after themselves or go to work. They included the ill, the infirm, the elderly, and children with no-one to properly care for them. It was generally held that they should be looked after.

·        The able-bodied poor normally referred to those who were unable to find work - owing either to cyclical or to long term unemployment in the area, or to a lack of locally demanded skills. Attempts to assist these people, and move them out of this category, varied over the centuries, but usually consisted of relief either in the form of work or of money.

·        The ‘idle’ poor: 'vagrants' or 'beggars', sometimes termed 'sturdy rogues', were deemed those who could work but had refused to. Such people were seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as potential criminals, apt to do mischief when given paid employment. They were normally seen as people needing punishment, and as such were often whipped in the market place as an example to others, or sometimes sent to so-called 'houses of correction'.

Poor relief before 1601 (Tudor Poor Law)

Tudor Poor Laws aimed to deal with vagrancy. They were laws aimed at reducing begging. While appearing humanitarian, they were more prompted by a desire for social stability. Tudor Poor Laws were harsh towards the able bodied poor - whippings and beatings were accepted punishments.

·        1552 - Parishes began to register those considered 'poor'.

·        1563 - Justices of the Peace began to collect money for poor relief. The poor were grouped for the first time into the impotent poor, idle poor and able-bodied poor (unemployed).

·        1572 - First local poor tax to fund poor relief.

·        1576 - Idea of a workhouse first suggested. It is first suggested that JPs could provide materials for which the able-bodied could work in return for relief.

·        1579 - Justices of the Peace authorised to collect funds for poor relief. The post of Overseer of the Poor was created.

  • 1595 'Buttock Mail', a Scottish Poor Rate is levied.

The Act of 1601

Acts of 1536, 1572, 1576 and 1597 prescribed relief for the poor on a parish basis.  The Act of 1572 made poor relief the subject of local taxation, while the 1576 Act made provision for "setting the poor on work and for avoidance of idleness", including the creation of "houses of correction" for persistent idlers.


The '''Poor Law Act 1601''' formalised earlier practices.  It created a national system, paid for by levying local rates (that is, property taxes).  It made provision:


·        to board out (making a payment to families willing to accept them) those young children who were orphaned or whose parents could not maintain them,

·        to provide materials to "set the poor on work"

·        to offer relief to people who were unable to work; mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind", and

·        "the putting out of children to be apprentices".


Relief for those too ill or old to work, the so called 'impotent' poor, was in the form of a payment or items of food ('the parish loaf') or clothing. (In this connection, the Harrington Charity, in Bourne was endowed in 1657.)   Some aged people might be accommodated in parish alms houses, though these were usually private charitable institutions. (In this connection, the Fisher Charity, in Bourne was endowed in 1627 and the Trollope Charity in 1636.) Meanwhile able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in ''houses of correction''.  However, provision for the many able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was relatively unusual, and most workhouses developed later. (Nonetheless, Sir Thomas Trollope left money in 1654, for the erection of a workhouse in Bourne and in 1660; Wilcox left money to help run it.) Assistance given to the deserving poor, which did not involve an institution like the workhouse, was known as 'outdoor relief'.


There was much variation in the application of the law and there was a tendency for the destitute to migrate towards the more generous parishes, usually situated in the towns.  This led to the Settlement Act 1662, which allowed relief only to established residents of a parish - mainly through birth, marriage and apprenticeship. A pauper applicant had to prove a 'settlement'. (For example, see FNQ177.) If they could not, they were removed to the parish that was nearest to the place of their birth, or where they might prove some connection. Some paupers were moved hundreds of miles. Although each parish that they passed through was not responsible for them, it was supposed to supply food and drink and shelter for at least one night. The Act was criticised in later years for its effect in distorting the labour market, through the power given to parishes to let them remove 'undeserving' poor.


Some of the legislation was punitive.  In 1697, an act was passed requiring the poor to wear a "badge" of red or blue cloth on the right shoulder with an embroidered letter "P" and the initial of their parish.  However, this was often disregarded.  Alcock complained, in 1752, that "these marks of distinction have had but little effect, and for that reason, I suppose, have been almost everywhere neglected."

The eighteenth century

The eighteenth-century workhouse movement began at the end of the seventeenth century with the establishment of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor, founded by Act of Parliament in 1696.  The corporation established a workhouse which combined housing and care of the poor with a house of correction for petty offenders.  Following the example of Bristol, some twelve further towns and cities established similar corporations in the next two decades.  Because these corporations required a private Act of Parliament, they were too expensive for smaller towns and individual parishes to initiate.


Starting with the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1714 several dozen small towns and individual parishes established their own institutions without any specific legal authorization. These were concentrated in the South Midlands and in the county of Essex.  From the late 1710s the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge began to promote the idea of parochial (parish) workhouses.  The Society published several pamphlets on the subject, and supported Sir Edward Knatchbull, in his successful efforts to steer the Workhouse Test Act through parliament in 1723. The act gave legislative authority for the establishment of parochial workhouses, by both single parishes and as joint ventures between two or more parishes.  More importantly, the Act helped to publicise the idea of establishing workhouses to a national audience.  By 1776 some 1912 parish and corporation workhouses had been established in England and Wales, housing almost 100,000 paupers.  Although many parishes and pamphlet writers expected to earn money from the labour of the poor in workhouses, the vast majority of people obliged to take up residence in workhouses were ill, elderly, or children whose labour proved largely unprofitable.  The demands, needs and expectations of the poor also ensured that workhouses came to take on the character of general social policy institutions, combining the functions of crčche, and night shelter, geriatric ward and orphanage. 


In 1782, Thomas Gilbert finally succeeded in passing an act that established ''poor houses'' solely for the aged and infirm and introduced a system of outdoor relief for the able-bodied.  This was the basis for the development of the Speenhamland system, which made financial provision for low-paid workers.


Dissatisfaction with the system grew at the beginning of the 19th century. The 1601 system was felt to be too costly and was widely perceived as encouraging the underlying problems - pushing more people into poverty even while it helped those who were already in poverty.  Because, with the system’s support, people were able to accept lower wages for their outside work, the wages offered to all workers tended to fall in value. Jeremy Bentham argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems, whilst the writings of Thomas Malthus focused attention on the problem of overpopulation, and the growth of illegitimacy.  David Ricardo argued that there was an "iron law of wages".  The effect of poor relief, in the view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the "independent labourer".  


In the period following the Napoleonic Wars, when the national economy was particularly weak and the labour supply augmented by military disbandments, several reformers sought to alter the function of the "poorhouse" into the model for a deterrent workhouse. The Southwell Workhouse was significant in the developments of this stage.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834

In 1832, a royal commission was launched to review the operation of the system. It was strongly influenced by Nassau Senior who did much of the work involved with diagnosing the problems and proposing and implementing solutions. In the view of the reformers, two measures under the old Poor Law had particularly served to undermine the position of the independent labourer.  One was the provision of out-relief, such as the "Speenhamland system", (named after the parish in which it was conceived) where the families of labourers were given money proportional to the price of bread.  The system was seen as a support for low wages, and was believed to create an incentive to employers to reduce wages below the subsistence level.  The other was the use of pauper labour - the labour rate system where rate payers took it in turn to employ the able-bodied poor, and the roundsman system, where rate payers chose whether to pay the poor rate or employ able-bodied poor for a set period of time.  This was believed to undercut the labour market.


The Royal Commission's findings, which had most probably been predetermined, were that the old system was badly and expensively run. The Commission's recommendations were based on two core principles. The first was "less eligibility": that the position of the pauper should be less eligible than that of the independent labourer. In modern terms, this means that it should be seen by the poor person as the less desirable option. The other was the "workhouse test", that relief should be available only in the workhouse. The reformed workhouses were to be uninviting, so that anyone capable of coping elsewhere would choose not to be in one.


When the act was introduced however it had been partly watered down. The workhouse test and the idea of "less eligibility" were not directly mentioned, and the core recommendation of the Royal Commission - that 'outdoor' relief (relief given to those not living in a workhouse) should be abolished - was never implemented nationally.


The bill established a Poor Law Board to oversee the operation of the system nationally. This included the grouping of small parishes to form '''Poor Law Unions''', or simply ''Unions'', which were jointly responsible for the administration and funding of the Poor Law in their area. For the parishes in the Bourne Union, see White 1882. The areas of the Unions were based where convenient on existing local administrative units, such as the hundreds, but where these were not suitable, they were disregarded and new units established. (The areas of the Unions were later used for other functions, such as the districts for civil registration).  See the Victorian Web account of the Poor Law. The Unions were run by '''Boards of Guardians''', partly elected by ratepayers, but also including magistrates.


The shortcomings of the system and the abuses by its administrators are documented in the novels of Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope.  The perceived injustices of the system were widely and vividly illustrated in fiction. The most notable contributions include:

*''It is Christmas Day in the workhouse'' by George Robert Sims

*''Oliver Twist'' by Charles Dickens

Dickens made his opinion absolutely explicit in the Postscript to ''Our Mutual Friend''


“That my view of the Poor Law may not be mistaken or misrepresented, I will state it.  I believe there has been in England, since the days of the STUARTS, no law so often infamously administered, no law so often openly violated, no law habitually so ill-supervised.  In the majority of the shameful cases of disease and death from destitution, that shock the Public and disgrace the country, the illegality is quite equal to the inhumanity—and known language could say no more of their lawlessness.”


Despite the aspirations of the reformers, the Poor Law was unable to make the workhouse as bad as life outside: one attempt to do so, at the Andover workhouse, led to a national scandal in 1846.  The administrators of the Poor Law came increasingly to rely on the "stigma" or shame associated with the Poor Law.  The "deserving poor" might be dealt with differently - the Charity Organisation Society, working primarily in London, advocated a firm distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the Poor Law was directed at the "undeserving".


The Poor Law was for some decades the only local administration in much of the United Kingdom, and the powers of the Guardians were gradually expanded to include certain aspects of education, public health and hospitals.  This system became the basis for local government in England and Wales. The Local Government Board took over some functions from the Poor Law in 1871, while other functions (such as education, hospitals and welfare provision) were transferred to local government in later periods. This was a very late example of the long process of small steps by which the wapentake was superseded as an administrative unit. By the mid-nineteenth century this process was virtually complete.

The end of the Poor Law

The reforms of the Liberal Government 1906-14 made several provisions to provide social services without the stigma of the Poor Law, including Old age pensions and National Insurance, and from that period fewer people were covered by the system.  Means tests were developed during the inter-war period, not as part of the Poor Law, but as part of the attempt to offer relief that was not affected by the stigma of pauperism.


Workhouses were officially abolished by the Local Government Act 1929, which from 1 April 1930 abolished the Unions and transferred their responsibilities to the county councils and county boroughs. Some however persisted into the 1940s.  The remaining responsibility for the Poor Law was given to local authorities before final abolition in 1948. Nonetheless, the building was often used for social welfare purposes. That at Southwell, Nottinghamshire was used for emergency accommodation of families and Bourne workhouse was taken over by the National Health Service, modified a little, re-named St. Peter’s Hospital and used to accommodate severely handicapped people.

See also

A summary of the history of the English poor. (Victorian Web)

Links to Poor Law topics (Web of English History)

Links to Wikipedia articles relating to the Poor Law.

Poorhouse and Almshouse (Lincolnshire Gen Web Project)

The Old Poor Law (Web of English History)

Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (Wikipedia)

A’ level notes on the Poor Law (Funky)

Sources of further archive material concerning Bourne Poor Law Union (Genuki)

Ball’s list of Bourne charities (BoAr)

White’s Directory, 1882, describes the organization of Bourne Union. (BoAr)

The parishes of the Bourne Union, as they were in 1843, including poor rates, are summarized on the Parliamentary Gazetteer pages. (BoAr)

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