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Able-bodied in United Kingdom

Table of Contents

The Able-Bodied and the 1834 Report

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: Apart from a few stray suggestions, it might almost be said that the Report of 1834 was entirely directed to the treatment of the adult able-bodied labourer, with the family dependent on him. Let us take, for example, the famous principle, already referred to, that the situation of “the individual relieved shall not,” on the whole, “be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.” This proposal, characterised as “the first and most essential of all conditions,” occurs, as a dogmatic assertion, in the discussion of the remedial measures to be applied to the able-bodied. It cannot be said to be clear from the Report whether the Commissioners wished this principle to be understood as applicable to the relief of any persons other than adult able-bodied wage-earners and their families. It is followed by forty-four pages of argument and illustration relating exclusively to the able-bodied wage-earner. These are summed up in a sentence at p. 279 (“If the vital evil of the system, relief to the able-bodied on terms more eligible than regular industry”), which points to the same limitation. The principle is not reasserted when the Commissioners, in quite other parts of their Report, make their few recommendations with regard to the aged, the sick, and the orphan poor. We have failed, indeed, even to satisfy ourselves from the context whether the Commissioners had in their minds the case of the adult able-bodied woman without a husband. Though there is no phrase or definition excluding the independent female wage-earner from the term “able-bodied,” the Commissioners frequently use this term as applicable to men only; and nowhere do they mention, in recommendation or by way of illustration, under the category of able-bodied, the independent woman worker.

When we pass to recommendations explicitly restricted to the able-bodied, we are left in the same uncertainty as to what the term includes. No definition of able-bodied occurs in the Report. From the course of the argument throughout and all the illustrations from the evidence, we infer that the Commissioners had exclusively in view the adult man capable of obtaining employment in the labour market at any wage whatsoever, together with his wife and children under sixteen dependent on him. It is important to notice this ambiguity in the Report of 1834, because it explains a similar ambiguity in the subsequent policy of Parliament and the Central Authority.

Assuming that we understand what classes of persons were intended by the Commissioners to be included under the term able-bodied, the proposals of the Report of 1834 are clear and peremptory:

I. That outdoor relief to the able-bodied and their families should be discontinued; except-

(a) As to medical relief; and

(b) Apprenticeship of children.

No other exceptions should be made. “Where cases of real hardship occur, the remedy must be applied by individual charity, a virtue for which no system of compulsory relief can or ought to be a substitute.” “It appears to us that this prohibition” (of outdoor relief to the able-bodied) “should come into universal operation at the end of two years,” Meanwhile, it was suggested-

(a) That there should be a gradual substitution of relief in kind for money doles;

(b) “That all who receive relief from the parish should work for the parish exclusively, as hard and for less wages than independent labourers work for individual employers.”

(c) That the able-bodied, even “of the best character,” should not be offered “more than a simple subsistence. The person of bad character, if he be allowed anything, could not be allowed less.”

That these recommendations had in view only the adult able-bodied person, capable of obtaining employment for wages, is supported by the explicit statement of the Commissioners that “the outdoor relief of which we have recommended the abolition is, in general, partial relief … at variance with the spirit of the 43rd of Elizabeth, for the framers of that Act could scarcely have intended that the overseers should ‘take order for setting to work’ those who have work and are engaged in work; nor could they by the words ‘all persons using no ordinary and daily trade of life to get their living by’ have intended to describe persons ‘who do use an ordinary and daily trade of life.'”

II. That the able-bodied should be offered maintenance in a workhouse. It is important to notice exactly what the Commissioners here proposed, with all the emphasis of large type. Relief to the able-bodied and their families was to be “in well-regulated workhouses (i.e. places where they may be set to work according to the spirit and intention of the 43rd of Elizabeth).”

These workhouses for the able-bodied were to be separate from the buildings in which the aged and the children were accommodated; they were to be under separate officers; and were expressly not to form part of one great establishment containing other classes of paupers. The character of the employment to be found for the able-bodied must also be noted, as the Commissioners made this a cardinal point. It will be remembered that the 43rd of Elizabeth directed that the overseers should obtain “a convenient stock of flax, hemp, wool, and other necessaries for the poor to work upon,” i.e. that they should “set the poor to work” on a normal productive enterprise. This principle is repeated and emphasised by the Commissioners. The employment to be found for the able-bodied “ought to be useful employment.” Fictitious, artificial, or useless labour was “pernicious,” and “ought to be carefully prevented…. The association of the utility of labour to both parties, the employer as well as the employed, is one which we consider it most important to preserve and strengthen; and we deem everything mischievous which unnecessarily gives to it a repulsive aspect. At the same time we believe that in extended districts the requisite sources of employment will be easily found. The supply of the articles consumed in workhouses and prisons would afford a large outlet for the manufactures carried on in the House.” They even refer with approval to outdoor employment as possible in most districts.

The Able-Bodied, the Act of 1834 and its Amendments

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: It was expressly provided that relief to the able-bodied should be given only in accordance with the rules of the Central Authority. These rules might be of any kind, including (subject to exceptions) a total prohibition, then or at any future time. In the special preamble to this section, Parliament pointed to the difficulty of “an immediate and universal remedy”-doubtless referring to the proposal of the Report of 1834 that all such relief should be prohibited within two years. But Parliament gave no direction for prohibition, nor did it expressly limit the discretion of the Central Authority on the subject, beyond certain specified exceptions. These exceptions were [1] that complete discretion was reserved to the board of guardians so far as regarded the grant of food, temporary lodging or medicine “in cases of emergency,” subject only to reporting their action to the Central Authority; and also, subject to the approval of the Central Authority, so far as regarded the grant of money or other relief in such cases; (2) that in cases of “sudden and urgent necessity” the overseer was required to give “such temporary relief as each case shall require in articles of absolute necessity but not in money”; and (3) that any Justice might order medical relief in case of “sudden and dangerous illness” and relief in certain cases to non-parishioners.

As in the Report itself, no definition is given in the Act of what was meant by “able-bodied persons.” In the special preamble, however, prefixed to this section, it is recited that it is enacted in consequence of the prevalent practice of giving relief “to persons or their families who, at the time of applying for or receiving such relief, were wholly or partially in the employment of individuals.”

The Able-Bodied and the Poor Law Commissioners

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: (i.) On Outdoor Relief

The ambiguity that existed, alike in the Report and in the Act of 1834, as to the meaning intended to be given to the term “the able-bodied” was, to a large extent, reflected in those documents of the Central Authority which expounded its policy with regard to the kind and conditions of relief to be given to this class. Once more there is no definition of the term able-bodied, which is used sometimes as an adjective and sometimes as a substantive. From the context it must be inferred, as we shall presently show, that the term is used in different senses in the orders relating respectively to outdoor relief and to the management of the workhouse. What proved in the event more inimical to the principle of National Uniformity was the fact that in the orders relating to outdoor relief to the able-bodied, there was no consistency as to whether any class of women was or was not to be included among the able-bodied. There are, as we shall presently describe, two distinct streams of regulations affecting outdoor relief to the able-bodied, one permitting such relief under conditions, culminating in the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order of 14th December, 1852 (still in force), and the other prohibiting it subject to exceptions, culminating in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 21st December, 1844 (still in force). In the former series of regulations, beginning with the first orders issued in the autumn of 1834 to particular unions, the term “able-bodied” is expressly qualified by the adjective “male” (“able-bodied male persons”). In the other series, beginning in 1836 with the Consolidated Order for the Administration of Relief in Town Unions, the category of the “able-bodied,” if we are to go by the actual wording of the orders, clearly comprises both sexes; at first by excepting widows only from a universal rule, and presently by specifically including “every able-bodied” person, “male or female.” That this differing interpretation of the category of the “able-bodied and their families” was actually intended by the Central Authority in 1840, and 1844, and that it was not merely accidental, is shown by cases in which it was decided that outdoor relief to single women having illegitimate children was illegal, as being in contravention of the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order in force in those unions;thus proving that, under this order, the category of “the able-bodied and their families” included independent women with children; although in the other kind of orders, contemporaneous in date, the same category included men only (and their families). This is the more puzzling, in that we find the Central Authority, in 1839 at least, regarding these very outdoor relief prohibitory orders as practically, if not literally, applicable only to able-bodied males. In the comprehensive defence of its action, when pleading for a renewal of the Act, the Central Authority expressly describes these orders as “prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied male paupers”; and as having attained the object aimed at, that of destroying the allowance system or relief in aid of wages, “so far as respects able-bodied male paupers and their families.”

To sum up this question of definition, in one series of outdoor relief regulations applicable to the able-bodied, in force in certain unions, the category of “the able-bodied” expressly excludes independent women; in another series of regulations, in force in other unions, the category of “the able-bodied” includes such women. There is actual evidence that the Central Authority enforced these differing determinations so far as to include as among “the able-bodied” unmarried women having illegitimate children in those unions in which one set of Orders was in force. Whether it ever actually enforced this interpretation as regards single women without children is not apparent in the published documents, but would be seen from its records. The fact of variance between the two interpretations of the category of “the able-bodied” becomes important when the two series of regulations are consolidated into two orders embodying distinct policies, one or other of which is made applicable to every union in the country.

Once having determined what was included in the category of “the able-bodied,” the ground becomes more clear. With regard to outdoor relief, there are the two streams of contemporaneous regulations already alluded to-the one permitting it subject to conditions, the other prohibiting it subject to exceptions.

The first series was, it is clear, regarded (at any rate down to 1842) as temporary, only “to be sanctioned as a palliative for a time, and until adequate and efficient workhouse accommodation shall be provided.” These regulations were, in the autumn of 1834, issued separately to certain unions pending the introduction of “proper regulations”; but we also find them, between 1835 and 1842, included as a matter of course in orders prohibiting outdoor relief, by way of exception, but still only as providing a temporary alternative, until accommodation can be obtained for the reception of such persons in the workhouse.

There was even a third series of Orders, which may perhaps be regarded as even more provisional and temporary than the first series. To various local authorities in large towns (such as Norwich), and in the Metropolitan parishes, Orders were issued from 1835 onwards, simply requiring that any outdoor relief to the able-bodied should be, to the extent of one-third-sometimes to the extent of one-half-“relief in kind,” that is to say, in loaves of bread.

It has been assumed that it was the intention of the Central Authority from the outset to replace these temporary orders permitting outdoor relief to the able-bodied by some permanent injunction substituting relief in the workhouse as the only method. But the documentary evidence indicates that the Central Authority either never entertained the idea-or else very quickly abandoned it-of issuing the Prohibitory Order to the manufacturing towns of the north. Thus, in October 1836, after nearly two years’ experience, the Poor Law Commissioners, as their Assistant Commissioner reported, were disposed to leave “the contemplated workhouse system … very much to the board of guardians, and they did not feel it necessary to lay down those strict rules that they had in some instances laid down for the government of unions in the south of England.”

In 1842 the Central Authority, perhaps unwittingly, took a new departure. In the northern counties there were districts for which no orders “concerning the outdoor relief of the able-bodied” had been issued. The Central Authority had failed to induce the Local Authorities to provide “adequate workhouse accommodation,” and it was found that “large numbers of able-bodied persons are often suddenly thrown out of employment by the fluctuations of manufacturers” (sic). To meet this situation, a new General Order was issued (the Outdoor Labour Test Order, 13th April 1842); on the ground that it was impracticable “to issue the Order prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied persons.” This order is historically of two-fold significance. It has had, as will subsequently appear, a long and continuous career of its own, in force in combination with the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order in particular unions. But between 1842 and 1852, standing by itself in other unions, it was the temporary embodiment of an alternative policy of the Central Authority. This alternative policy was, in 1852, definitely adopted by the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (still in force), as the one permanently appropriate for the circumstances of many unions, covering a large part of England and Wales.

This policy of leaving to the discretion of the local authorities the grant of outdoor relief to the able-bodied on certain conditions was, as already mentioned, confined to men. We can find no explanation of, or reason for, the entire absence of any provision for independent women who were able-bodied. It can only be inferred that, in those districts, the Central Authority meant the unlimited discretion of the local authorities with regard to outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women to continue. The outdoor relief sanctioned for able-bodied men was strictly limited to persons who were not in employment for hire. This limitation was expressly intended to prevent the old “Rate in Aid of Wages.” But it was subsequently expressly allowed that outdoor relief might be given, in respect of the particular days in a week or the particular weeks in a month during which persons were unemployed, whilst they were in remunerative employment on other days of that week, or other weeks of that month. In the case of persons partially disabled, and able to earn only partial maintenance, the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that they “should be entirely supported by the guardians”-not, be it noted, by being admitted to the workhouse-but either by their being “set to work by the guardians in such manner as may be suitable to their condition,” or else by their being prohibited from doing any work on their own account.

It should be said that (with an exception to be hereafter noted in the case of women) the Central Authority stood rigidly on the position taken up by the 1834 Report that no regard was to be paid to character, in judging applications for relief. “If a person,” said the Poor Law Commissioners in 1840, “be in a state of destitution, such person is to be relieved, without reference to the moral character of such person. Relief from the poor rates can only lawfully be given in cases where persons are destitute of the means of support. And the fact that the destitution may have been caused by the immorality or improvidence of the party who seeks to be relieved does not alter or vary the duty of guardians to administer relief proportional to the necessity of the case.”

The outdoor relief, where given, had to be subject to two conditions. It was to be at least half in kind, and conditional on the recipient being set to work by the local authority, the time, mode and conditions of work being fixed by the Central Authority.

With regard to the kinds and conditions of “parish work,” it was repeatedly laid down by the Central Authority that none would be sanctioned unless (a) the work was “hard,” not of a kind usually performed by independent labourers or competing with them, nor “much regarded as to profitable results,” strictly supervised, “of a laborious and undesirable nature in itself,” and “of such a nature as to discourage applications from all who are not really necessitous”; (b) paid “less than would be paid for work of equal quantity if performed by independent labourers”; or as it was later stated, the payment “ought to assume the form of relief, not of wages…. A single man or a man with a wife and one child ought not to receive as much as a man with a wife and eight children.”

It is not explained how payment on the last principle could be made consistent with the former principles. But the intention of the Central Authority is clear. In the words quoted with approval in the circular of 1835, the parish was to be “the hardest taskmaster and the worst pay-master.”

An important exception was made by a separate clause in the Order providing that the guardians might depart from any of these regulations in particular instances, and thus give outdoor relief to able-bodied males on any conditions, subject to their reporting each such instance within fifteen days to the Central Authority, and obtaining its subsequent approval. With that approval, outdoor relief to able-bodied men, without any conditions, was lawful. The records of the Central Authority between 1842 and 1847, which have not been published, would show how frequently application was made for this approval, and whether the Central Authority pursued any definite policy in approving or disapproving the cases, or merely approved all that were reported to it.

The second series of outdoor relief regulations, beginning with the Consolidated Order for the Administration of Relief in Town Unions of 1836, and culminating in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (still in force), proceeds on the basis of forbidding outdoor relief to the “able-bodied and their families.” But from the outset we find a series of express exceptions made in particular Orders, gradually increasing in number and definiteness. The most numerous and the most important of these exceptions relate to women, and will be subsequently dealt with. For the male able-bodied person himself (and his family) only three exceptions were to be made. The local authority had discretion to allow him outdoor relief (a) in case of sudden and urgent necessity; (b) in case of sickness, accident, or mental infirmity in his family; or (c) for the burial of any member of his family.

Another series of exceptions allowed outdoor relief to the families of able-bodied persons (a) in gaol, or otherwise in custody; (b) absent as soldiers, sailors or marines; or (c) otherwise residing outside the union.

A third exception empowered the local authorities (as in the analogous case of the Outdoor Labour Test Order) to depart from these regulations in any particular instance, and thus to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men, women, or their families, on any conditions, subject to their reporting each such instance within fifteen days to the Central Authority and obtaining its subsequent approval. With that approval outdoor relief to the able-bodied, without any conditions, was lawful. The records of the Central Authority between 1842 and 1847 would show what policy it pursued in approving or disapproving the cases of unconditional outdoor relief to the able-bodied, which were reported by those local authorities to which this Order had been issued. What appears from the published documents is that the Central Authority, between 1835 and 1842, “in cases where this Order had been issued … had been obliged to sanction large exceptions to its provisions.”

On this, among other grounds, the Central Authority in 1843 took to modifying the operation of the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Orders by supplementing them, in certain of the unions in which they were in force, by an Outdoor Labour Order, practically identical in terms with the Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, which we have already mentioned as being alone in force in other unions. Similar Orders-in effect modifying the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order-have ever since continued to be issued to particular unions; but, from 1852 onward, in the form of applying to the particular unions concerned the Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, which had theretofore been issued alone.

We are now in a position to sum up the policy of the Central Authority, with regard to outdoor relief to the able-bodied, as it stood in 1847, embodied in documents applicable to three different parts of England and Wales. In thirty-two unions the Labour Test Order of 1842 was alone in force, whilst in twenty-nine others the regulations were essentially similar to this. In this part of the country the discretion of the local authorities to give outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women (as to other independent women) was unfettered by any regulation, and not directed by any instructions. Outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families was within the discretion of the local authorities, if it was accompanied by test work by the man and subject to certain conditions. In other parts of the country, comprising 396 unions, the Prohibitory Order was alone in force, and outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women, and their families, was, with limited and precise exceptions, prohibited; unless, in particular instances, the local authority subsequently reported it to, and got it sanctioned by, the Central Authority. In yet other parts of the country, comprising eighty-one unions, the Prohibitory Order and an Outdoor Labour Test Order were jointly in force, and outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women, and their families, was, so far as general rules went, prohibited. But such outdoor relief was lawful if it was in each case subsequently reported to, and approved by, the Central Authority; with this difference between that given to able-bodied men (and their families) and that given to independent women (and their families) that the former had to be, and the latter had not to be, accompanied by test work. This requirement of test work by the man, in certain unions, as a condition of the outdoor relief to be thus sanctioned by the Central Authority, appears at first sight to impose on those unions an additional restriction on the grant of outdoor relief, as compared with those unions in which outdoor relief could be sanctioned by the Central Authority without test work. The practical result may have been exactly the opposite. The records of the Central Authority between 1843 and 1847 would show to what extent and in what kind of cases its sanction to these cases of outdoor relief was given or refused; and whether, according to the statistics, it was not given more frequently and even as a matter of course, where test work was obligatory as a condition, as compared with cases in which test work was not required. If this was so, not only did union differ from union in the extent to which outdoor relief to the able-bodied was sanctioned by the Central Authority, but it may be that the statistics would show that in this respect, sex differed from sex-such outdoor relief being freely granted and lightly sanctioned to able-bodied men from whom test work was exacted; and sanctioned with greater stringency in the case of the able-bodied independent women from whom no such test was exacted.

(ii.) In the Workhouse

When “the able-bodied and their families” entered the workhouse, we find the Central Authority prescribing a classification altogether different from that applied to outdoor paupers. The very category of the “able-bodied and their families” disappears. It was, of course, inevitable that this should happen. In any institution, infants, boys, girls, sick and healthy adults, male and female, required different treatments. But, to the confusion of every one concerned, the Central Authority retained, for its workhouse classification, as for the entirely different classification of outdoor paupers, the same adjective of “able-bodied,” without even explaining that it was here used in an altogether different sense. As usual in the documents of this period, there is no definition of the term. But whenever it occurs in the regulations affecting the workhouse, the term “able-bodied” was apparently intended by the Central Authority to denote all persons not being either children, “the aged and infirm,” or “the sick.” If the draughtsman of the General Consolidated Order of 1847 had been aware of the need for a definition clause, he would presumably have said that in that Order the term “able-bodied” should denote those persons above the age of childhood, and below that of “the aged,” who for the time being were in the enjoyment of normal health. This class, it will be seen, differs considerably from that referred to in the preamble of the section in the 1834 Act under which outdoor relief to the able-bodied was to have been abolished; namely, persons (with their families) “who at the time of applying for or receiving such relief were wholly or partially in the employment of individuals.” The Act thus pointed to the capacity to obtain employment for hire, at any wages whatsoever, whatever may have been the state of health, as the essential characteristic of being “able-bodied.” This, too, was the construction placed on the term when used in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, 1844, where the Central Authority expressly held that “poor persons who have frequent ailments, who are ruptured and are generally of weak constitutions” but who are “in receipt of wages”-however low such wages might be-must be treated, for outdoor relief, as being “able-bodied persons.” When such persons entered the workhouse, not merely would the several members of their families pass into different categories, but they themselves, if the doctor so decided, would, in the view of the Central Authority, on crossing the threshold, cease to be “able-bodied persons,”-and become members of the diametrically opposite category of “the sick.” If such persons, without being cured, subsequently left the workhouse, we must infer that, according to the policy of the Central Authority, their characteristic of physical or mental infirmity ceased to be relevant, as they passed, on crossing the threshold, into the ranks of “able-bodied persons.”

Inside the workhouse, the “able-bodied” (in the workhouse sense) are divided simply into male and female. We can find no regulations specially affecting relief to them, as apart from other inmates of the establishment, except some modifications in the amount of food allowed, or of labour exacted. As even these modifications are inextricably mixed up with the general regulations affecting all inmates, and are contained in the same long series of Orders, culminating in the General Consolidated Order of 1847, we relegate them to the subsequent section on the workhouse.

The Able-bodied and the Poor Law Board

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: So far as may be gathered from new statutes, new general orders, or new circulars of the Central Authority, there was, between 1847 and 1871, no new policy prescribed to the local Poor Law authorities for the relief of the able-bodied. It is true that in August 1852, revised in December 1852, we have a great General Order (still in force), the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, which permitted outdoor relief to the able-bodied, unconditionally for women, and subject to test work for men. This, however, was but a codification, with slight amendments, of the separate Outdoor Labour Test Orders that had been issued between 1835 and 1852. It might, therefore, be inferred that the Central Authority did not, between 1847 and 1871, change its policy.

(i.) National Uniformity

No attempt was made to secure national uniformity with regard to the treatment of the able-bodied.

Union after union was brought under one or other of the three systems which we have already described until, by 1871, with half-a-dozen exceptions, the whole area was covered. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (forbidding, with certain exceptions, outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women) continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain unions. This Order, coupled with an Outdoor Labour Test Order (sanctioning outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families subject to test work by the man, but prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women), continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain other unions. To a third set of unions there was issued the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (permitting outdoor relief to able-bodied women unconditionally, and to able-bodied men subject to test work). These three systems of outdoor relief to the able-bodied remained, between 1847 and 1871, essentially as they had been elaborated between 1834 and 1847.

But meanwhile a great change in the policy of the Central Authority was silently taking place. The areas over which the three systems were applied completely shifted in relative importance. In 1847 the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, which may be said to come nearest to the “principles of 1834,” had been imposed on 396 unions; the two other systems standing out only as relatively small exceptions, temporarily applicable to 142 places in all.

It is clear that at that period the Central Authority was “of opinion that where there is a commodious and efficient workhouse, it is best that the able-bodied paupersshould be received and set to work therein.”

Yet for the next twenty years the part of England and Wales to which the Central Authority sought to apply this policy steadily shrank. In 1871, the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, applied only to 307 unions, containing a steadily declining proportion of the total population.

That Order was mitigated in 217 unions, comprising a steadily increasing population, by being accompanied by a Labour Test Order. Finally, the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, since 1852 adopted as a permanent policy, had crept over the Metropolis, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, and the majority of urban centres elsewhere, to the number of no fewer than 117. In these important districts the Central Authority had become convinced, to use its own words, that it was “not expedient … to prohibit out-relief to any class of paupers.”

The able-bodied in the workhouse remained under the General Consolidated Order of 1847 essentially as we have already described them.

(ii.) Municipal Work for the Unemployed

We must here mention the episode of the public works undertaken in 1863-6 by the municipal and public health authorities of Lancashire, etc., as a means of relieving the distress caused by the cotton famine. As this has been so clearly described by various writers, it will suffice here to draw attention to the fact that although directed by the Poor Law Board, these works of municipal improvement formed no part of its Poor Law policy. The Central Authority began by sanctioning “a large amount of relief given at variance with the provisions of the General Relief Regulations Order.” The problem was then tackled by extensive charitable funds. Finally the Poor Law Board itself came to the conclusion that “it appeared highly desirable that the large bodies of able-bodied men who had been so long deprived of their usual employment should not continue to be relieved either in idleness, or on the performance of a task of unremunerative labour, but should rather, if possible, have work at adequate wages placed within their reach which would enable them to obtain an independent livelihood.” What was then adopted was the policy of using public orders for necessary work as a means of partially filling the gap in the aggregate volume of employment caused by the stoppage of the mills. Various minor relief works, in the ordinary sense of the term, were started by local committees and private persons. But the main experiment, fostered by Government loans of nearly two millions, and the advice of a Government engineer, took the form of the execution by the municipalities, and other local authorities, of necessary works of public improvement, which, far from being artificially created in order to give employment, would in any event have had to be executed, and were, in fact, long overdue. There was no attempt to set all the unemployed to work, and no desire to confine to them the staff that was engaged. As a matter of fact, about a third of the men taken on were workmen skilled in the particular work to be done, and these do not appear to have been drawn from the unemployed class at all. But for the mere unskilled manual work volunteers were (in some, but not all the cases) asked for among the distressed cotton operatives, from amongst whom the necessary number of labourers were selected, to be engaged at labourers’ rates of pay. Thus, although in this utilisation of public orders to regularise the volume of employment there was just this element of relief works, that in some of the towns and some of the works use was made, for the unskilled manual labour, of the services of selected unemployed cotton operatives, the Lancashire authorities escaped what we have elsewhere called the essential dilemma that attends the artificial employment of the unemployed. As they were in the exceptional position of having to offer unskilled labourers’ work to skilled and normally highly-paid operatives-and as they did not pretend to take on “the unemployed” as such, but merely asked for so many volunteers from among the cotton operatives to the exclusion of the actual labouring class-the wages that they gave, though sufficient for livelihood, offered no attraction to any of those whom they employed who had the alternative of returning to their accustomed occupation. The boards of guardians were concerned in these works only in their capacity as public health authorities. But the fact is important that in this emergency, the Poor Law Board itself, beginning with a mere relaxation of its regulations, turned then, as an alternative, to even less strictly regulated charity, and finally came to the conclusion that the best policy was to use the municipal orders for waterworks, sewers, and paving works, as far as possible, to make up a definitely ascertained deficiency in private orders. It was, we suggest, just because these were not relief works in the usual sense of the term, but merely public works of utility and even of necessity that were long overdue, and because they were, in the main, executed as such by labourers engaged at wages in the ordinary way, and not with a view of offering work to all who demanded it, that the Poor Law Board could come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that the experiment had been a great success. The success, however, of the Government loan of nearly two millions lay at least as much in the stimulus given to sanitary improvement and municipal enterprise as in the comparatively small amount of relief thereby directly afforded to the distressed cotton operatives.

An incident of this great experiment is worth recording, as possibly affording a hint and a precedent. In October 1862-before the Government loans had actually started the municipalities engaging in municipal works-the Central Authority authorised the Manchester Board of Guardians to give outdoor relief to able-bodied men for whom a labour test could not be provided, on condition that they attended educational classes arranged by the guardians. This permission was largely acted upon. One whole trade union (the Society of Makers Up), asked “to be sent to school, instead of to labour.” Not only were reading and writing taught, but what we should now term university extension lectures were delivered (by Professor Roscoe, etc.).

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

The Able-bodied and the Poor Law Board

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: So far as may be gathered from new statutes, new general orders, or new circulars of the Central Authority, there was, between 1847 and 1871, no new policy prescribed to the local Poor Law authorities for the relief of the able-bodied. It is true that in August 1852, revised in December 1852, we have a great General Order (still in force), the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, which permitted outdoor relief to the able-bodied, unconditionally for women, and subject to test work for men. This, however, was but a codification, with slight amendments, of the separate Outdoor Labour Test Orders that had been issued between 1835 and 1852. It might, therefore, be inferred that the Central Authority did not, between 1847 and 1871, change its policy.

(i.) National Uniformity

No attempt was made to secure national uniformity with regard to the treatment of the able-bodied.

Union after union was brought under one or other of the three systems which we have already described until, by 1871, with half-a-dozen exceptions, the whole area was covered. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (forbidding, with certain exceptions, outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women) continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain unions. This Order, coupled with an Outdoor Labour Test Order (sanctioning outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families subject to test work by the man, but prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women), continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain other unions. To a third set of unions there was issued the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (permitting outdoor relief to able-bodied women unconditionally, and to able-bodied men subject to test work). These three systems of outdoor relief to the able-bodied remained, between 1847 and 1871, essentially as they had been elaborated between 1834 and 1847.

But meanwhile a great change in the policy of the Central Authority was silently taking place. The areas over which the three systems were applied completely shifted in relative importance. In 1847 the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, which may be said to come nearest to the “principles of 1834,” had been imposed on 396 unions; the two other systems standing out only as relatively small exceptions, temporarily applicable to 142 places in all.

It is clear that at that period the Central Authority was “of opinion that where there is a commodious and efficient workhouse, it is best that the able-bodied paupersshould be received and set to work therein.”

Yet for the next twenty years the part of England and Wales to which the Central Authority sought to apply this policy steadily shrank. In 1871, the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, applied only to 307 unions, containing a steadily declining proportion of the total population.

That Order was mitigated in 217 unions, comprising a steadily increasing population, by being accompanied by a Labour Test Order. Finally, the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, since 1852 adopted as a permanent policy, had crept over the Metropolis, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, and the majority of urban centres elsewhere, to the number of no fewer than 117. In these important districts the Central Authority had become convinced, to use its own words, that it was “not expedient … to prohibit out-relief to any class of paupers.”

The able-bodied in the workhouse remained under the General Consolidated Order of 1847 essentially as we have already described them.

(ii.) Municipal Work for the Unemployed

We must here mention the episode of the public works undertaken in 1863-6 by the municipal and public health authorities of Lancashire, etc., as a means of relieving the distress caused by the cotton famine. As this has been so clearly described by various writers, it will suffice here to draw attention to the fact that although directed by the Poor Law Board, these works of municipal improvement formed no part of its Poor Law policy. The Central Authority began by sanctioning “a large amount of relief given at variance with the provisions of the General Relief Regulations Order.” The problem was then tackled by extensive charitable funds. Finally the Poor Law Board itself came to the conclusion that “it appeared highly desirable that the large bodies of able-bodied men who had been so long deprived of their usual employment should not continue to be relieved either in idleness, or on the performance of a task of unremunerative labour, but should rather, if possible, have work at adequate wages placed within their reach which would enable them to obtain an independent livelihood.” What was then adopted was the policy of using public orders for necessary work as a means of partially filling the gap in the aggregate volume of employment caused by the stoppage of the mills. Various minor relief works, in the ordinary sense of the term, were started by local committees and private persons. But the main experiment, fostered by Government loans of nearly two millions, and the advice of a Government engineer, took the form of the execution by the municipalities, and other local authorities, of necessary works of public improvement, which, far from being artificially created in order to give employment, would in any event have had to be executed, and were, in fact, long overdue. There was no attempt to set all the unemployed to work, and no desire to confine to them the staff that was engaged. As a matter of fact, about a third of the men taken on were workmen skilled in the particular work to be done, and these do not appear to have been drawn from the unemployed class at all. But for the mere unskilled manual work volunteers were (in some, but not all the cases) asked for among the distressed cotton operatives, from amongst whom the necessary number of labourers were selected, to be engaged at labourers’ rates of pay. Thus, although in this utilisation of public orders to regularise the volume of employment there was just this element of relief works, that in some of the towns and some of the works use was made, for the unskilled manual labour, of the services of selected unemployed cotton operatives, the Lancashire authorities escaped what we have elsewhere called the essential dilemma that attends the artificial employment of the unemployed. As they were in the exceptional position of having to offer unskilled labourers’ work to skilled and normally highly-paid operatives-and as they did not pretend to take on “the unemployed” as such, but merely asked for so many volunteers from among the cotton operatives to the exclusion of the actual labouring class-the wages that they gave, though sufficient for livelihood, offered no attraction to any of those whom they employed who had the alternative of returning to their accustomed occupation. The boards of guardians were concerned in these works only in their capacity as public health authorities. But the fact is important that in this emergency, the Poor Law Board itself, beginning with a mere relaxation of its regulations, turned then, as an alternative, to even less strictly regulated charity, and finally came to the conclusion that the best policy was to use the municipal orders for waterworks, sewers, and paving works, as far as possible, to make up a definitely ascertained deficiency in private orders. It was, we suggest, just because these were not relief works in the usual sense of the term, but merely public works of utility and even of necessity that were long overdue, and because they were, in the main, executed as such by labourers engaged at wages in the ordinary way, and not with a view of offering work to all who demanded it, that the Poor Law Board could come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that the experiment had been a great success. The success, however, of the Government loan of nearly two millions lay at least as much in the stimulus given to sanitary improvement and municipal enterprise as in the comparatively small amount of relief thereby directly afforded to the distressed cotton operatives.

An incident of this great experiment is worth recording, as possibly affording a hint and a precedent. In October 1862-before the Government loans had actually started the municipalities engaging in municipal works-the Central Authority authorised the Manchester Board of Guardians to give outdoor relief to able-bodied men for whom a labour test could not be provided, on condition that they attended educational classes arranged by the guardians. This permission was largely acted upon. One whole trade union (the Society of Makers Up), asked “to be sent to school, instead of to labour.” Not only were reading and writing taught, but what we should now term university extension lectures were delivered (by Professor Roscoe, etc.).

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

The Able-Bodied and the Poor Law Commissioners

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: (i.) On Outdoor Relief

The ambiguity that existed, alike in the Report and in the Act of 1834, as to the meaning intended to be given to the term “the able-bodied” was, to a large extent, reflected in those documents of the Central Authority which expounded its policy with regard to the kind and conditions of relief to be given to this class. Once more there is no definition of the term able-bodied, which is used sometimes as an adjective and sometimes as a substantive. From the context it must be inferred, as we shall presently show, that the term is used in different senses in the orders relating respectively to outdoor relief and to the management of the workhouse. What proved in the event more inimical to the principle of National Uniformity was the fact that in the orders relating to outdoor relief to the able-bodied, there was no consistency as to whether any class of women was or was not to be included among the able-bodied. There are, as we shall presently describe, two distinct streams of regulations affecting outdoor relief to the able-bodied, one permitting such relief under conditions, culminating in the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order of 14th December, 1852 (still in force), and the other prohibiting it subject to exceptions, culminating in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 21st December, 1844 (still in force). In the former series of regulations, beginning with the first orders issued in the autumn of 1834 to particular unions, the term “able-bodied” is expressly qualified by the adjective “male” (“able-bodied male persons”). In the other series, beginning in 1836 with the Consolidated Order for the Administration of Relief in Town Unions, the category of the “able-bodied,” if we are to go by the actual wording of the orders, clearly comprises both sexes; at first by excepting widows only from a universal rule, and presently by specifically including “every able-bodied” person, “male or female.” That this differing interpretation of the category of the “able-bodied and their families” was actually intended by the Central Authority in 1840, and 1844, and that it was not merely accidental, is shown by cases in which it was decided that outdoor relief to single women having illegitimate children was illegal, as being in contravention of the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order in force in those unions;thus proving that, under this order, the category of “the able-bodied and their families” included independent women with children; although in the other kind of orders, contemporaneous in date, the same category included men only (and their families). This is the more puzzling, in that we find the Central Authority, in 1839 at least, regarding these very outdoor relief prohibitory orders as practically, if not literally, applicable only to able-bodied males. In the comprehensive defence of its action, when pleading for a renewal of the Act, the Central Authority expressly describes these orders as “prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied male paupers”; and as having attained the object aimed at, that of destroying the allowance system or relief in aid of wages, “so far as respects able-bodied male paupers and their families.”

To sum up this question of definition, in one series of outdoor relief regulations applicable to the able-bodied, in force in certain unions, the category of “the able-bodied” expressly excludes independent women; in another series of regulations, in force in other unions, the category of “the able-bodied” includes such women. There is actual evidence that the Central Authority enforced these differing determinations so far as to include as among “the able-bodied” unmarried women having illegitimate children in those unions in which one set of Orders was in force. Whether it ever actually enforced this interpretation as regards single women without children is not apparent in the published documents, but would be seen from its records. The fact of variance between the two interpretations of the category of “the able-bodied” becomes important when the two series of regulations are consolidated into two orders embodying distinct policies, one or other of which is made applicable to every union in the country.

Once having determined what was included in the category of “the able-bodied,” the ground becomes more clear. With regard to outdoor relief, there are the two streams of contemporaneous regulations already alluded to-the one permitting it subject to conditions, the other prohibiting it subject to exceptions.

The first series was, it is clear, regarded (at any rate down to 1842) as temporary, only “to be sanctioned as a palliative for a time, and until adequate and efficient workhouse accommodation shall be provided.” These regulations were, in the autumn of 1834, issued separately to certain unions pending the introduction of “proper regulations”; but we also find them, between 1835 and 1842, included as a matter of course in orders prohibiting outdoor relief, by way of exception, but still only as providing a temporary alternative, until accommodation can be obtained for the reception of such persons in the workhouse.

There was even a third series of Orders, which may perhaps be regarded as even more provisional and temporary than the first series. To various local authorities in large towns (such as Norwich), and in the Metropolitan parishes, Orders were issued from 1835 onwards, simply requiring that any outdoor relief to the able-bodied should be, to the extent of one-third-sometimes to the extent of one-half-“relief in kind,” that is to say, in loaves of bread.

It has been assumed that it was the intention of the Central Authority from the outset to replace these temporary orders permitting outdoor relief to the able-bodied by some permanent injunction substituting relief in the workhouse as the only method. But the documentary evidence indicates that the Central Authority either never entertained the idea-or else very quickly abandoned it-of issuing the Prohibitory Order to the manufacturing towns of the north. Thus, in October 1836, after nearly two years’ experience, the Poor Law Commissioners, as their Assistant Commissioner reported, were disposed to leave “the contemplated workhouse system … very much to the board of guardians, and they did not feel it necessary to lay down those strict rules that they had in some instances laid down for the government of unions in the south of England.”

In 1842 the Central Authority, perhaps unwittingly, took a new departure. In the northern counties there were districts for which no orders “concerning the outdoor relief of the able-bodied” had been issued. The Central Authority had failed to induce the Local Authorities to provide “adequate workhouse accommodation,” and it was found that “large numbers of able-bodied persons are often suddenly thrown out of employment by the fluctuations of manufacturers” (sic). To meet this situation, a new General Order was issued (the Outdoor Labour Test Order, 13th April 1842); on the ground that it was impracticable “to issue the Order prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied persons.” This order is historically of two-fold significance. It has had, as will subsequently appear, a long and continuous career of its own, in force in combination with the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order in particular unions. But between 1842 and 1852, standing by itself in other unions, it was the temporary embodiment of an alternative policy of the Central Authority. This alternative policy was, in 1852, definitely adopted by the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (still in force), as the one permanently appropriate for the circumstances of many unions, covering a large part of England and Wales.

This policy of leaving to the discretion of the local authorities the grant of outdoor relief to the able-bodied on certain conditions was, as already mentioned, confined to men. We can find no explanation of, or reason for, the entire absence of any provision for independent women who were able-bodied. It can only be inferred that, in those districts, the Central Authority meant the unlimited discretion of the local authorities with regard to outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women to continue. The outdoor relief sanctioned for able-bodied men was strictly limited to persons who were not in employment for hire. This limitation was expressly intended to prevent the old “Rate in Aid of Wages.” But it was subsequently expressly allowed that outdoor relief might be given, in respect of the particular days in a week or the particular weeks in a month during which persons were unemployed, whilst they were in remunerative employment on other days of that week, or other weeks of that month. In the case of persons partially disabled, and able to earn only partial maintenance, the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that they “should be entirely supported by the guardians”-not, be it noted, by being admitted to the workhouse-but either by their being “set to work by the guardians in such manner as may be suitable to their condition,” or else by their being prohibited from doing any work on their own account.

It should be said that (with an exception to be hereafter noted in the case of women) the Central Authority stood rigidly on the position taken up by the 1834 Report that no regard was to be paid to character, in judging applications for relief. “If a person,” said the Poor Law Commissioners in 1840, “be in a state of destitution, such person is to be relieved, without reference to the moral character of such person. Relief from the poor rates can only lawfully be given in cases where persons are destitute of the means of support. And the fact that the destitution may have been caused by the immorality or improvidence of the party who seeks to be relieved does not alter or vary the duty of guardians to administer relief proportional to the necessity of the case.”

The outdoor relief, where given, had to be subject to two conditions. It was to be at least half in kind, and conditional on the recipient being set to work by the local authority, the time, mode and conditions of work being fixed by the Central Authority.

With regard to the kinds and conditions of “parish work,” it was repeatedly laid down by the Central Authority that none would be sanctioned unless (a) the work was “hard,” not of a kind usually performed by independent labourers or competing with them, nor “much regarded as to profitable results,” strictly supervised, “of a laborious and undesirable nature in itself,” and “of such a nature as to discourage applications from all who are not really necessitous”; (b) paid “less than would be paid for work of equal quantity if performed by independent labourers”; or as it was later stated, the payment “ought to assume the form of relief, not of wages…. A single man or a man with a wife and one child ought not to receive as much as a man with a wife and eight children.”

It is not explained how payment on the last principle could be made consistent with the former principles. But the intention of the Central Authority is clear. In the words quoted with approval in the circular of 1835, the parish was to be “the hardest taskmaster and the worst pay-master.”

An important exception was made by a separate clause in the Order providing that the guardians might depart from any of these regulations in particular instances, and thus give outdoor relief to able-bodied males on any conditions, subject to their reporting each such instance within fifteen days to the Central Authority, and obtaining its subsequent approval. With that approval, outdoor relief to able-bodied men, without any conditions, was lawful. The records of the Central Authority between 1842 and 1847, which have not been published, would show how frequently application was made for this approval, and whether the Central Authority pursued any definite policy in approving or disapproving the cases, or merely approved all that were reported to it.

The second series of outdoor relief regulations, beginning with the Consolidated Order for the Administration of Relief in Town Unions of 1836, and culminating in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (still in force), proceeds on the basis of forbidding outdoor relief to the “able-bodied and their families.” But from the outset we find a series of express exceptions made in particular Orders, gradually increasing in number and definiteness. The most numerous and the most important of these exceptions relate to women, and will be subsequently dealt with. For the male able-bodied person himself (and his family) only three exceptions were to be made. The local authority had discretion to allow him outdoor relief (a) in case of sudden and urgent necessity; (b) in case of sickness, accident, or mental infirmity in his family; or (c) for the burial of any member of his family.

Another series of exceptions allowed outdoor relief to the families of able-bodied persons (a) in gaol, or otherwise in custody; (b) absent as soldiers, sailors or marines; or (c) otherwise residing outside the union.

A third exception empowered the local authorities (as in the analogous case of the Outdoor Labour Test Order) to depart from these regulations in any particular instance, and thus to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men, women, or their families, on any conditions, subject to their reporting each such instance within fifteen days to the Central Authority and obtaining its subsequent approval. With that approval outdoor relief to the able-bodied, without any conditions, was lawful. The records of the Central Authority between 1842 and 1847 would show what policy it pursued in approving or disapproving the cases of unconditional outdoor relief to the able-bodied, which were reported by those local authorities to which this Order had been issued. What appears from the published documents is that the Central Authority, between 1835 and 1842, “in cases where this Order had been issued … had been obliged to sanction large exceptions to its provisions.”

On this, among other grounds, the Central Authority in 1843 took to modifying the operation of the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Orders by supplementing them, in certain of the unions in which they were in force, by an Outdoor Labour Order, practically identical in terms with the Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, which we have already mentioned as being alone in force in other unions. Similar Orders-in effect modifying the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order-have ever since continued to be issued to particular unions; but, from 1852 onward, in the form of applying to the particular unions concerned the Outdoor Labour Test Order of 1842, which had theretofore been issued alone.

We are now in a position to sum up the policy of the Central Authority, with regard to outdoor relief to the able-bodied, as it stood in 1847, embodied in documents applicable to three different parts of England and Wales. In thirty-two unions the Labour Test Order of 1842 was alone in force, whilst in twenty-nine others the regulations were essentially similar to this. In this part of the country the discretion of the local authorities to give outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women (as to other independent women) was unfettered by any regulation, and not directed by any instructions. Outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families was within the discretion of the local authorities, if it was accompanied by test work by the man and subject to certain conditions. In other parts of the country, comprising 396 unions, the Prohibitory Order was alone in force, and outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women, and their families, was, with limited and precise exceptions, prohibited; unless, in particular instances, the local authority subsequently reported it to, and got it sanctioned by, the Central Authority. In yet other parts of the country, comprising eighty-one unions, the Prohibitory Order and an Outdoor Labour Test Order were jointly in force, and outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women, and their families, was, so far as general rules went, prohibited. But such outdoor relief was lawful if it was in each case subsequently reported to, and approved by, the Central Authority; with this difference between that given to able-bodied men (and their families) and that given to independent women (and their families) that the former had to be, and the latter had not to be, accompanied by test work. This requirement of test work by the man, in certain unions, as a condition of the outdoor relief to be thus sanctioned by the Central Authority, appears at first sight to impose on those unions an additional restriction on the grant of outdoor relief, as compared with those unions in which outdoor relief could be sanctioned by the Central Authority without test work. The practical result may have been exactly the opposite. The records of the Central Authority between 1843 and 1847 would show to what extent and in what kind of cases its sanction to these cases of outdoor relief was given or refused; and whether, according to the statistics, it was not given more frequently and even as a matter of course, where test work was obligatory as a condition, as compared with cases in which test work was not required. If this was so, not only did union differ from union in the extent to which outdoor relief to the able-bodied was sanctioned by the Central Authority, but it may be that the statistics would show that in this respect, sex differed from sex-such outdoor relief being freely granted and lightly sanctioned to able-bodied men from whom test work was exacted; and sanctioned with greater stringency in the case of the able-bodied independent women from whom no such test was exacted.

(ii.) In the Workhouse

When “the able-bodied and their families” entered the workhouse, we find the Central Authority prescribing a classification altogether different from that applied to outdoor paupers. The very category of the “able-bodied and their families” disappears. It was, of course, inevitable that this should happen. In any institution, infants, boys, girls, sick and healthy adults, male and female, required different treatments. But, to the confusion of every one concerned, the Central Authority retained, for its workhouse classification, as for the entirely different classification of outdoor paupers, the same adjective of “able-bodied,” without even explaining that it was here used in an altogether different sense. As usual in the documents of this period, there is no definition of the term. But whenever it occurs in the regulations affecting the workhouse, the term “able-bodied” was apparently intended by the Central Authority to denote all persons not being either children, “the aged and infirm,” or “the sick.” If the draughtsman of the General Consolidated Order of 1847 had been aware of the need for a definition clause, he would presumably have said that in that Order the term “able-bodied” should denote those persons above the age of childhood, and below that of “the aged,” who for the time being were in the enjoyment of normal health. This class, it will be seen, differs considerably from that referred to in the preamble of the section in the 1834 Act under which outdoor relief to the able-bodied was to have been abolished; namely, persons (with their families) “who at the time of applying for or receiving such relief were wholly or partially in the employment of individuals.” The Act thus pointed to the capacity to obtain employment for hire, at any wages whatsoever, whatever may have been the state of health, as the essential characteristic of being “able-bodied.” This, too, was the construction placed on the term when used in the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, 1844, where the Central Authority expressly held that “poor persons who have frequent ailments, who are ruptured and are generally of weak constitutions” but who are “in receipt of wages”-however low such wages might be-must be treated, for outdoor relief, as being “able-bodied persons.” When such persons entered the workhouse, not merely would the several members of their families pass into different categories, but they themselves, if the doctor so decided, would, in the view of the Central Authority, on crossing the threshold, cease to be “able-bodied persons,”-and become members of the diametrically opposite category of “the sick.” If such persons, without being cured, subsequently left the workhouse, we must infer that, according to the policy of the Central Authority, their characteristic of physical or mental infirmity ceased to be relevant, as they passed, on crossing the threshold, into the ranks of “able-bodied persons.”

Inside the workhouse, the “able-bodied” (in the workhouse sense) are divided simply into male and female. We can find no regulations specially affecting relief to them, as apart from other inmates of the establishment, except some modifications in the amount of food allowed, or of labour exacted. As even these modifications are inextricably mixed up with the general regulations affecting all inmates, and are contained in the same long series of Orders, culminating in the General Consolidated Order of 1847, we relegate them to the subsequent section on the workhouse.

The Able-bodied and the Poor Law Board

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: So far as may be gathered from new statutes, new general orders, or new circulars of the Central Authority, there was, between 1847 and 1871, no new policy prescribed to the local Poor Law authorities for the relief of the able-bodied. It is true that in August 1852, revised in December 1852, we have a great General Order (still in force), the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, which permitted outdoor relief to the able-bodied, unconditionally for women, and subject to test work for men. This, however, was but a codification, with slight amendments, of the separate Outdoor Labour Test Orders that had been issued between 1835 and 1852. It might, therefore, be inferred that the Central Authority did not, between 1847 and 1871, change its policy.

(i.) National Uniformity

No attempt was made to secure national uniformity with regard to the treatment of the able-bodied.

Union after union was brought under one or other of the three systems which we have already described until, by 1871, with half-a-dozen exceptions, the whole area was covered. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (forbidding, with certain exceptions, outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women) continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain unions. This Order, coupled with an Outdoor Labour Test Order (sanctioning outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families subject to test work by the man, but prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women), continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain other unions. To a third set of unions there was issued the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (permitting outdoor relief to able-bodied women unconditionally, and to able-bodied men subject to test work). These three systems of outdoor relief to the able-bodied remained, between 1847 and 1871, essentially as they had been elaborated between 1834 and 1847.

But meanwhile a great change in the policy of the Central Authority was silently taking place. The areas over which the three systems were applied completely shifted in relative importance. In 1847 the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, which may be said to come nearest to the “principles of 1834,” had been imposed on 396 unions; the two other systems standing out only as relatively small exceptions, temporarily applicable to 142 places in all.

It is clear that at that period the Central Authority was “of opinion that where there is a commodious and efficient workhouse, it is best that the able-bodied paupersshould be received and set to work therein.”

Yet for the next twenty years the part of England and Wales to which the Central Authority sought to apply this policy steadily shrank. In 1871, the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, applied only to 307 unions, containing a steadily declining proportion of the total population.

That Order was mitigated in 217 unions, comprising a steadily increasing population, by being accompanied by a Labour Test Order. Finally, the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, since 1852 adopted as a permanent policy, had crept over the Metropolis, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, and the majority of urban centres elsewhere, to the number of no fewer than 117. In these important districts the Central Authority had become convinced, to use its own words, that it was “not expedient … to prohibit out-relief to any class of paupers.”

The able-bodied in the workhouse remained under the General Consolidated Order of 1847 essentially as we have already described them.

(ii.) Municipal Work for the Unemployed

We must here mention the episode of the public works undertaken in 1863-6 by the municipal and public health authorities of Lancashire, etc., as a means of relieving the distress caused by the cotton famine. As this has been so clearly described by various writers, it will suffice here to draw attention to the fact that although directed by the Poor Law Board, these works of municipal improvement formed no part of its Poor Law policy. The Central Authority began by sanctioning “a large amount of relief given at variance with the provisions of the General Relief Regulations Order.” The problem was then tackled by extensive charitable funds. Finally the Poor Law Board itself came to the conclusion that “it appeared highly desirable that the large bodies of able-bodied men who had been so long deprived of their usual employment should not continue to be relieved either in idleness, or on the performance of a task of unremunerative labour, but should rather, if possible, have work at adequate wages placed within their reach which would enable them to obtain an independent livelihood.” What was then adopted was the policy of using public orders for necessary work as a means of partially filling the gap in the aggregate volume of employment caused by the stoppage of the mills. Various minor relief works, in the ordinary sense of the term, were started by local committees and private persons. But the main experiment, fostered by Government loans of nearly two millions, and the advice of a Government engineer, took the form of the execution by the municipalities, and other local authorities, of necessary works of public improvement, which, far from being artificially created in order to give employment, would in any event have had to be executed, and were, in fact, long overdue. There was no attempt to set all the unemployed to work, and no desire to confine to them the staff that was engaged. As a matter of fact, about a third of the men taken on were workmen skilled in the particular work to be done, and these do not appear to have been drawn from the unemployed class at all. But for the mere unskilled manual work volunteers were (in some, but not all the cases) asked for among the distressed cotton operatives, from amongst whom the necessary number of labourers were selected, to be engaged at labourers’ rates of pay. Thus, although in this utilisation of public orders to regularise the volume of employment there was just this element of relief works, that in some of the towns and some of the works use was made, for the unskilled manual labour, of the services of selected unemployed cotton operatives, the Lancashire authorities escaped what we have elsewhere called the essential dilemma that attends the artificial employment of the unemployed. As they were in the exceptional position of having to offer unskilled labourers’ work to skilled and normally highly-paid operatives-and as they did not pretend to take on “the unemployed” as such, but merely asked for so many volunteers from among the cotton operatives to the exclusion of the actual labouring class-the wages that they gave, though sufficient for livelihood, offered no attraction to any of those whom they employed who had the alternative of returning to their accustomed occupation. The boards of guardians were concerned in these works only in their capacity as public health authorities. But the fact is important that in this emergency, the Poor Law Board itself, beginning with a mere relaxation of its regulations, turned then, as an alternative, to even less strictly regulated charity, and finally came to the conclusion that the best policy was to use the municipal orders for waterworks, sewers, and paving works, as far as possible, to make up a definitely ascertained deficiency in private orders. It was, we suggest, just because these were not relief works in the usual sense of the term, but merely public works of utility and even of necessity that were long overdue, and because they were, in the main, executed as such by labourers engaged at wages in the ordinary way, and not with a view of offering work to all who demanded it, that the Poor Law Board could come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that the experiment had been a great success. The success, however, of the Government loan of nearly two millions lay at least as much in the stimulus given to sanitary improvement and municipal enterprise as in the comparatively small amount of relief thereby directly afforded to the distressed cotton operatives.

An incident of this great experiment is worth recording, as possibly affording a hint and a precedent. In October 1862-before the Government loans had actually started the municipalities engaging in municipal works-the Central Authority authorised the Manchester Board of Guardians to give outdoor relief to able-bodied men for whom a labour test could not be provided, on condition that they attended educational classes arranged by the guardians. This permission was largely acted upon. One whole trade union (the Society of Makers Up), asked “to be sent to school, instead of to labour.” Not only were reading and writing taught, but what we should now term university extension lectures were delivered (by Professor Roscoe, etc.).

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

The Able-bodied and the Poor Law Board

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: So far as may be gathered from new statutes, new general orders, or new circulars of the Central Authority, there was, between 1847 and 1871, no new policy prescribed to the local Poor Law authorities for the relief of the able-bodied. It is true that in August 1852, revised in December 1852, we have a great General Order (still in force), the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, which permitted outdoor relief to the able-bodied, unconditionally for women, and subject to test work for men. This, however, was but a codification, with slight amendments, of the separate Outdoor Labour Test Orders that had been issued between 1835 and 1852. It might, therefore, be inferred that the Central Authority did not, between 1847 and 1871, change its policy.

(i.) National Uniformity

No attempt was made to secure national uniformity with regard to the treatment of the able-bodied.

Union after union was brought under one or other of the three systems which we have already described until, by 1871, with half-a-dozen exceptions, the whole area was covered. The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order of 1844 (forbidding, with certain exceptions, outdoor relief to the able-bodied, whether men or women) continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain unions. This Order, coupled with an Outdoor Labour Test Order (sanctioning outdoor relief to able-bodied men and their families subject to test work by the man, but prohibiting outdoor relief to able-bodied independent women), continued in force in, or was issued anew to, certain other unions. To a third set of unions there was issued the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order (permitting outdoor relief to able-bodied women unconditionally, and to able-bodied men subject to test work). These three systems of outdoor relief to the able-bodied remained, between 1847 and 1871, essentially as they had been elaborated between 1834 and 1847.

But meanwhile a great change in the policy of the Central Authority was silently taking place. The areas over which the three systems were applied completely shifted in relative importance. In 1847 the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, which may be said to come nearest to the “principles of 1834,” had been imposed on 396 unions; the two other systems standing out only as relatively small exceptions, temporarily applicable to 142 places in all.

It is clear that at that period the Central Authority was “of opinion that where there is a commodious and efficient workhouse, it is best that the able-bodied paupersshould be received and set to work therein.”

Yet for the next twenty years the part of England and Wales to which the Central Authority sought to apply this policy steadily shrank. In 1871, the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, issued alone, applied only to 307 unions, containing a steadily declining proportion of the total population.

That Order was mitigated in 217 unions, comprising a steadily increasing population, by being accompanied by a Labour Test Order. Finally, the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, since 1852 adopted as a permanent policy, had crept over the Metropolis, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, and the majority of urban centres elsewhere, to the number of no fewer than 117. In these important districts the Central Authority had become convinced, to use its own words, that it was “not expedient … to prohibit out-relief to any class of paupers.”

The able-bodied in the workhouse remained under the General Consolidated Order of 1847 essentially as we have already described them.

(ii.) Municipal Work for the Unemployed

We must here mention the episode of the public works undertaken in 1863-6 by the municipal and public health authorities of Lancashire, etc., as a means of relieving the distress caused by the cotton famine. As this has been so clearly described by various writers, it will suffice here to draw attention to the fact that although directed by the Poor Law Board, these works of municipal improvement formed no part of its Poor Law policy. The Central Authority began by sanctioning “a large amount of relief given at variance with the provisions of the General Relief Regulations Order.” The problem was then tackled by extensive charitable funds. Finally the Poor Law Board itself came to the conclusion that “it appeared highly desirable that the large bodies of able-bodied men who had been so long deprived of their usual employment should not continue to be relieved either in idleness, or on the performance of a task of unremunerative labour, but should rather, if possible, have work at adequate wages placed within their reach which would enable them to obtain an independent livelihood.” What was then adopted was the policy of using public orders for necessary work as a means of partially filling the gap in the aggregate volume of employment caused by the stoppage of the mills. Various minor relief works, in the ordinary sense of the term, were started by local committees and private persons. But the main experiment, fostered by Government loans of nearly two millions, and the advice of a Government engineer, took the form of the execution by the municipalities, and other local authorities, of necessary works of public improvement, which, far from being artificially created in order to give employment, would in any event have had to be executed, and were, in fact, long overdue. There was no attempt to set all the unemployed to work, and no desire to confine to them the staff that was engaged. As a matter of fact, about a third of the men taken on were workmen skilled in the particular work to be done, and these do not appear to have been drawn from the unemployed class at all. But for the mere unskilled manual work volunteers were (in some, but not all the cases) asked for among the distressed cotton operatives, from amongst whom the necessary number of labourers were selected, to be engaged at labourers’ rates of pay. Thus, although in this utilisation of public orders to regularise the volume of employment there was just this element of relief works, that in some of the towns and some of the works use was made, for the unskilled manual labour, of the services of selected unemployed cotton operatives, the Lancashire authorities escaped what we have elsewhere called the essential dilemma that attends the artificial employment of the unemployed. As they were in the exceptional position of having to offer unskilled labourers’ work to skilled and normally highly-paid operatives-and as they did not pretend to take on “the unemployed” as such, but merely asked for so many volunteers from among the cotton operatives to the exclusion of the actual labouring class-the wages that they gave, though sufficient for livelihood, offered no attraction to any of those whom they employed who had the alternative of returning to their accustomed occupation. The boards of guardians were concerned in these works only in their capacity as public health authorities. But the fact is important that in this emergency, the Poor Law Board itself, beginning with a mere relaxation of its regulations, turned then, as an alternative, to even less strictly regulated charity, and finally came to the conclusion that the best policy was to use the municipal orders for waterworks, sewers, and paving works, as far as possible, to make up a definitely ascertained deficiency in private orders. It was, we suggest, just because these were not relief works in the usual sense of the term, but merely public works of utility and even of necessity that were long overdue, and because they were, in the main, executed as such by labourers engaged at wages in the ordinary way, and not with a view of offering work to all who demanded it, that the Poor Law Board could come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that the experiment had been a great success. The success, however, of the Government loan of nearly two millions lay at least as much in the stimulus given to sanitary improvement and municipal enterprise as in the comparatively small amount of relief thereby directly afforded to the distressed cotton operatives.

An incident of this great experiment is worth recording, as possibly affording a hint and a precedent. In October 1862-before the Government loans had actually started the municipalities engaging in municipal works-the Central Authority authorised the Manchester Board of Guardians to give outdoor relief to able-bodied men for whom a labour test could not be provided, on condition that they attended educational classes arranged by the guardians. This permission was largely acted upon. One whole trade union (the Society of Makers Up), asked “to be sent to school, instead of to labour.” Not only were reading and writing taught, but what we should now term university extension lectures were delivered (by Professor Roscoe, etc.).

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also



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  • Article Name: Able-bodied
  • Author: Glanville L. Williams
  • Description: The Able-Bodied and the 1834 Report In this issue about the able-bodied, the book English Poor Law Policy [1] reads as [...]

This entry was last updated: January 14, 2017

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