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Aged in United Kingdom

The Aged and Infirm and the Poor Law Commissioners

In this issue about the aged and infirm, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: As with the sick, so with the aged and infirm, neither the Report nor the Act of 1834 had suggested any change in the current policy of outdoor relief. Nor did the Central Authority prescribe any new policy with regard to this class.

It is to be noted that there is the usual absence of definition. The aged and the infirm are always referred to as forming one and the same class. (The word “impotent,” used in the Report of 1834, seems to have been silently dropped.) It should be noted also that the class of the “aged and infirm” was not restricted to the infirm aged. The question of age did not enter in at all. What was meant was the class of persons permanently incapacitated, whether from old age, physical defect, or chronic debility, from obtaining any paid employment. The essential characteristic of “the aged and infirm” (like that of “children”) was indeed the precise opposite of that of “the able-bodied.” The latter always meant (for outdoor relief) those who were actually or potentially in employment for hire. The “aged and infirm” were those (not being children) who could not possibly get employment for any hire, however small; and together with the “children” and “the able-bodied” they made up in the eyes of the Central Authority the whole pauper universe.

It was, as we have seen, universally assumed that the various prohibitions or regulations of outdoor relief to the able-bodied did not apply to “aged and infirm persons.” These persons were, indeed, expressly made exceptions from the first universal rule prohibiting outdoor relief to any one, in the “Form of Consolidated Order for the Administration of Relief in Town Unions.” In the succeeding Orders prohibiting or regulating outdoor relief, all mention of them is omitted, as not falling within the class of “the able-bodied and their families” to which alone these orders applied. In 1839 the Central Authority definitely laid it down “that we do not require aged and infirm paupers to be relieved only in the workhouse,” and that “it is not our intention to issue any such rule.” The discretion of the local authorities in the matter of outdoor relief to this class was thus left as absolutely unfettered as before; and we can find in the published documents of this period of 1834-47 no direction or advice by the Central Authority on the subject, and no indication that it had any new policy.

When the aged and infirm entered the workhouse they (like the able-bodied) were put into entirely new categories, though without a new terminology. Those who, whilst in receipt of outdoor relief were merely “aged and infirm,” found themselves classified in the workhouse according to sex, age and bodily health. Those who were under sixty, and were not ordered by the doctor to be put on special diet, found themselves classed as “able-bodied” (in the workhouse sense). These varieties of treatment in the general workhouse will be dealt with in a subsequent section. It is to be noted that in 1840 the Central Authority supported the Government proposal to enable “district infirmaries” to be established apart from the general workhouse for such of the aged and infirm as received indoor relief. The class to be therein accommodated was to include “every person applying for or receiving relief who shall, by reason of any bodily defect, or of any permanent ailment, or of the permanent effects of any ailment or bodily accident, be incapable of supporting himself.” The proposal was never proceeded with.

It is clear that, although there is no indication of this policy in the Report of 1834, or in any of the statutes, the Poor Law Commissioners, between 1834 and 1847, had it occasionally in their minds to apply the “deterrent” workhouse test to the aged and infirm, as well as to the able-bodied. In 1839, indeed, they expressed this intention. It will be remembered that the 1834 Report had talked of the aged enjoying “their indulgences” in workhouses set apart for them. “With regard to the aged and infirm,” say the Commissioners of 1839, “there is a strong disposition on the part of a portion of the public so to modify the arrangements as to place them on the footing of almshouses. The consequences which would flow from this change have only to be pointed out to show its inexpediency and its danger. If the condition of the inmates of a workhouse were to be so regulated as to invite the aged and infirm of the labouring classes to take refuge in it, it would immediately be useless as a test between indigence and indolence and fraud, it would no longer operate as an inducement to the young and healthy to provide support for their later years, or as a stimulus to them whilst they have the means to support their aged parents and relatives. The frugality and forethought of a young labourer would be useless if he foresaw the certainty of a better asylum for his old age than he could possibly provide by his own exertions, and the industrious efforts of a son to provide a maintenance for his parents in his own dwelling would be thrown away and would cease to be called forth, if the almshouse of the district offered a refuge for their declining years, in which they might obtain comforts and indulgences which even the most successful of the labouring classes cannot always obtain by their own exertions.”

The Aged and Infirm and the Local Government Board

In this issue about the aged and infirm, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: (i.) Outdoor Relief

The crusade of the inspectorate of 1871-85, in favour of the “workhouse system” of Poor Law relief, made no exception in favour of aged persons, whether deserving or undeserving, any more than it did in favour of widows with young children or the sick. On the contrary, Mr. Longley assumed, in every paragraph of his Report, that the “workhouse principle” was universally applicable to “the disabled”-the term he used for the aged and infirm-as well as to the able-bodied. A rigid adherence to the policy of “offering the House” would, he argued, lead the poor to provide, or induce their relatives to provide, for old age as well as for sickness and widowhood.Further, Mr. Longley strongly deprecated any deviation in particular cases from what he euphemistically called “the offer of indoor relief.” “That which an applicant does not know certainly that he will not get,” he forcibly argued, “he readily persuades himself, if he wishes for it, that he will get; and the poor, to whom any inducement is held out to regard application for relief as a sort of gambling speculation, in which, though many fail, some will succeed, will, like other gamblers, reckon upon their own success.” For every “hard case” he relied on the springing up in every union of intelligently directed private charity. “It is, in fact, the very existence of charity”-assumed thus to be always at hand whenever required-“which strengthens the hands of the Poor Law administrator in adherence to rule.” Yet, with a certain want of logic, he desired this charitable provision to remain “precarious” and “intermittent;” something which it was possible to argue would always be there when a “hard case” occurred, and which, nevertheless, could not be counted upon by the poor themselves. In other words, he seemed to imply that charitable outdoor relief was superior to Poor Law outdoor relief for the very reason that though some applicants for it would succeed, others in like circumstances would fail to get it-thus inducing, one would have thought, exactly the spirit of “gambling speculation” on the part of the poor that he clearly perceived to arise from the adoption by boards of guardians of an intermittent and uncertain relief policy.

How far this policy of offering the House to all aged persons, deserving or undeserving, was assumed by the other inspectors to be the official policy, and how far it was pressed by them, on boards of guardians throughout the country, we have been unable to ascertain. Apart from the approval of Mr. Longley’s views implied by the publication of his Reports and the circulation of them among boards of guardians, the Central Authority maintained, between 1871 and 1896, an absolute silence on the question of outdoor relief to the aged.

All the more surprising to boards of guardians must have been the sudden and unexpected reversal of this policy by the Central Authority between 1896 and 1900. In July 1896, the Central Authority, under the presidency of Mr. Chaplin, issued a Circular to boards of guardians outside the Metropolis, drawing attention to the importance of the relieving officers and medical officers discharging their duties with the greatest particularity. In a concluding paragraph the Central Authority significantly reminds the guardians of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, of which an extract is appended. “We are convinced,” run the recommendations thus exceptionally brought to the guardians’ notice, “that there is a strong feeling that in the administration of relief there should be greater discrimination between the respectable aged who become destitute and those whose destitution is distinctly the consequence of their own misconduct; and we recommend that boards of guardians, in dealing with applications for relief, should inquire with special care into the antecedents of destitute persons whose physical faculties have failed by reason of age and infirmity; and that outdoor relief in such cases should be given to those who are shown to have been of good character, thrifty according to their opportunities, and generally independent in early life, and who are not living under conditions of health or surrounding circumstances which make it evident that the relief given should be indoor relief.” But this is not all. The poor, far from being left uncertain as to the grant of outdoor relief, were to be specially told that they would receive it if only they led deserving lives. “It accordingly appears to us eminently desirable,” continue the recommendations, as communicated by the Central Authority to the boards of guardians, “that boards of guardians should adopt rules in accordance with the general principles which we have indicated, by which they may be broadly guided in dealing with individual applications for relief, and that such rules should be generally made known for the information of the poor of the union, in order that those really in need may not be discouraged from applying.”

How far this reversion to the policy contemplated by the 1834 Report, and continued, as we have shown, by the Poor Law Commissioners, and the Poor Law Board down to 1871, obtained the adhesion of the inspectors who had grown up in the traditions of Mr. Longley’s Reports of 1871-5, we have been unable to ascertain. Nor is it clear that the partial circulation by the Central Authority of the recommendations of the Royal Commission affected the admonitions against outdoor relief generally, which the inspectors had for nearly thirty years been addressing to the boards of guardians. Four years later the Central Authority took an even more decisive step.

In the famous pronouncement on Poor Law Administration generally which Mr. Chaplin issued to all boards of guardians in 1900, systematic and adequate outdoor relief to all aged persons who were at once destitute and deserving was laid down as the definite policy of the Central Authority. “It has been felt,” runs this Circular, “that persons who have habitually led decent and deserving lives should, if they require relief in their old age, receive different treatment from those whose previous habits and character have been unsatisfactory, and who have failed to exercise thrift in the bringing up of their families or otherwise. The Board consider that aged deserving persons should not be urged to enter the workhouse at all unless there is some cause which renders such a course necessary, such as infirmity of mind or body, the absence of house accommodation, or of a suitable person to care for them, or some similar cause, but that they should be relieved by having adequate outdoor relief granted to them. The Board are happy to think that it is commonly the practice of boards of guardians to grant outdoor relief in such cases, but they are afraid that too frequently such relief is not adequate in amount. They are desirous of pressing upon the guardians that such relief should, when granted, be always adequate.”Nor did the Central Authority content itself with merely issuing the Circular. Letters were sent in a few months’ time to all the boards of guardians asking what action had been taken with regard to the suggested grant of outdoor relief to aged deserving persons, and, in particular, whether the practice was to grant an adequate amount to each case. The effect was (to use the words of an inspector) to produce “a good deal of discussion … upon the question of the amount of outdoor relief granted to aged deserving persons.” “I rather fear,” said another inspector, “that in some unions it has rather been regarded as a sort of mandate to increase the system of out-relief generally. This the Circular did not intend.” On the other hand, yet another inspector remarks that only “a few boards have looked at the (Local Government) Board’s suggestions from a sympathetic point of view, and have increased their regular allowances to the aged out-paupers, but in a large majority of the unions the guardians state that alteration is not called for…. The principle is … warding off destitution, not providing maintenance.” Whatever was the intention of the Central Authority, it is evident that the replies (which were not published and which we have not seen) that it received to its repeated inquiries must have revealed an enormous diversity of practice, utterly at variance with the principle of national uniformity. In one union there would be hardly any cases for which the guardians would grant outdoor relief at all. In the next union practically every aged applicant would get it. The conception of adequacy revealed in the replies must have been equally various. In the West Riding the amount allowed per aged person ranged from 1s. 6d. a week to as much as 7s. 6d. a week, whereas in the East Riding the variations were only between 2s. 6d. and 5s. for each person. We happen to know that the Bradford Guardians reported that, with greater uniformity, they gave 5s. a week for each deserving aged person. We have not been able to ascertain what action, if any, was taken by the Central Authority on these replies. No objection appears to have been taken, and no criticism to have been made, either in respect of the virtual refusal of outdoor relief to the deserving aged in some unions, or in respect of its almost indiscriminate bestowal in others, or again, in respect of the wide range of variation between union and union, in the amount allowed for each person. It is thus not clear what is now the policy of the Central Authority on these points. Its latest utterance is the Circular of 1900. Since then, so far as we can discover, it has been silent on the subject.

(ii.) Indoor Relief

Meanwhile there had accumulated in the workhouses of the Metropolis (where the effect of the Metropolitan Common Poor fund had been to offer a premium on indoor relief to two-thirds of the unions), and in those of the unions up and down the country in which Mr. Longley’s policy had been more or less carried out, a large number of aged people, who became permanent residents. This fact, already noticeable and officially recorded in 1867, did not lead to any change in the policy of workhouse administration laid down by the Central Authority. The General Consolidated Order of 1847, framed essentially to deal with workhouses in which the able-bodied were the most important feature, was not amended to meet the new conditions. The structural improvements which, as we have already described, began to be adopted after the Lancet inquiry of 1865, continued to be pressed for, and eventually insisted on, so far as regards new workhouses. In this respect the old people in particular unions shared in the general benefit. But we do not find that the Central Authority, after 1871, had any policy of altering the general régime of the old people’s wards, corresponding to that which, as we have described, took place with regard to the sick wards. On the contrary, we must note, as part of Mr. Longley’s policy, his emphatic warning in 1873, that the workhouses had already become so “attractive to paupers,” as to furnish “no test of destitution.” He made no exception in favour of the old people’s wards. It was, in fact, the “deterrent discipline” of the workhouse that he regarded as “the keystone of an efficient system of indoor relief,” not merely for the able-bodied, but also, through its effect on the minds of those who were still young, and on the relations of those who were old, also for the aged. We may, therefore, understand why it is that we find, between 1871 and 1892, practically nothing in the way of expression of the policy of the Central Authority with regard to the indoor treatment of the aged. It stood by the General Consolidated Order of 1847. Even the attempt made in 1867-75 to revert to the policy of the 1834 Report, so far as to have specialised institutions for the aged, the sick, and the able-bodied, as well as for the children, was not persisted in, so far as the aged were concerned. No other unions were found to adopt the joint arrangements of Poplar and Stepney under which the aged and infirm of both unions had a workhouse to themselves, and even this one was brought to an end in 1892.

In 1892 the note changes. From that date onward we get a distinct reversion, as regards the aged indoor pauper, to the policy indicated in the 1834 Report (“the old might enjoy their indulgences”), from which the Poor Law Commissioners of 1834-47, and the successive Central Authorities of 1847-1892, had turned away.

It is interesting to see that the new departure began over tobacco. The Liverpool Select Vestry determined to give the well-conducted old men in the workhouse the indulgence of a weekly screw of tobacco, whether or not they were employed on disagreeable duties. The auditor objected. The vestry insisted. The Central Authority was obdurate. The local body appealed to its Parliamentary representatives. It was suggested as a compromise that the medical officer might be got to include it in the dietary table, when the Central Authority would not refuse to sanction it. The vestry declined to compromise, and insisted on allowing tobacco as a non-dietetic indulgence. Finally, the inspector was instructed to say that the objection was withdrawn. No publicity was given to the concession, but it gradually leaked out. During the year 1892 we see the Central Authority sanctioning by letter, without any official publication on the subject, such applications as were made by individual boards of guardians to be permitted to allow an ounce of tobacco weekly to the men over sixty in the workhouse. At last, in November 1892, a General Order was issued permitting it in all unions, irrespective of sex, and without limit of amount. Little more than a year later, as some compensation to the old women (though they had not been excluded, in terms, from the indulgence of tobacco or snuff), they were allowed “dry tea,” with sugar and milk, irrespective of that provided for in the dietary table. Presently, this indulgence is extended to “dry coffee or cocoa,” if preferred, and the men also are allowed to receive it. At last, the Central Authority, by two lengthy Circulars in 1895 and 1896, under the presidency of Sir Henry Fowler and Mr. Chaplin respectively, systematically laid down principles of workhouse administration, so far as the aged were concerned, in sharp contrast with those advocated by Mr. Longley, or indeed, with those which had been inculcated from 1835 to 1892. It was expressly stated that as the character of the workhouse population had so completely changed since 1834, the administration no longer needed to be so deterrent. The old idea of fixed uniform times of going to bed and rising and taking meals was given up, it being expressly left to the master and matron to allow any of the aged (as well as the infirm and the young children) to retire to rest, to rise and to have their meals at whatever hours it was thought fit. The visiting committees of workhouses were now specially enjoined to see that the aged were properly attended to, and recommended to confer with them as to any grievances without any officials being present. It was suggested that the great sleeping wards should be partitioned into separate cubicles. The guardians were reminded that aged or infirm couples might be provided with separate rooms. The well-behaved aged and infirm were to be allowed, within reasonable limits, to go out for walks, to visit their friends, and to attend their own places of worship on Sunday. The rules were to be relaxed to allow them to receive visits in the workhouse from their friends. There was to be no distinctive dress. Those of them who were of good conduct, and who had “previously led moral and respectable lives” were to be separated from the rest, who “are likely to cause them discomfort,” and were to have the enjoyment of a separate day-room. The whole note of the administration of the old people’s wards of the workhouses was, in fact, to be changed, so far as the Central Authority could change it. In the words of the 1834 Report, the old were to “enjoy their indulgences.” Four years later another Circular was issued in stronger terms, reiterating the suggestions of privileges that the guardians ought to allow to the deserving inmates over sixty-five-freedom to rise and go to bed and have their meals when they liked, to have their own locked cupboards for their little treasures, in all cases to have their tobacco and dry tea, to be free to go out when they chose, and to be allowed to receive the visits of their friends. They were to be given separate cubicles to sleep in, and special day-rooms, “which might, if thought desirable, be available for members of both sexes … and in which their meals, other than dinner, might be served at hours fixed by the guardians.” “It is hoped that, where there is room, the guardians will not hesitate to take steps to bring about improvements of the kind indicated in the arrangements for the aged deserving poor.” Four or five months later the guardians were stirred up by letter, and asked what they had done towards creating the specially privileged class of deserving aged inmates that had been so strongly pressed on them.

During these years the dietaries for the aged and infirm were being altered in the direction of liberality, variety, and freedom of choice. Not only were hot meat or fish dinners provided (“with sauce”), but also tea, coffee, cocoa, milk, sugar, butter, seed cake, onions, lettuce, rhubarb or stewed fruit, sago, semolina, and rice pudding. In 1900 “provision is also made for … the inmates on special infirm diet … to receive daily, before bedtime, or at such time as the guardians may fix, a small allowance of milk pudding or similar food to break the interval between the usual meals.” The Central Authority in 1904 made no objection to a board of guardians subscribing to a lending library, in order to obtain a constant supply of books for the deserving aged workhouse inmates, and held that no special sanction was required. Finally, “it is open to guardians, if they think fit, to incur reasonable expenses in providing a piano, for use at divine service held in a workhouse infirmary for old and infirm inmates”; or to provide a harmonium at the cost of the poor rate for the use of the inmates of the workhouse.


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


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: Aged
  • Author: Michael Mann
  • Description: The Aged and Infirm and the Poor Law Commissioners In this issue about the aged and infirm, the book English Poor Law [...]

This entry was last updated: March 12, 2017


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