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Departures From the Principles of 1834 in United Kingdom

The Departures From the Principles of 1834 and the Principles of 1907

In this issue about the departures from the principles of 1834, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: The principles of the 1834 Report, to which different people will assign different degrees of scope or importance, are, as we have shown, three in number. We will deal successively with the Principle of National Uniformity, the Principle of Less Eligibility, and the “Workhouse System.”

(i.) The Principle of National Uniformity

The Principle of National Uniformity-that is, of identity of treatment of each class of destitute persons from one end of the kingdom to the other-for the purpose of reducing the “perpetual shifting” from parish to parish, of preventing discontent, and of bringing the parochial management effectually under central control, is, in 1907, with one notable exception, in practice abandoned. Uniform national treatment is to-day obligatory with regard to one class only of destitute persons, the wayfarers or vagrants. Whatever may be the diversity of practice amongst boards of guardians, the policy of the Central Authority for the vagrant is, uniformly throughout the kingdom and without exception, indoor relief, in a specially appropriated ward, with prescribed “deterrent” treatment as regards diet, task and detention. For the able-bodied male person, seeking relief in his own parish-the very class for whom the 1834 Report most passionately postulated national uniformity of treatment-there is, in 1907, no uniform policy. The universal “offer of the House” was apparently found to be impracticable even in the first decade; and by 1852 the Central Authority had settled down to the division of England and Wales into two geographical regions, in one of which outdoor relief to the able-bodied male applicant is (with minor exceptions) prohibited, whilst in the other region boards of guardians are not only permitted, but even advised, to meet the recurring times of distress, and of pressure on the workhouse accommodation, by the grant of outdoor relief against a task of work. With regard to that section of the class of able-bodied who may be intended by the indefinite term “unemployed,” there is to-day, under the Unemployed Workmen Act 1905, a third alternative policy, in itself capable of endless variety from place to place, with which we shall have to deal under the head of principles new since 1834.

Less intelligible is the existing diversity of policy of the Central Authority in 1907 with regard to able-bodied women. In all the unions in one of the geographical regions into which the country is divided, an able-bodied woman, whether spinster, wife or widow, can be granted maintenance in her own home. In all the unions of the other region, such women, unless included in certain exceptions, can be relieved only in the workhouse.

With regard to the non-able-bodied classes-the children, the sick and the aged-who now comprise four-fifths of the whole pauperism, it is hardly too much to say that the precisely opposite principle has been adopted, that of permitting experimental variations by the 646 boards of guardians. The maintenance of children in a general workhouse, in “barrack schools,” in cottage homes, in scattered homes, in certified schools or institutions, in families within the union, in families outside the union, with their relatives on a boarding-out allowance or with their own parents on outdoor relief-at a cost to the rates varying from 1s. up to more than 20s. per head per week-are all policies actually in operation in one union or another, to the knowledge and with the permission of the Central Authority. No one of them is prescribed or universally recommended to the exclusion of the others. The same may be said of the policy for the sick. Workhouse sick wards, separate infirmaries of general character, specialised hospitals and sanatoria for particular diseases, subsidies to voluntary institutions, dispensaries, and domiciliary treatment, with or without nurses, are among the different ways of relieving the destitute sick which different boards of guardians are authorised to adopt, according to their fancies or to the circumstances of their unions. The aged are less open to experimental variations, but even here we find the “workhouse test,” the comfortable aged ward, the special “almshouses” for the well-conducted, and the grant of adequate outdoor relief to every “deserving” person, all recommended to different boards of guardians, simultaneously or alternately, by order, letter, or inspector’s advice.

A minor uniformity insisted on in the 1834 Report concerned the grant of outdoor relief. The Report emphatically pointed out that, in the award of outdoor relief, any attempt to discriminate according to merit was dangerous and likely to lead to fraud. This was promptly given up as regards women in the policy of discriminating between chaste and unchaste. With regard to the aged, the policy of non-discrimination according to merit or character has not only been abandoned by the Central Authority, but even expressly condemned, boards of guardians being now directed to give adequate outdoor relief to all deserving aged persons. The Unemployed Workmen Act carries this contrary policy of discrimination according to merit into the class of the able-bodied. Only with regard to the wayfarer does the Central Authority still adhere to the policy of an undiscriminating uniform refusal of outdoor relief to all applicants irrespective of merit.

(ii.) The Principle of Less Eligibility

The Principle of “Less Eligibility”-that is, that the condition of the pauper should be “less eligible” than that of the lowest grade of independent labourer-(though, as we have shown, asserted explicitly in the 1834 Report only of the able-bodied) is often regarded as the root principle of the reforms of 1834. The Central Authority in 1907 applies this principle unreservedly to one class only, the wayfarers or vagrants. In respect of this class the application of the principle goes even further than was contemplated in 1834. As will be remembered, the Report of 1834 recommended that the wayfarer should be regarded merely as an able-bodied person, and offered maintenance in the workhouse, without compulsory detention or worse conditions than were afforded to other inmates. In 1907 the Central Authority orders the wayfarer, without discrimination of character or conduct, to be relieved only in a casual ward, under a regimen not only inferior to that of the able-bodied ward of the workhouse, but also, in food and amenity of accommodation, distinctly less eligible than the condition of the poorest independent labourer. Moreover, even this “less eligible” relief is accompanied by compulsory detention and a task of hard labour of monotonous and disagreeable character.

Exactly to what extent the policy of the Central Authority of to-day has avowedly departed from the Principle of Less Eligibility with regard to other sections of the able-bodied class it is difficult, in the absence of explicit statement, to determine. According to the Statutes, Orders, and Circulars now promulgated by the Central Authority, the able-bodied (not being wayfarers) may be relieved in three main ways, among which the local authority over a large part of England and Wales is left free choice, viz.:-(a) maintenance in the workhouse, (b) outdoor relief with a labour test, and (c) employment for wages by the distress committee. To take first the maintenance in the workhouse, any attempt to restrict, either in quantity or quality, the food, warmth, accommodation, leisure or rest afforded by the workhouse down to the standard in practice attained by the lowest grade of independent wage-earners has long since been abandoned. It has, in fact, been discovered that the independent labourers of the lowest grade do not get enough food, warmth or rest to maintain themselves and their families continuously in health; whereas the able-bodied inmate of the workhouse is supplied, by the peremptory directions of the Central Authority, up to a standard which fully equals-if it does not exceed-the requirements of physiological efficiency.

It is sometimes said that, to counterbalance this excess of “eligibility,” the Central Authority maintains the policy which we have described as starving the will and intelligence of the workhouse inmates, by withholding all recreation, all exercise of choice or initiative, all responsibility and all training for independent life. But the Central Authority has latterly permitted various experimental departures from this policy of enforced blank-mindedness characteristic of the General Consolidated Order of 1847. It has permitted, in one union or another, a policy (as at Lambeth) of letting the able-bodied men go out at intervals (without taking out their dependents), in order to look for work; or (as at Whitechapel) the engagement of a salaried “mental trainer” to organise their leisure in an intellectual way; and even (as at Poplar) the provision (under the name of a temporary workhouse) of a farm in the country, where they are engaged, on short hours and high diet, in the ordinary avocations of an agricultural labourer-their families being meanwhile maintained in their own homes.

But maintenance in the workhouse can no longer be said to be the policy imposed by the Central Authority even for the able-bodied. In all the great centres of population, and in other unions in times of pressure, it is the explicit policy of the Central Authority, rather than extend the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order, and enlarge the workhouses, to allow the maintenance at home of the able-bodied man and his dependents, in return for a task of work by the man only. This labour test at no date involved daily hours of work equal to those of the lowest grade of independent labourer, but the task set was, until recent years, of a monotonous and unpleasant character. Since 1886, however, the task singled out for recommendation by the Central Authority is nothing more unpleasant than spade labour in field or garden, which forms the recreation of many a wage-earner.

What remained in the way of “less eligibility” was, until 1905, the stigma of “pauperism,” involving electoral disqualification, and chargeability to relatives. Since the Unemployed Workmen Act this has been wholly removed, in respect of the section of the able-bodied whose destitution is relieved by the distress committee. In their case, indeed, there is now not even the suggestion, which Mr. Chamberlain had made in 1886, that the amount paid in return for their work should be less than the current rate of wages.

With regard to all other classes except the able-bodied men and their dependents, the Central Authority has, de facto, abandoned the Principle of Less Eligibility. It prescribes merely a policy of “adequacy” of maintenance according to the actual requirements of each case, viewed from the standpoint of modern physiology, irrespective of whether the maintenance is at home or in an institution. This, it is clear, is much above the standard attained by the lowest grade of independent labourer. When this maintenance is given at home (as it is with the explicit permission of the Central Authority in the majority of cases) it is not accompanied by any other drawback than the “stigma of pauperism.” In respect of the extensive classes of the sick and the children, the Central Authority may even be said to have avowedly adopted a diametrically opposite policy to that of “less eligibility,” namely, the principle of substituting for relief the best possible “treatment,” with the intention of making these paupers actually more fit than the lowest grade of independent labourer. And, short of entire removal out of the Poor Law (as has actually been done with the able-bodied who are “unemployed,” the children in industrial schools, and the patients of the Public Health Department), everything possible has been done to remove the “stigma of pauperism” from the children in Poor Law institutions and from the recipients of medical relief.

(iii.) The Workhouse System

The principle commonly known as “the Workhouse System”-the complete substitution of “indoor” for “outdoor” relief-was, as we have shown, no part of the recommendations of the 1834 Report for any but the able-bodied. It was, however, adopted by the strictest of the reformers of 1834-47, and again by those of 1871-85, as the only effective method of applying the Principle of Less Eligibility and of reducing pauperism. The workhouse, on this principle, was not to be regarded as a place of long-continued residence, still less as an institution for beneficial treatment, but primarily (if not exclusively) as a “test of destitution,” that is, as a means of affording the actual necessities of existence under conditions so deterrent that the pauper would rather prefer to maintain himself independently than accept the relief so offered. This is still the policy of the Central Authority, but only for one class of paupers, the wayfarers or vagrants. As we have seen, there are, in 1907, alternative methods of relief for the other classes, preferred by the Central Authority. In the case of the aged, the Central Authority explicitly lays it down that the “deserving” applicants ought not even to be urged to enter the workhouse, and ought to be given outdoor relief adequate for their maintenance in their own homes. In the case of the able-bodied, the “respectable” applicant is to be referred to the distress committee, outside the Poor Law altogether; whilst in periods of unemployment the Central Authority permits the outdoor relief of the less respectable destitute men against a labour test. With regard to the sick and children, the very idea of a deterrent workhouse has disappeared, and the policy is to afford them “treatment” (including maintenance wherever required), either in their own homes, or in other people’s homes, or in institutions, in the manner, and to the degree, calculated to promote their utmost efficiency.


Notes and References

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

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  • Article Name: Departures From the Principles of 1834
  • Author: J. G. Collier
  • Description: The Departures From the Principles of 1834 and the Principles of 1907 In this issue about the departures from the [...]

This entry was last updated: March 14, 2017


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