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Position in 1847 Compared With the Principles of 1834 in United Kingdom

The Position in 1847 Compared With The Principles of 1834 and the Poor Law Commissioners

In this issue about the position in 1847 compared with the principles of 1834, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: The proposals and recommendations of the Report of 1834 fall under five heads, though opinions may differ as to the relative weight intended to be given to each. These five heads are:-

(i.) That there should be national uniformity in the treatment of each class of paupers, so that every applicant of any class might receive identical treatment wherever he happened to reside.

(ii.) That outdoor relief to the able-bodied and their families should be abolished-it being left ambiguous whether or not this applied to any woman not legally dependent on an able-bodied man.

(iii.) That each local authority should have a workhouse in which able-bodied applicants for relief should be received and set to work under strict discipline, in order to test their destitution.

(iv.) That the condition of the able-bodied pauper should be less eligible than that of the lowest class of independent labourer.

(v.) That, in so far as the aged and infirm or the children were given indoor maintenance, this should be in separate institutions, under distinct management, in which the old might “enjoy their indulgences” and the children be educated by “a person properly qualified to act as a schoolmaster.”

Dealing separately with each of these, we see, with regard to national uniformity, that the Poor Law Commissioners had failed to embody this in their Orders even with regard to able-bodied men; and had, by 1847, wholly abandoned it in regard to other classes. In over 100 places the Poor Law Commissioners had practically failed to introduce their new principles at all. The rest of the country was divided for some purposes into two, and for others into three geographical areas of uneven size. In 396 unions outdoor relief to the able-bodied and their families was prohibited. In thirty-two unions under one set of regulations, and in eighty-one and twenty-nine unions under others, it was permitted on conditions. But it was with regard to the relief of women and children dependent on able-bodied persons that the two geographical areas differed most markedly. In the 396 unions, these dependents of able-bodied persons could not be relieved otherwise than in the workhouse. In the thirty-two, and also in the eighty-one and twenty-nine unions, they could be relieved in their homes. A similar geographical difference prevailed with regard to the relief to be given to the independent woman. For all the other classes of paupers, whether these were the specific exceptions to the classes above mentioned, or the much more numerous “aged and infirm,” “sick,” or orphan or deserted children, no uniform method of relief was prescribed or even suggested. Each of the local authorities was left to devise its own policy.

Passing now to the second head, the abolition of outdoor relief to able-bodied persons and their families, we note that the Poor Law Commissioners had, by 1847, in regard to 142 unions (comprising over one-fifth of the whole number), practically abandoned the hope of prohibition. In its stead, the Commissioners had sanctioned the opening of stone-yards, etc., for the employment of men receiving outdoor relief.

With regard to the third head, the use of admission to a workhouse as a test of destitution of the able-bodied, this was not prescribed by the Commissioners to the 142 unions just mentioned.

The fourth head, making the condition of the able-bodied pauper less eligible than that of the lowest class of independent labourer, the Commissioners strove incessantly to insist upon. But by 1847 they had given up attempting to secure this less eligible state by giving less food, inferior clothing, worse accommodation, or shorter hours of sleep than those enjoyed by even the average labourer. The Commissioners were now attempting to secure this less eligible state by monotonous toil, lack of all recreation, a total absence of any mental stimulus, and, where possible, by confinement within the workhouse walls.

But it was under the fifth head that the Commissioners had, by 1847, departed most widely from the principles of 1834, viz. in the kind of institutional treatment to be provided for such aged and infirm persons, or children, as the local authority chose to refuse outdoor relief to, and to receive in the workhouse. Following the lead of the Report of 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners took no steps, so far as we can ascertain, either to encourage or to discourage the relief of the aged and infirm, and of the sick, by money allowances in their own homes. But where these classes were admitted into the workhouse, the Commissioners, instead of the separate, specialised institutions recommended in the Report of 1834, prescribed one general workhouse to contain these classes together with the able-bodied and their families, and, we may add, also the orphan and deserted children. This involved, in spite of the elaborate classification nominally imposed, an indiscriminate, common establishment, with a uniform régime for all classes alike. This régime was, with the minimum of exceptions, that devised for the able-bodied adults. The workhouse of 1847 was, above all, to serve as a test of destitution, and as a place which the able-bodied would find less eligible than the worst independent existence. Hence when it was used for all classes-the aged and infirm, the sick, the dependent women, the young children, the defectives of various kinds, and those whom accident or sudden emergency had thrown within its walls-it was necessarily, to all of them alike, an institution which, whilst providing the full requirements of physical health, starved both the will and the intelligence, and forced the pauper into a condition of blank-mindedness.

It must be said that, between 1834 and 1847, there seems to have been entertained by some persons of authority and repute a simpler and most drastic view of the policy intended by the Report and Act of 1834, namely, the abolition, as soon as practicable, of all outdoor relief to all classes of paupers; and the substitution, in all cases, of the offer of admission to the workhouse. This was intended to ensure that the condition of the persons relieved should be “less eligible,” so as to induce them and their relatives to avoid maintenance out of the poor rate. It is clear, as we have shown, that neither the Inquiry Commissioners of 1834, nor Parliament, nor yet the Poor Law Commissioners themselves between 1834 and 1847, ever took that view. They were too fully conscious of the impossibility of so dealing with the great mass of the sick and the aged and infirm, and they had not at all made up their minds about widows with children, or even about unencumbered independent women. Harriet Martineau, indeed, who had not before her the statistics showing to what an enormous extent the pauperism-even that of 1834-was made up of the aged and infirm and the sick, could naïvely depict, in her Poor Law Tales, the complete success of an absolutely inflexible offer of “the House” to every applicant without exception; the result being an entirely depauperised parish, and the overseer turning the key in the door of an absolutely empty workhouse. What is more remarkable is to find even able subordinates of the Poor Law Commissioners talking as if they took this view. “It appears to me,” wrote Sir Francis Head in 1835, “that we have no discretion allowed to us to deliberate whether the workhouse system is good or bad. Our Poor Law Amendment Act is physic which the legislature, in the character of physician, has prescribed to remedy an acknowledged evil. We are called upon to administer it, and it seems to me that the only discretion granted to us is to determine what period is to elapse before all outdoor relief is to be stopped.”

Fortunately we are not left to conjecture in this matter. In 1847, on the eve of their transformation into the Poor Law Board, the Commissioners (then Sir George Nicholls, Sir George Cornewall Lewis and Sir Edmund Head) put officially on record what in their view had been the intention of the legislature in passing the Act of 1834, and what, in this respect, had been their own consistent policy. In a special report to the Home Secretary in 1847, they declare that: “In exercising the discretion entrusted to them by the legislature, the Commissioners have been placed between two extreme opinions with respect to the manner of framing their regulations. On the one hand, it is held that the main object of the Poor Law Amendment Act is the extinction or repression of outdoor relief generally (and not merely of the outdoor relief of the able-bodied), with the consequent diminution of the expenditure from the poor’s rate; and that the Commissioners ought to proceed to the accomplishment of this end with little regard to public opinion. On the other hand, it is asserted that the existing law, and the regulations made under it, have gone much too far in the limitation of the outdoor relief of the able-bodied, have effected too great a reduction in the amount of pauperism and the expenditure for the relief of the poor, and have thereby deprived the poorer classes of a vested right in the property of the rate-paying part of the community.

“The Commissioners have pursued a middle course, almost equally removed from each of these extremes. They have considered the main object of the legislature in passing the Poor Law Amendment Act to have been the extinction of the allowance system; or the system of making up the wages of labourers out of the poor’s rate. With this view their regulations respecting the limitation of outdoor relief have been almost exclusively confined to the able-bodied in health; and these regulations have been issued particularly to the rural unions inasmuch as it was in the agricultural counties, and not in the large towns or manufacturing districts, that the allowance system was most prevalent, and led to the most dangerous consequences…. The Commissioners … have to the utmost of their power given effect by their regulations to the views of the legislature.”

In 1847 the Poor Law Commissioners were, by Act of Parliament, abolished, and their duties transferred to the Poor Law Board, under a minister responsible to Parliament.


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: Position in 1847 Compared With the Principles of 1834
  • Author: Gareth H. Jones
  • Description: The Position in 1847 Compared With The Principles of 1834 and the Poor Law Commissioners In this issue about the position [...]

This entry was last updated: May 15, 2017


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