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The Able-bodied in United Kingdom

The Able-bodied and the Local Government Board

In this issue about the able-bodied, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: National Uniformity

In the absence of new Statutes, and of alterations in the General Orders relating to the relief by boards of guardians of the able-bodied, there was, of course, between 1871 and 1907, no step towards national uniformity. The country continued to be divided up geographically into three regions, according to whether or not the Central Authority had permitted the grant of outdoor relief to able-bodied men, subject to a labour test; and to whether or not it had permitted outdoor relief to able-bodied women without children. And unlike the period 1847-1871, that of 1871-1907 did not witness any important alteration in the geographical extension of these three regions, though the relative populations altered very considerably. The general policy of the Central Authority, in issuing the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order to rural districts, with or without the Labour Test Order when required, and in issuing to the large towns the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order, was continued throughout the whole period.

(ii.) The Workhouse Test

What happened for the first five-and-twenty years of the Local Government Board was, as we have indicated, a general tightening up in the administration of all three regions. The Central Authority intimated that it would not easily give the approval that was necessary for any departure from the orders. “In unions where the Prohibitory Order is in force,” said the circular to the inspectors of 2nd December 1871, “the workhouse test should be strictly applied…. The Board will not be prepared to sanction any cases which are not reported within the time limited by the order, and in which the reports do not contain a detailed statement of the paupers to which they refer, showing the number of their respective families with the ages and number of children employed, amount of wages of the several members of the family at work, cause of destitution, period during which they have been without employment, amount of relief, if any, given previously to the transmission of the report, and what extent of accommodation for all classes exists in the workhouse at the time.”

As times became bad, the Central Authority received “applications … for a relaxation of the provisions of the General Out-relief Prohibitory Order, and for the substitution of an outdoor labour test for the more effective test of destitution afforded by the offer of relief in the workhouse.” Instead of yielding to these requests, as had formerly happened, the Central Authority now replied, “that the Supplemental Outdoor Labour Test Order is not intended to supersede, but to be subsidiary to the General Out-relief Prohibitory Order, and should not be brought into operation so long as there is sufficient room in the workhouse available for able-bodied paupers.” “A strict adherence to the workhouse test,” said the Central Authority, “on such occasions when temporary relief is demanded solely from the state of the weather, is essentially beneficial to the labouring classes, and conducive to their real interest. A certainty of obtaining outdoor relief in his own home, whenever he may demand it, extinguishes in the mind of the labourer all motive for husbanding his earnings, and induces him to rely exclusively upon the rates, instead of upon his own savings, for any momentary relief which he may require from the sudden cessation of his usual employment. The unfailing application of the workhouse test, on the other hand, makes him at once aware that the only form in which he can receive relief is as an ordinary inmate of the workhouse, and the strongest inducement to support himself and his family is thus held out to him, an inducement altogether wanting when the guardians, upon his application, readily grant him outdoor relief.”

But, as already mentioned, the Central Authority, though pressed to do so, did not consent to make the Out-relief Prohibitory Order co-extensive with the country. “The Order,” it replied, “is now in force in all the rural unions … and in many urban unions also, and the Board continue to apply its provisions from time to time to other unions as often as the circumstances enable them to do so, but it has never been attempted to apply the provisions of the Order to the Metropolis, or those centres of manufacturing industry where large numbers of persons are periodically thrown out of employment by sudden and extensive depressions of trade.” In such places, as it was explained, it would certainly be found necessary to abrogate the Order at those periods, and this would weaken its force generally.

(iii.) The Labour Test

Where the relief of able-bodied men outside the workhouse was not prohibited, we see the Central Authority in these years not only rigidly maintaining the rule as to a labour test (whether under the Out-relief Regulation Order or under a Labour Test Order supplementary to the Out-relief Prohibitory Order); but also seeking to make the administration more strict. This rule, it was explained in 1879, “is one the value of which has been experienced at various times, and in various parts of the country, as a test of the actual destitution of the applicant; and to the observance of which, in times of serious pressure, such as the present, the Board attach very great importance. The Board are not prepared to suspend the operation of the articles in question generally; but if while applying its provisions, the guardians should be of opinion that, in certain special cases which might arise, it would be proper that the strict application of these provisions should not be enforced, the Board, on receiving a particular report of the circumstances under Article 10 of the Order, would be prepared to give their favourable consideration to the cases.” Even in such a severe crisis of unemployment as that of 1879-81, when the number of men thrown out of work was probably greater than at any date from 1841 down to the present day, the Central Authority held to its view of what the labour test should be. “For this object,” it was explained, “the operations of breaking stone and picking oakum (when performed under proper superintendence) are in many respects very appropriate, and, having regard to the objection to employing paupers on work of a productive character, which may interfere with the ordinary callings or employment of any portion of the independent population of the district, the Board are unable to suggest any other kind of work than those named.” Nor was even breaking stone or picking oakum to be paid for as wages, or regarded as employment. “With regard to the proposal of the guardians to pay 2s. 6d. for each ton of stones broken,” the Central Authority stated “that the task is intended merely for a test of destitution, and that the relief granted to each pauper should not be proportioned to the quantity of stone broken by him, but to the necessities of his case.” The inspectors were instructed to press the guardians everywhere not to grant even admission to “the stoneyard” as a matter of course; “orders to able-bodied men for relief in the labour yard should only be given from week to week”; and the homes of the men so relieved should be visited by the relieving officer at least once a fortnight.Moreover, even this relief was intended to be only temporary; and the conditions were sometimes made more onerous after the first few weeks. “In the Poplar Union, at the expiration of the first month, the applicant is required to come to the stoneyard an hour earlier and to leave an hour later than before, and to break an additional bushel of stones.” Gradually we see it being assumed, even as regards unions under the Out-relief Regulation Order, that it is merely “when the workhouse accommodation is insufficient,” or “so long as they have not adequate workhouse accommodation,” that relief should be given with a labour test. Right down to February 1886, the Central Authority declared that it “would not feel justified in relaxing” the regulations which prohibited relief to able-bodied men, however temporary and undeserved might be their want of employment, “without any such test of destitution as is provided by admission to a properly managed workhouse, or the performance of an adequate task of work.” To cope with the distress caused by unemployment, the Holborn Guardians on 9th February 1886 were, in fact, expressly told to hire a stoneyard.

(iv.) The Modified Workhouse Test Order

In one union there was an attempt, to which the Central Authority in 1887 gave its approval by Special Order, to substitute for the labour test provisions of the Out-relief Regulation Order, a special application of the “Workhouse Test.” This Order, limited in duration to twelve months, permitted outdoor relief to be given to the wife and family of an able-bodied man, without a labour test, on condition that the man himself entered the workhouse. This device was intended to get over the three principal obstacles to the universal adoption of the “Workhouse Test” for the able-bodied, viz. the lack of sufficient accommodation in workhouses; the objection to “breaking up the home”; and the undesirability of bringing the wives, and especially the children, under workhouse influences. This Order, which was not renewed on its expiry, and not issued to any other union for nearly twenty years, was, as we have said, asked for as a means of making the administration of relief more stringent than it was under the Out-relief Regulation Order. Combined with the establishment of a special “Test Workhouse,” which we shall presently describe, it might come near to being a penal alternative. But it is, as we shall see afterwards, important rather as a precedent capable also of application in an entirely humanitarian way.

(v.) The Test Workhouse

It must be noted that, whilst the inspectorate was in these years doing its utmost to insist on “the offer of the house” to all able-bodied persons, it was also encouraging boards of guardians to make the workhouse for such persons an exclusively disciplinary institution. This had, as we have mentioned, been suggested by Mr. Corbett in 1868. The pressure on the accommodation of the Metropolitan workhouses, and the mixing together of so many different classes of inmates, made it impossible, Mr. Corbett had pointed out, “to apply the workhouse as a test of destitution to single able-bodied men.” “In urging upon boards of guardians in the Metropolis,” repeated his successor, Mr. Longley, “as I have lately had occasion to do almost daily, the application of the workhouse test, I have not infrequently been met by the startling admission that the workhouse is attractive to paupers; that there are many persons in the workhouse who could maintain themselves out of doors; and, in short, that the workhouse furnishes no test of destitution. All arguments in support of the workhouse test which assume the existence of a ‘well-regulated workhouse’ (to use the language of the Poor Law Commissioners of Inquiry, 1833) must fail at once when addressed to guardians whose workhouse offers attractions to the indolent. And I have reason to think that the aversion to the proper and free use of the workhouse which distinguishes many Metropolitan boards of guardians, is in some measure due to the failure of the workhouses, as at present administered, to satisfy the essential conditions of their establishment.”

Mr. Longley was told to prepare an elaborate report on indoor relief in the Metropolis, and in this he expressed his emphatic opinion that “the deterrent discipline … fails at present to be duly enforced in London workhouses almost without exception…. The general tone of their administration is that of the almshouse rather than of the workhouse system.” He traced this inconvenient laxity to the very nature of the general workhouse for all classes, which the Central Authority had substituted for the series of specialised institutions recommended in the Report of 1834. “The presence in a workhouse,” he said, “of the sick, or of any class in whose favour the ordinary discipline must be relaxed, and who receive special indulgences, has an almost inevitable tendency to impair the general discipline of the establishment.” The very improvement in the workhouses, which, under the Central Authority’s own pressure, was taking place in these years, had, in fact, brought to light the inherent drawback of the general workhouse. Hence the able-bodied, like the children and the sick, were now to be accommodated by themselves. Thus we find, from 1871 onwards, the idea of the “Test Workhouse,” an institution set apart exclusively for the able-bodied, where they could be subjected (to use Mr. Longley’s words) to “such a system of labour, discipline, and restraint as shall be sufficient to outweigh,” in the estimation of the inmates, “the advantages” which they enjoy. Mr. Longley declared that the main object of the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 had been, not exclusively, or even principally, the better accommodation of the sick, but the introduction of classification by institutions, with the double object of, on the one hand, an improved treatment of the sick, and, on the other, “the establishment of a stricter and more deterrent discipline in workhouses.” Circumstances, he said, had delayed the accomplishment of the latter purpose, but it was now time for the Central Authority to “urge upon guardians the establishment in workhouses of a more distinctly deterrent system of discipline and diet than has hitherto been secured,” involving “a reconsideration of the conditions of pauper labour and service in workhouses.”

Under the influence of the inspectorate, we see half the unions in London gradually agreeing to take advantage of the powers given by the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867, and to make use, for their able-bodied paupers, of the workhouse of the Poplar Union, which now sent its sick to the new “sick asylum,” its children to the district school, and its aged and infirm to the workhouse of another union. This establishment of a test workhouse for the able-bodied received at first the warm commendation of the Central Authority. The Poplar workhouse, with its rigid discipline, its absolutely limited diet and its severe task of monotonous toil (oakum-picking and stone-pounding), measured not by time but by a prescribed quantity, became a terror. For the next seven years, we see the guardians offering, sometimes to “troublesome” paupers, sometimes to all able-bodied applicants, male or female-not outdoor relief upon a labour test-but “an order for Poplar.” “Notwithstanding the considerable number of unions which have availed themselves of this privilege, the number … who have accepted the relief, or having accepted it, have remained in the workhouse, has been so small that, although the workhouse will contain 768 persons, there were in it at the close of last year only 166 inmates.” In 1878, however, the Metropolitan police magistrates seem to have expressed disapproval of the penal character which the institution had assumed. A woman brought up for refusing to do her task of oakum-picking at Poplar was discharged, with the observation that such work was not a fit task to set to women in receipt of Poor Law relief. On these sentiments becoming known, as the Poplar Guardians informed the Central Authority, “the master of the workhouse has a very considerable amount of trouble in getting any work done now by the inmates.” The Central Authority, in reply, sympathised with the difficulty, but could, after six weeks’ deliberation, do nothing but express the hope that the Poplar Guardians would be able to convert the magistrates to their views.

The difficulty seems to have continued, for, in 1881, the Central Authority issued an Order permitting the Poplar Guardians to use their workhouse for other than the able-bodied, thus bringing the experiment to an end.

It is to be noted that, in spite of the Poplar experience, the policy of a special “Test House,” devoted exclusively to the able-bodied, continued to be pressed on guardians by the Inspectorate. The Birmingham Guardians established such a “test house,” in 1880, but it seems to have been opened to other classes in 1887. In the latter year, notwithstanding this renewed abandonment, we see Mr. Henley pressing the same policy on the Manchester Guardians, leading them to visit Birmingham to inspect the test house there. In the Metropolis, the inspectorate got the Kensington workhouse made use of in 1882, in substitution for that of Poplar, though only for males; and able-bodied applicants were, for thirteen years, referred thither. This arrangement came to an end in 1905, greatly to the regret of the inspectorate. This Kensington test house, it was said, “for many years did useful work as a place where really able-bodied men were received from all parts of London, and kept hard at work under strict surveillance. As the Kensington Guardians now need the workhouse for their own purposes this arrangement has of necessity ceased…. The number of really able-bodied men in the London workhouses at one time is never very large, but it is large enough to make it extremely desirable that there should be at least one workhouse exclusively for such a class, to which, and to which only, they might be admitted.”

As an adjunct of the policy of the deterrent workhouse for the able-bodied, we have to note the coming-in of compulsory detection. This, of course, had been entirely absent from “the principles of 1834,” according to which every inmate of the workhouse was to be free to quit it, with no more notice than was required for the convenience of the establishment. “Much evil,” said a Circular of 1871, “has arisen, and … the discipline of the workhouse has been seriously impaired by the frequent exercise of the power which the inmates have hitherto possessed of discharging themselves from the workhouse at short and uncertain notice, claiming re-admission as might best suit their inclination and convenience.” This was remedied by a statute in 1871 which gave the guardians a power to detain, with which we shall deal in our section on the workhouse.

(vi.) The Provision of Employment

In the midst of all the efforts of the inspectorate to secure stricter administration, made apparently with the ungrudging support of the Central Authority, there came, in February 1886, an altogether incongruous intervention by the new President (Mr. Chamberlain), who had then been only a few weeks in office. On 19th February 1886, he addressed a public letter to the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, saying that “there is considerable distress amongst workpeople of a class above that of the persons who usually apply for poor law relief”; and urging the Board “to expedite as far as practicable the commencement of any public works which they may be contemplating, so that additional employment may be afforded.” Four weeks later this policy was embodied in a circular to all boards of guardians, which may be said to have begun, for good or for evil, a new era as regards the treatment of such of the able-bodied as were classed as “the unemployed.” Whilst nominally upholding the workhouse test and, when that is impossible, the labour test, for the relief of the able-bodied pauper, the circular lays it down emphatically that an altogether different provision must be made for the unemployed wage-earner. The President was “convinced that in the ranks of those who do not ordinarily seek poor law relief there is evidence of much and increasing privation,” among persons “usually in regular employment.” It was, in his view, “not desirable that the working classes should be familiarised with Poor Law Relief;” and the guardians were recommended “to endeavour to arrange” with the local municipal authorities for the execution of such public works as the laying out, paving and cleansing of streets, sewerage and water works, the laying-out of recreation grounds and new cemeteries, and “spade husbandry on sewage farms.” The men to be selected from among the special class referred to were to be engaged by the municipal authorities upon the recommendation of the guardians. They were to be paid wages, though at somewhat below the ordinary rates; every encouragement being given to the municipal authorities to raise loans for the purpose. The men would thus not be paupers, nor in receipt of anything from the Poor Rate, the intervention of the guardians being confined to inciting the local municipal authorities to undertake the work, and to recommending the candidates for employment.

The policy thus laid down by Mr. Chamberlain, of finding municipal work for the unemployed, was, it will be seen, a revival of the expedient adopted in the Lancashire Cotton Famine. But Mr. Chamberlain omitted to safeguard his proposal in the way in which the works started out of the Government loans to the Lancashire municipal authorities in 1863-6 had been (in practice, though not explicitly in terms) safeguarded. It was not explained-perhaps it was not realised-that the conditions of success in the Lancashire experiment had been: (i.) that no pretence should be made of taking on the unemployed as such, and, in particular, that the casual labourer class, whether temporarily unemployed or not, should be definitely excluded; and (ii.) that the direct advantage to unemployed workmen should be limited to the taking on, to do the unskilled labourer’s work, of a restricted proportion of selected applicants, not of the labouring but of the skilled artisan class. These necessary conditions were not expounded by the Central Authority either in 1886 or in subsequent years. Successive presidents repeated Mr. Chamberlain’s suggestions, with no more limitations than he had laid down. Mr. Ritchie, for instance, in the following year, told a deputation of Boards of Guardians that, although they could not legally give employment, as distinguished from poor relief, they “might assist the local authorities, if the latter undertook public works, by sending to them persons applying for relief, who would no doubt prefer to be relieved by temporary employment rather than by becoming a burden on the rates.” In 1891 (a year of “good trade,” by the way) Mr. Ritchie sent a circular to the Metropolitan vestries and district boards, urging them to provide employment by street cleaning, etc., “in concert with the Boards of Guardians,” who were to be “afforded the opportunity of recommending for employment persons who from their previous circumstances and condition it is most desirable should not be placed under the necessity of receiving relief at the cost of the rates.” Similar letters were sent to the Boards of Guardians. In November 1892, Mr. Fowler, afterwards Lord Wolverhampton, reproduced Mr. Chamberlain’s Circular of 1886, and recommended municipal works, “in order that the pauperisation of those persons whose difficulties are occasioned only by exceptional circumstances arising from temporary scarcity of employment … may as far as practicable be avoided.” In 1893 again, under Mr. Shaw Lefevre’s presidency, similar circulars were sent out. In 1895, Mr. Shaw Lefevre, afterwards Lord Eversley, again issued circulars using the very phrases of that of 1886, which were addressed, first to all the boards of guardians, and then to all the rural and urban district councils, asking the former about the distress, and urging the latter to undertake works, in conference with the boards of guardians, in order to afford employment to artisans and others, reduced to want through the prolonged frost. The House of Commons, two days later, appointed a Committee to consider what could be done, at the request of which circulars were sent to all municipalities and district councils asking what had been done. Called upon to justify itself by the Committee presided over by Mr., afterwards Sir Henry, Campbell-Bannerman, the Central Authority explained what had been done, both in the way of Presidential Circulars about unemployment, and in the way of Poor Law relief to the able-bodied. It did not in this emergency suggest or issue any new General Orders, but it sanctioned “departures from the rules as regards outdoor relief in particular cases.” Moreover, there was, as Sir Hugh Owen explained, “no indisposition on the part of the Local Government Board to comply with an application from a board of guardians for the issue of the Outdoor Labour Test Order when the circumstances have appeared to be such as to require it.” Meanwhile the public controversy that was taking place, the reports of the proceedings of the Committee, and above all the circulars demanding information from all the local authorities in the Kingdom, enormously stimulated the idea that the unemployed had got to be specially dealt with in such a way as to “prevent the stigma of pauperism, and the consequent loss of citizenship.” The Committee, after making elaborate inquiries, practically endorsed the policy of Mr. Chamberlain’s Circular of 1886, of bringing municipal work to the aid of the unemployed, and carried it even further. They definitely recommended the adoption, as a constant feature of municipal work, though only in respect of the annually recurring slackness of employment in the winter months, of the policy of using the public orders in such a way as to regularise the aggregate volume of employment. As regards the Metropolis, it was recommended that individual boards of guardians might contribute, with the sanction of the Local Government Board, out of the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, half the cost of the works undertaken by the vestries or district boards at their instance. Moreover, as it had been discovered that the Acts of 1819 and 1830 had not been repealed, which authorised the local Poor Law authorities to purchase or hire not exceeding 50 acres of land on which to set the poor to work at reasonable wages-statutes which the Central Authority had persistently ignored as obsolete, and had refused to make the rules under which alone they could be made operative-the Committee recommended: “That the Local Government Board should consider the application of such powers, and make rules for the use of boards of guardians in relation thereto.”

Finally we come, with regard to the relief of the section of the able-bodied who may be deemed to be “the unemployed,” to Mr. Long’s scheme, embodied in the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, under which distress committees of the local municipal councils, formed partly of members nominated by the boards of guardians, are empowered to make special provision for those of the able-bodied who are “unemployed,” without their becoming paupers, in the way of: (i.) emigration; (ii.) internal migration; (iii.) temporary employment; (iv.) farm colonies; or (v.) labour exchanges; at the expense, so far as emigration, migration, labour exchanges, and the cost of the whole machinery are concerned, of the local municipal rates, and, so far as the actual relief or wages is concerned, of voluntary subscriptions or subventions from the National Exchequer.

(vii.) The Farm Colony

Meanwhile various boards of guardians had obtained the sanction of the Central Authority for another method of dealing with that section of the able-bodied who are termed “the unemployed.” Upon the pressing and repeated advice of the Central Authority itself, the Poplar Board (which did not at first respond to the suggestion) had in later years cordially co-operated with the local municipal authority in making employment for the unemployed. The increase in the number of able-bodied applicants had continued. The workhouse was full, and indeed overcrowded. In October 1893 Mr. Lansbury had tried in vain to induce his fellow guardians to apply for the (Whitechapel) Modified Workhouse Test Order, permitting the admission to the workhouse of the men alone, whilst the families received outdoor relief. Two months later the Central Authority was asked to sanction the expenditure of ?500 chargeable to the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, to provide work for able-bodied applicants on three days a week. The Central Authority felt unable to sanction so vague a proposal, and practically invited a more definite scheme. Presently the idea of a farm colony, on which to employ able-bodied men, whilst their families remained on outdoor relief in London, received the approval of a conference of Metropolitan guardians. The Central Authority stated that, whilst it could not sanction any combination of areas with this object, it would consider any proposal by a board of guardians for the purpose. When, however, the Poplar Board of Guardians made such a proposal, the Central Authority declined to contemplate any action under the statutes of 1819 and 1830 already referred to, and persisted in regarding the proposed farm colony as merely a branch workhouse, deprecating it on account of the expense and distance. Finally, by the generosity of Mr. Joseph Fels in placing land gratuitously at the disposal of the Poplar Board, the project in 1904 got under way, and the Central Authority (after suggesting, as an alternative, the use of the test workhouse at Kensington, which, as above mentioned, was on the point of coming to an end) sanctioned the extensive farm colony at Laindon under the pretence that it was a temporary workhouse, to which all the regulations of the General Consolidated Order of 1847, and all the elaborately prescribed dietaries of the Dietaries and Accounts Order of 1900, were nominally to apply. At first the view of the Central Authority seems to have been that the men were not receiving indoor relief, but were, under the Out-relief Regulation Order of 1852, performing a task of work in a temporary workhouse, and were thus, we assume, receiving outdoor relief in respect of their wives and families in return for such a labour test.

In February 1905, however, the so-called (Whitechapel) Modified Workhouse Test Order was issued to Poplar, under which the men alone could be admitted to the workhouse, and become indoor paupers, their wives and families receiving outdoor relief.

Meanwhile the farm colony experiment was being tried in another form. The Central Authority gave its sanction, in March 1904, to the Poplar Board of Guardians sending some of their able-bodied male paupers to the Hadleigh farm colony of the Salvation Army, at a payment at the rate of ?28:12s. per annum for each man, in addition to the outdoor relief granted to his wife and family. In the following year it gave its sanction to a similar proposal by the Bradford Board of Guardians.We do not know in what other instances the Central Authority tried this particular form of the farm colony experiment. The Lingfield farm colony of the Church Army was also being made use of by some boards of guardians, presumably with the sanction of the Central Authority. We do not understand why these interesting farm colony experiments undertaken by Poplar, Bradford, and other boards of guardians, with the special sanction of the Central Authority, find no mention, either in its annual reports for 1904-5 or 1905-6, or in the reports for those years of the inspectors for the districts.


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: The Able-bodied
  • Author: Glanville L. Williams
  • Description: The Able-bodied and the Local Government Board In this issue about the able-bodied, the book English Poor Law Policy [1] [...]

This entry was last updated: January 3, 2017

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