Modern British History

Palgrave master series

by Norman Lowe

Chapter 5

Poor Law reform

Study Sources A to G and then answer the questions that follow:

Source A:

A letter to a newspaper by George Nicholls, Overseer of the Poor at Southwell (Nottinghamshire), 1822.

Instead of giving way to the impulse of our feelings, by giving relief when something like distress approaches us, the overseers must resolutely refuse all parochial aid, except relief to the aged, infirm and impotent. The poor house ought to be so conducted as that the labouring part of the community might not see it as being better furnished, better provided, more comfortable than their homes. They should not, in winter, see all its chimneys cheerfully smoking, when their own homes are cold...nor all comforts filling the abode of the pauper, when their own habitations presented scenes of want and wretchedness. The dread of a poor house has decreased in about the same ratio as pauperism had increased, owing to the humane and well-meant endeavour to improve these receptacles, which are now so generally converted into abodes of comfort and even of apparent elegance. I wish to see the poor house looked to with dread by our labouring classes and the reproach for being an inmate of it extended downwards from father to son. Let the poor see and feel that their parish, although it will not allow them to perish from absolute want, is yet the hardest taskmaster and the most harsh and unkind friend they can apply to.

Source: Quoted in N.Longmate, The Workhouse, Maurice Temple Smith, 1969.

Source B:

A report by Sir Francis Head (one of the investigators appointed by the 1832 Royal Commission) after a tour of workhouses in Kent in 1832.

The River Workhouse, on the old Dover Road, is a splendid mansion. The dignity and elegance of its architecture, its broad double staircase, its spacious halls, the lofty bedrooms and its large windows form a ‘delightful retreat’, splendidly contrasted with the mean little rate-paying hovels at its feet...

In the smaller workhouses, minute classification has been found impossible. All that can be done is to put the males of all ages into one room and all the females into another. In either case the old are teased by the children who are growled at until they become cowed into silence...In one workhouse I saw a room full of sturdy labourers sitting round a stove with their faces scorched and half-roasted. As we passed them they never rose from their seats and had generally an over-fed, a mutinous and an insubordinate appearance.

Source: Source: As for Source A.

Source C:

Some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, 1834.

The first and most essential of all conditions is that his situation on the whole shall not be made as eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class. Throughout the evidence it is shown that in proportion as the pauper class is elevated above the condition of independent labourers, the condition of the independent class is depressed; their industry is impaired, their employment becomes unsteady and its recompense in wages is diminished. Such persons therefore are under the strongest inducement to quit the less eligible class of labourers and enter the more eligible class of paupers. The converse is the effect when the pauper class is placed in its proper position, below the condition of the independent labourer.

The chief measures which are recommended are:
First, that except as to medical attendance, all relief whatever to able-bodied persons or to their families, otherwise than in well-regulated workhouses, shall be declared unlawful and shall cease...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.

Source: Quoted in L.Evans and P.J.Pledger, Contemporary Sources and Opinions in Modern British History, Vol l, Warne, 1967

Source D:

Report of a meeting of Poor Law Guardians at Stow (Suffolk) in 1837.

The Board have now been acting in the execution of the Poor Law Amendment Act more than twelve months and think themselves justified in pronouncing it sound in principle, producing practical results exceeding their expectations and requiring but little alteration in detail. The expenditure of the several parishes within this Union has been reduced in the aggregate 44.75 per cent without diminishing the comforts of the aged and infirm. The Board attribute this reduction mainly to their having offered admission to the House instead of giving money out of doors to those whose idleness formerly made them continuous applicants for Relief.

That symptoms of returning industry are clearly visible amongst this class throughout the Union. That in particular this Board is convinced that the present arrangements for medical relief are such as to ensure attention to the wants of the Poor.

Source: Quoted in R.Watson, Edwin Chadwick, Poor Law and Public Health, Longman, 1969.

Source E:

Comments on the New Poor Law by Nassau Senior, made in 1842; he was chairman of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws 1832-4.

A more general estimate of the improvement may be made by comparing the total amount of the poor rates in 1834 with the amount

in 1840. The amount for 1834 was £7,511,218, that for 1840 was £5,110,683 - the difference being nearly one-third. We attach, however, comparatively little importance to the financial results of the Poor Law Amendment Act . We are grateful to the Commissioners not for having saved £2,400,000 a year, but for having stopped the progress of the plague and improved the morals of the people. The general result may be stated to be that the labourer, finding himself no longer entitled to a fixed income, whatever his idleness or misconduct, becomes stimulated to activity and honesty by the double motive of hope and fear.

Source: As for Source C.

Source F:

Extracts from The Condition of the Working Classes, by Friedrich Engels, published in 1844. Engels was a German socialist writer and philosopher who lived mainly in England after 1842.

Since the rich have all the power, the working classes must submit to have the law actually declare them as not required. This has been done by the New Poor Law. The regulation of these workhouses, or as the people call them, Poor Law Bastilles, is such as to frighten away everyone who has the slightest prospect of life without this form of public charity. The workhouse has been made the most repulsive residence which the ingenuity of a follower of Malthus can invent. In the workhouse at Greenwich in the summer of 1843, a boy of five years old was punished by being shut in the dead room, where he had to sleep upon the lids of the coffins. At Bacton (Suffolk) in January 1844, patients who were often restless at night or who tried to get up, were tied fast with cords passed under the bedstead, to save the nurse the trouble of sitting up at night.

Source: As for Sources C and E.
  1. How useful and how reliable are Sources A, B and C as evidence about the Poor Law system before the 1834 reforms? (10 marks)
  2. (i) In what ways does Source F either support or contradict the claims made in Sources D and E? (4 marks); (ii) What reasons can you think of to explain why the writers of Sources D and E were so pleased with the 1834 Act whereas the writer of Source F disapproves so strongly? (4 marks)
  3. Using the evidence of the sources and your own knowledge, explain how far you think the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was successful. (8 marks)
  4. What difficulties face the historian in trying to write an objective account of the New Poor Law? (4 marks)
(Total 30 marks)