Poor Law Amendment Act

Since the Elizabethan Era, a series of confusing, haphazard laws governed poor relief in England and Wales. By the late 18th century, fears grew that able-bodied vagabonds abused poor relief to the detriment of the ratepayers who funded local aid. In other words, many believed scroungers, who were simply unwilling to work for a reasonable wage, exploited the Old Poor Laws. Many believed existing legislation encouraged the poor to become lazy and morally lax. According to contemporaries, it wasn’t fair that so many were allowed to prosper off the backs of hardworking citizens.

According to the authors of the Poor Law Commissioner’s Report of 1834, Sir Edwin Chadwick and Nassau William Senior, the relief of the able-bodied was the most pressing of evils. The commissioners travelled to parishes to witness the state of poor relief, circulating questionnaires across England and Wales. Previously, relief was administered to those who applied, without vigorous scrutiny. Applicants received aid in the form of accommodation or weekly sums of money. In order to prevent laziness, the Report stated under no circumstance should relief put paupers in a better financial position than the lowest paid labourers. The Report insinuates that individuals are in full control of their socio-economic well being, homelessness and poverty are the result of individual failure, not fluctuating trade cycles, unemployment or economic recessions. Still, let’s not forget that the 19th century was a period of serious social and economic transformation.

The New Poor Laws were written under the belief that all able-bodied individuals should not be entitled to relief or subsidy without the exchange of labour. The key administrative changes enshrined by the Act ensured that all relief was contained within the infamous workhouses of the Victorian era. The legislation itself largely concerned administrative changes. Groups of parishes were unionised, governed by a newly established board of guardians, and tasked with the operation of workhouses. A newly ordained central body of Poor Law Commissioners oversaw Poor Law Guardians, an attempt to regulate and centralise relief efforts. In reality, there was a vast difference between the principles and actual administration of the law. Despite the governments centralising efforts, local policy differed regionally and over time. Both the Report and the Poor Law Amendment Act seem harsh, but don’t let legislative history fool you, governmental records show us the values of few and do not always reflect the reality of practice. Still, the New Poor Laws reinvigorated a reoccurring debate in our modern history: who is worthy of relief?

What do you think?