Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1834, Parliament enacted The Poor Law.

The Poor Law Amendment Act was a law, designed to relieve poverty by terrorising the poor into employment, with the threat of the dreaded workhouse.

Provision for the unemployed dates back to the Elizabethan age, when an economic recession brought mass starvation. An Act of 1601 allocated responsibility for the poor to parishes, which were obliged to provide workhouses to employ paupers. By the Eighteenth Century, these workhouses had degenerated into receptacles where every type of pauper, poor or criminal, young or old, well or healthy, was dumped. Other systems were put in place in various parts of the country, almshouses provided by charities, bread or money doles by parishes or the gentry, or ‘houses of correction’, prisons, which took in those unable or unwilling to work. By the Nineteenth Century, the system had become unworkable. Generous parishes attracted the poor and the system of doling out bread was, it was said, a disincentive to work.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 standardized the system of poor relief throughout England and Wales. Groups of parishes were combined into unions, supervised by local Guardians, made responsible for workhouses. All relief to the able-bodied in their own homes was forbidden, and all who wished to receive aid had to live in workhouses. Most importantly, conditions in the workhouses were made deliberately harsh, what was called in the Act ‘least eligible’, in order to discourage the poor from claiming relief. The workhouses became prisons for the poor. Inmates had to wear a prison style uniform, and men and women were kept separately. Some of the more humane workhouses allowed married couples to see each other for a brief period on Sundays.

In the industrial North of England, where the Industrial Revolution was beginning, the system failed miserably, as many workers found themselves temporarily unemployed, due to minor recessions, and entering the workhouse was the only means of survival. The failure of the system is well documented by Charles Dickens in his novels Hard Times and Oliver Twist. In 1846, an investigation into the workhouse at Andover, found that the overseer was starving inmates, who often had to eat peelings provided for pigs, and were locked in the mortuary as punishments. Female paupers were subjected to abuse by the overseer and his son.

In 1845, the system was extended to Scotland, where previously poor relief had been the responsibility of the local Kirk. The Scottish system was slightly more relaxed and allowed a grain or bread dole, but the structure broke down in the 1840s when the Highlands suffered severe crop failure.

In the 1880s, many workhouses added infirmaries or hospitals for the sick, and an Act of 1885 allowed those who were not paupers to make use of the infirmaries. Many of these buildings are still in use, as National Health hospitals.

The Liberal Government of 1906-1914 tried to replace the Poor Law system with social security, including Old Age Pensions and National Insurance. During the First World War, 1914-1918, full employment meant that only the aged, blind and lame were admitted to the workhouses, which resulted in many of them being closed down. The workhouses were officially abolished by the Local Government Act of 1929.

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