Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Poor Laws

I have had to do quite a bit of research on the Poor Laws lately, first for my archive course and then to give a talk at work, and have found it fascinating. Before this, the little I knew about provision for the poor was that unemployment benefit (in certain circumstances) and old age pensions were introduced in the early 20th century and expanded into more generous payments with the introduction of the Welfare State in the 1940s. I kind of assumed that before that there were workhouses for the most destitute but otherwise the poor were pretty much left to sink or swim. I was wrong. In fact, England has had a formal system of provision for the poor for over 400 years. While it is fresh in my mind, I thought I would jot down the outline of the history of the Poor Laws. If you like history, carry on reading. If not, feel free to skip!

The original English Poor Law (different laws applied in Scotland) was introduced in 1597 and replaced in 1601 with a Poor Law that lasted for over 200 years. Under this "Old" Poor Law parishes were responsible for providing for the poor and needy within their bounds. Each parish appointed overseers of the poor to dispense relief as necessary, and all property holders within the parish had to pay a compulsory Poor Rate to finance it. Most parishes had some sort of poorhouse or workhouse where paupers unable to support themselves (mainly the old, the sick and children) could live - the standard of these varied widely, and could be pretty grim - but most support for the poor was given as cash payments, either to replace earnings for those unable to work or to supplement inadequate earnings. This interesting article about research based on records in the archive where I work estimates that in the late 18th century the elderly could receive pensions from the poor rate amounting to as much as 70% of the typical labourer's income.

By the late 18th and early 19th century the cost of providing for the poor was rising under the pressure of economic changes, bad harvests and the Napoleonic wars, and economic theorists began to argue that providing poor relief undermined the labour market and people's willingness and ability to provide for themselves (the concept of "scroungers" is not a new one!). By 1834 these ideas had become mainstream and triggered the introduction of a New Poor Law, which was intended to deter all but the most destitute from claiming relief. The New Poor Law tried to standardise provision for the poor through a central Poor Law Board that issued instructions to local Poor Law Unions which combined all the parishes in a local area. Each Union was expected to build a workhouse to accommodate all paupers within its boundaries. Workhouses were supposed to be as unappealing as possible, with a bland diet, no luxuries whatsoever, uniform clothing, hard and demeaning work (breaking stones and picking apart old ropes were common tasks), and the separation of families. Cash payments to paupers were supposed to end and those unable to support themselves were supposed to have no option but to enter the workhouse. In practice, this was never the way it worked. Workhouses were generally unpleasant places, though rarely as bad as Charles Dickens painted them (think Oliver Twist!), but payments continued to be made to many paupers living in their own homes. Local Boards of Guardians, who ran the Poor Law Unions, tended to resent central interference and to ignore or only partially implement instructions from the Poor Law Board. Putting a family into the workhouse was far more expensive than simply giving them help to stay in their own home, and in times of high unemployment forcing all paupers into the workhouse would have been impossible. In the end most workhouse inmates were those unable to work - the old, the sick, the incapable and children. The workhouse carried a terrible stigma and for the elderly the idea that they may have to end their days in the workhouse was a matter of dread.

The Poor Law came to an end in 1930 and was replaced first by provision for the poor through County and Borough Councils and after World War II by a centralised Welfare State. Most of the workhouses continued to be used for related purposes, either as hospitals for the poor or old people's homes, and many were eventually taken over by the National Health Service - in fact, I wonder whether the NHS would have been feasible in its existing form without the network of infrastructure it inherited from the Poor Law Unions.


ellie said...

Fascinating! Thank you for posting this: I love history, and always enjoy your archiving/history posts. I love learning about the ways in which a society functioned, and how people lived.

Theresa said...

Really fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

Like sunshine in the home said...

I read something about this recently, I can't remember where. Fascinating.

The hospital I was born in was a workhouse. It's now closed down (along with far too many hospitals in my local area!) and there are houses being built there.

When I hear about the old workhouses I think about pregnant Fanny Robin dragging herself to the Casterbridge workhouse in Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. The article I read recently about the Poor Laws and provisions explained that unmarried mothers would be provided for. This surprised me, as I thought that unmarried mothers would have been shunned in those days and left to fend for themselves. In fact, there was much done in those days to try to find wayward fathers so that they would do their duty and support their children. An early form of the CSA!

Like sunshine in the home said...

haha, you realise I mean the hospital that I was born in USED to be a workhouse...I'm not quite that old. :)