The Poor Law of 1834Category: 19th century
By the 19th century, Britain had become an industrial nation. The population of the country increased, as well as the number of poor people. For a generation the hand weavers and petty craftsmen had fought desperately to escape the factories. Year by year their incomes had fallen till a man could not hope to earn more than five or six shillings for a full working week. Even with the help of the existing Poor Law grants that was not enough to make ends meet. The weavers, as well as the unemployed and casually unemployed farm labourers starved.
According to the Poor Law remaining in force, people who could not help being poor could be given money or go to a workhouse run by a Darish. In the early 19th century most of the parishes grew too poor to take care of the ever-increasing amount of the poor. The British society faced a serious social problem. Something was to be done, and in 1834 the old Poor Law was amended.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 stated that no one fit to work was to receive money at home. Parishes were grouped into “unions”, and each union had to have a workhouse, and pay for it out of the rates. The principle of the new Poor Law was simple: every person in need of relief must receive it inside a workhouse. Workhouses had been places mainly for the reception of the aged, the disabled, of children and of all those too helpless and too defenceless to avoid being put there. In 1834 they became the only alternative to starvation for the poor.
The condition of a pauper in a workhouse was to be “less eligible” than that of the least prosperous workers outside. In the sinister language of the Poor Law Commission of 1834, the able-bodied inmate must be “subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious”. At a time when millions of people were on the verge of starvation, this object could only be achieved by making the workhouse the home of meanness and cruelty. Families were divided, food was poor and scanty and the tasks imposed were hard and boring, oakum picking and stone breaking being among the most common.
The administration of the Act was deliberately removed as far as possible from popular control by the appointment of three Commissioners who became the most detested men in England. People dreaded the workhouse and tried to protest. In some places workhouses were stormed and burnt after fierce clashes between people and troops. In many of the northern towns it was ten years or more before a workhouse was built. The mass agitation, however, died about 1840 and the Poor Law was put in force both in the rural and industrial areas.