British Parliament Passes New Poor Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Passage of the new Poor Law by the British parliament represented the culmination of fifty years of experimentation in poor relief; it sought to make relief more stringent, more centralized, and more in tune with a capitalist labor market.

Summary of Event

England’s first Poor Laws for poor relief dated from the Reformation period and were based on local parish support. The spirit and application of the laws had varied, as had the degree of central control. Some parishes treated the poor in a humanitarian way, while others were harsh. The Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution;and poor laws[Poor laws] and the Napoleonic Wars had brought serious new economic problems to Great Britain’s poor. The plight of the agricultural laborers had become desperate by the late 1790’s because of low wages caused by general agricultural distress. Poor Law of 1834 (Great Britain) Great Britain;Poor Laws Great Britain;workhouses [kw]British Parliament Passes New Poor Law (Aug. 14, 1834) [kw]Parliament Passes New Poor Law, British (Aug. 14, 1834) [kw]Passes New Poor Law, British Parliament (Aug. 14, 1834) [kw]New Poor Law, British Parliament Passes (Aug. 14, 1834) [kw]Poor Law, British Parliament Passes New (Aug. 14, 1834) [kw]Law, British Parliament Passes New Poor (Aug. 14, 1834) Poor Law of 1834 (Great Britain) Great Britain;Poor Laws Great Britain;workhouses [g]Great Britain;Aug. 14, 1834: British Parliament Passes New Poor Law[1870] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 14, 1834: British Parliament Passes New Poor Law[1870] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 14, 1834: British Parliament Passes New Poor Law[1870] [c]Economics;Aug. 14, 1834: British Parliament Passes New Poor Law[1870] Chadwick, Sir Edwin Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and New Poor Law[New Poor Law] Fielden, John Oastler, Richard O’Connor, Feargus Edward Senior, Nassau William Spencer, John Charles Walter, John, II

This situation resulted in the humanitarian but unsound Speenhamland system Speenhamland system , which began at Speenhamland, near Newbury, Berkshire, England, in 1795. Under that system, the government supplemented wages of the poor from parish taxes in order to maintain a living wage for workers. The Speenhamland system was most common in the rural parishes of southern England, but on occasion periodic unemployment in industrial districts also required extensive expenditures. The system led to a number of serious problems and abuses such as the growth of pauperism, idleness, illegitimacy, and general demoralization of character. It also subsidized farmers who hired only laborers on relief since they could then pay them lower wages. The system also encouraged workers to get on the relief roles in order to be hired.

The huge and rapidly increasing costs of the Speenhamland system Speenhamland system finally caused a rising demand for change. More than 50 percent of local English property tax revenues were going for poor relief. Some rural parishes in the south were near ruin because of the high cost of the system. The situation was aggravated by the Law of Settlement, which caused the parishes in which men were born or apprenticed to support them when they were out of work. That law encouraged factory employers to send their unemployed workers back to their original parishes when business slackened.

Another cause for change was the appearance of new economic theories, such as utilitarianism, with its ideas of centralization and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Others included Malthusianism, with its emphasis on the danger of overpopulation among the poor, and Manchester Manchester, England;liberalism liberalism, with its insistence on economic individualism and laissez-faire. From different perspectives, they all condemned existing practices of dealing with the poor. A further source of alarm in 1830 was a series of disturbances in rural areas where workers demanded allowances as a right.

A Royal Commission, appointed shortly after the Whigs Whig Party (British);and Poor Laws[Poor Laws] took office in 1830, issued a report on the Poor Laws after two years of study. This Poor Law Study Commission was dominated by economists of the utilitarian and Malthusian type, most notably Nassau William Senior Senior, Nassau William and Edwin Chadwick. Chadwick, Sir Edwin The commission recommended that relief be abolished for the able-bodied, who should be forced to live in workhouses if they were destitute. The commission also proposed that relief payments should be considered loans to be repaid. The administration should be centralized in the national government, and parishes should be grouped into unions for more efficiency and freedom from local influences. Moreover, workhouses were to be made as unattractive as possible to discourage idleness. Separate workhouses were to be provided for the old, the sick, and children. In the matter of illegitimate children, searches for fathers were to cease, and mothers were to be held responsible and sent to workhouses with their children. The commission apparently followed the preconceived theories of its leading members without studying the problems in depth or even gathering statistics to any great extent.

From the commission’s report came the Poor Law Amendment Bill of 1834, sponsored by the Whig Whig Party (British);and Poor Laws[Poor Laws] government. It proposed to set up a centralized administrative structure and authorized the building of workhouses. While generally allowing only “indoor” or workhouse relief, an amendment added by the duke of Wellington Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;and poor laws[Poor laws] authorized the continuation of “outdoor” relief outside workhouses if it was considered necessary. The bill did not adopt all the recommendations of the Poor Law Study Commission, but most members of Parliament assumed that those recommendations would be put into effect.

Benjamin Disraeli rising to give his first speech in Parliament.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Sponsored by Viscount Althorp in the House of Lords and by John Charles Spencer Spencer, John Charles in the House of Commons, the Poor Law Amendment Bill moved through Parliament in fewer than four months in mid-1834 because of politicians’ fear of popular resentment. Most Whig and Tory landowners supported the bill in the hope that it would reduce the high costs of relief. Most Radicals and Liberals supported it as a Benthamite step toward a more efficient centralized government and as an expression of liberal economic theories. The chief opposition to the bill came from a small group of humanitarian Tories and democratic Radicals. Much of the press, especially The Times of London Times, The (London) , edited by John Walter II Walter, John, II , bitterly attacked the bill, but its vagueness made it a hard target to hit. Besides the humanitarian opposition, many believed that the centralized method of poor relief that it would impose was unconstitutional. As a concession to this view, the bill’s life was limited to five years, and it passed into law.

After the bill was passed on August 14, 1834, new Poor Law commissioners were appointed to control all aspects of social welfare previously handled by different agencies. The first secretary of the commission, Edwin Chadwick, Chadwick, Sir Edwin an efficient but harsh and insensitive bureaucrat, strove to make the workhouses as undesirable to live in as possible so that they would become refuges only to those facing starvation. The goal was to make the standard of living in workhouses worse than that of the poorest paid laborers. However, during the 1830’s wages were often near the starvation level anyway. Therefore, to discourage workers from entering workhouses, deliberately harsh regulations were drawn up.

In practice, the new Poor Law proved considerably less centralized than Chadwick and the utilitarians intended. During the implementation of the statute beginning in the autumn of 1834, the itinerant assistant commissioners traveling throughout the countryside ran up against the reality of well-entrenched local elites. Peers and gentry insisted that the organizing of poor law unions (groupings of parishes) conform as much as possible to the boundaries of their landed estates. Local leaders tended to take a leading part on the new boards of guardians as well, with the result that the Poor Law Commission in London had to negotiate the terms of the reform with them.

Such matters as workhouse dietaries and the granting of outdoor relief varied from union to union and were frequently at variance with commission directives. Nevertheless, the peers, gentry, and prosperous farmers who dominated most boards of guardians in the south and the Midlands—the first region formed into poor law unions—agreed with the general tenor of the reform. Scattered pockets of resistance by the poor arose. These ranged from protest meetings to physical attacks on the new workhouses that were under construction. However, these disturbances were effectively countered by military force and by the importation of London Metropolitan Police.

Regulations within the workhouses were similar to those of prisons, and for this reason workers called them “Bastilles,” after the notorious Paris prison that was stormed and later razed during the French Revolution (1789). Members of families who entered workhouses were separated and not allowed to visit one another, total silence was enforced at meals, inmates were seldom allowed to go outside, and attempts were even made to prevent funeral services. Among the types of work provided were stone-crushing and bone-grinding. The sick, the insane, and the depraved were often not separated.

Applying the new system to the rural south was comparatively easy because good harvests in 1834 and 1835 reduced poverty levels. The commissioners also reduced unemployment by using their power to transport workers to districts where there was work. Although the commissioners found it necessary to continue some outdoor relief, they quickly wiped out the allowance system and destroyed most of the abuses of the old system.

When the Poor Law Commission began to organize unions in the industrial north in 1837, it met a fierce storm of protest because an industrial depression had thrown large numbers of workers out of work. The abuses of the allowance system had never been common in the north, and there was little need for such a radical reform because most unemployment was involuntary and caused by business cycles. Mass worker protests and riots erupted throughout the north, and in some areas humanitarian manufacturers, such as John Fielden Fielden, John , prevented the introduction of the new Poor Law. The opposition became organized into the Anti-Poor Law League led by Tories Robert Oastler Oastler, Richard and J. R. Stephens, and aided by John Walter Walter, John, II and The Times Times, The (London) . The Chartists in the north, led by Feargus Edward O’Connor O’Connor, Feargus Edward , the editor of the Northern Star, joined in the attack. These protests forced the commissioners to continue extensive outdoor relief.

Parliamentary opposition also grew, led by Tories such as Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and New Poor Law[New Poor Law] and John Walter, and Radicals such as John Fielden Fielden, John . However, Tory, Whig, and Radical leaders remained in favor of the new Poor Law. The opposition had some effect, causing one-year extensions of the act until 1842, when the law was finally extended for five full years. At that time, a number of concessions were made. In the workhouses, undesirables were segregated, older husbands and wives were permitted to live together, more freedom to go outside was allowed, silent meals were ended, and children could see their parents daily. Finally, Poor Law Employment Yards were set up as alternatives to workhouses, especially in northern industrial areas.

Conditions in the Andover Workhouse in 1846 led to a special investigating commission, which returned a scathing report. Consequently in 1847, when the Poor Law was up for renewal, the Poor Law Commission was abolished and replaced by a Poor Law Board directly responsible to a cabinet minister. Chadwick Chadwick, Sir Edwin resigned, and certain improvements were made. Serious and basic problems remained, but many of the harshest features were softened.


The Poor Law Amendment Bill of 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 is significant as an extreme government reaction to an extreme economic problem. It was a harsh system and has often been cited as an argument against welfare programs. On the more positive side, the new Poor Law did succeed in correcting most of the earlier abuses and served as a foundation for later improvements. It also represented the temporary triumph of the economic theories of the Manchester Liberals Manchester, England;liberalism , especially in its utilitarian and Malthusian aspects. However, even in their triumph, these theories showed their limitations, especially their inhumanitarian effects. The Poor Law Commission also represented a pioneer attempt in modern centralized administration. The worker antagonism which the new Poor Law aroused contributed to the rise of the Chartist movement.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brundage, Anthony. The Making of the New Poor Law: The Politics of Inquiry, Enactment, and Implementation, 1832-1839. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978. A detailed account of the background, parliamentary proceedings, and difficulties of implementation of the new Poor Law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadwick, Edwin. Edwin Chadwick: Nineteenth Century Social Reform. Edited by David Gladstone. 5 vols. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1997. Collection of a wide range of the writings of the first secretary of the Poor Law Commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dean, Mitchell. The Constitution of Poverty: Toward a Genealogy of Liberal Governance. London: Routledge, 1990. Wide-ranging discussion of the economic and social theory behind Great Britain’s nineteenth century poor law system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Driver, Felix. Power and Pauperism: The Workhouse System, 1834-1884. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Close examination of the controversial workhouse system established by the new Poor Law, bringing to bear geographic and spatial modes of analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finlayson, Geoffrey. Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain, 1780-1930. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994. Places the new Poor Law in a wider context by considering the relationship between the public and private sectors of poor relief in Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamlin, Christopher. Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800-1854. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Well-researched and detailed account of British efforts to improve public health through construction of public works during the early nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poynter, J. R. Society and Pauperism: English Ideas on Poor Relief, 1795-1834. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969. Excellent analysis of the intellectual background behind the new Poor Law of 1834.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Michael E., ed. The Poor and the City: The English Poor Law in Its Urban Context, 1834-1914. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Collection of incisive essays on social, political, and economic aspects of urban poor relief, and relations between poor law authorities and organized charity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Peter. Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian Britain. Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.: Alan Sutton, 1991. Excellent survey of all aspects of poor relief, in both rural and urban communities, under the new Poor Law.

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