Apart from slight amendments like the laws of settlement and gilberts act, the poor law of 1601 had remained in place right until 1834. The system was very old and outdated and was becoming increasingly more expensive. In 1831, 7 million pounds had been spent on provision for the poor. Not only that but the system lacked unity and 10 per cent of the population were paupers. The government was facing more and more criticism from intellectuals and writers because inefficient systems like the Speenhamland system which subsidised low wages based on how many children, labourers had and the price of bread.Subsidies like this and other old systems only encouraged corrupt land owners to lower wages.
In 1832 a commission had been set up to investigate the old system and make recommendations. Of all the parishes in England and Wales, only 10 per cent had been investigated. Although for a time of very primitive bureaucratic procedures it needs to be recognised that such a survey in itself groundbreaking. However aside from that it is debated that the commission already had a conclusion before it even began its investigation and merely set out to support the recommendations they had decided on.
The commission wanted to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor and wanted to stop exploitation of an over generous solution and relieving the burden on the rate payer. They wanted to achieve this by creating central uniform system across the country. Parishes were to group together to form poor law unions and each union was to set up a harsh work house as a deterrent for relief. Outdoor relief was to be abolished for the able-bodied poor. This was to create a modern and efficient centralised system.
In 1834 the government responded to the commission by drawing up a bill which broadly reflected the recommendations in the report.The four main mechanisms to achieve this were: The establishment of a central authority to regulate the poor law; the grouping together of parishes to form poor law unions in order to provide relief efficiently; the establishment of a workhouse in each union in which the conditions would be worse of those of the poorest worker, so that people would be deterred from entering them; and the reduction of abolishment of “outdoor relief” for the able bodied poor so that those seeking poor relief would have to go to a work house. For the records their aims were achieved because costs did go down and not as much was being spent on provision for the poor.
This pleased the middle and upper classes which was obvious because they were the ones with the right to vote. It wasn’t total success as it took a while to implement the act nationally. Not just trouble implementing, but although poor relief was reducing, poverty was not.The central authority established by the act was known as the poor law commission and was made up of three commissioners who had the power to issue rules and regulations for the management of he poor law.
This was for modernisation efficiency and control. Edwin Chadwick was secretary to the commission. The commission’s greatest and longest lasting problem was the difficulty of enforcing its will.
The setting up of a central department and a team of inspectors despatched to monitor local performance appeared to be powerful at first sight but in reality it was less dramatic.The number of assistant commissioners had to be increased and even then it has hard for them to make a sustained impact. With responsibility for large areas, close supervision was very difficult. The commissions desire to play down failures and publicise success meant that administrative problems tended to be ignored rather than dealt with. This meant that the commission exercised a much lower degree of centralisation than had been expected. Yet despite the problems they faced the assistant commissioners generally succeeded in establishing the new unions.
Under the old poor law each of the 15,000 parishes in England and Wales was responsible for the relief of poverty in its own area. Now the aim was to amalgamate parishes into about groups of 30, each managed by a board of guardians. The boards of guardians were to be elected by the ratepayers of the whole area, with each parish having at least one representative on board. This aim can be seen as fulfilled and successful as by 1840 14,000 parishes with a total population of about 12 million had been incorporated into poor law unions. Only 800 parishes, containing about 2 million people remained outside the system.
Each union was responsible for the workhouse in its area.Under the old poor law the local parish workhouse or poorhouse, where they existed as many parishes didn’t have one, had often been seen as a relatively unthreatening or and even friendly institution. The new workhouses were designed to project a very different image. In order to discourage applicants, conditions in the workhouse were supposed to be less appealing than those enjoyed by the poorest of labourers outside the workhouse. This became known as ‘the principle of less eligibility’. If applicants refused to accept workhouse life, they were held to have failed ‘the workhouse test’.
This proved difficult to implement, especially in the north. The commissioners could demand to the alteration of an existing workhouse, but had no power to order the building of a new one. This could only be done if the majority of the local board of guardians voted for it. As a result it was possible to delay implementation of the new workhouse system.The pre-1834 practise of providing relief to able-bodied paupers outside the workhouse was intended at first to be restricted and even totally abolished, so that those who failed the workhouse test would have no entitlement to poor relief. The authors of the 1834 Act intended that all outdoor relief to the able bodied would cease immediately.
The new workhouses were intended to pave the way for this to happen. Not until 1844 did the commission apply a general outdoor relief prohibitory order to all unions with the result that probably three-quarters of the country was banned from giving out door relief. However even in these areas, the rules could be interpreted in a flexible way particularly as the order allowed guardians to make exceptions.The commissioner’s frustration at being unable to enforce the order to end outdoor relief showed it was difficult for the central authority to impose its will.
Elsewhere, particularly in the new industrial towns, guardians continued to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied. There was little humane alternative as periodic trade depression plunged thousands of workers into unemployment in the new industrial towns. Many unions continued to ignore new orders that being issued to try and deal with the problem and when the central authority tried to impose these instructions in 1852 there was an outcry. The central authority finally gave in to the rural south and northern England in particular and workhouses were allowed to be replaced by out door labour as the condition of relief. By 1871 only one in six unions was operating under the 1844 order which banned outdoor relief to the able bodied. One of the central policies of the new poor law had proved impossible to implement.By 1841 the poor law amendment act had partly achieved its aims.
It was successful on reducing costs and provisions for the poor, relieving the burden on the rate payers. It also successfully managed to group nearly all the parishes into poor law unions. Where it failed was with the workhouses and the abolition of outdoor relief. Many places, mainly in the north continued with outdoor relief and many hadn’t even set up new workhouses.
Workhouses had been set up though, mainly in the south and succeeded in providing a deterrent as nobody wanted to go in them. But outdoor relief was a constant struggle as it just wasn’t possible as the new industrial economy kept plunging thousands of workers in and out of unemployment and periodic trade depressions were characteristic. The poor law amendment act had dealt with unified parishes across the country, a central authority and making a more cost efficient system, but completely misjudged the situation of poverty and so wasn’t resolved by 1841.