Poverty and the Poor Law

The problem of poverty caused growing public concern during the early 19th century. The existing system for looking after those unable to care for themselves - the old, sick, disabled, orphans and unemployed - was based on a series of Acts of Parliament passed during the later Tudor period. These laws imposed an obligation on every parish to take care of its poor, though this had much less to do with compassion than with the need to preserve order and stability.

'Poor relief' was not the responsibility of central government, but of the local parish, the main part of local government. A 'poor rate' or local tax paid by parish householders was used to help the poor in two main ways. In the 18th century those who were too ill, old, destitute, or who were orphaned children were put into a local 'workhouse' or 'poorhouse'. Those able to work, but whose wages were too low to support their families, received 'relief in aid of wages' in the form of money, food and clothes.

Need for reform

New legislation attempted to improve aspects of the Poor Law, but left everything to local initiative. By the end of the 1790s there were clear signs that the system was under severe strain. Increasing numbers of parish poor were seeking assistance and the cost to ratepayers of maintaining the system was rising alarmingly, especially as payments were linked to the rising costs of bread and the size of families. There was also evidence that poor law payments were being used by employers to 'top up' wages.

In the early 1830s outbreaks of rural violence in southern England and complaints from hard-pressed ratepayers made it clear that urgent reform was essential. But opinion in Parliament and in the corridors of power was divided over how the Poor Law system could be made to work more effectively and less expensively. The main question preoccupying many MPs was whether it was right for the state to take some responsibility in such matters.

Did you know?

A parliamentary inquiry in 1777 noted that there were 1,916 workhouses in England which housed some 90,000 paupers