1834 Poor Law

In 1833 Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, set up a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the poor Law system in Britain. In their report published in 1834, the Commission made several recommendations to Parliament. As a result, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The act stated that:

(a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse;

(b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help;

(c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were too small, in unions of parishes;

(d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission;

(e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country.

William Cobbett warned the legislators in the House of Commons that "they were about to dissolve the bonds of society" and to pass the law would be "a violation of the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held". Cobbett particularly objected to the separation of families, and to workhouse inmates being forced to wear badges or distinctive clothing. Thomas Attwood argued that workhouses would become "prisons from the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking relief". Daniel O'Connell, said that as an Irishman, he would not say much, but he objected to the bill on the grounds that it "did away with personal feelings and connections."

Hubert von Herkomer, Westminster Union, The Graphic (7th April, 1877)
Hubert von Herkomer, Westminster Union, The Graphic (7th April, 1877)

Joseph Rayner Stephens also became involved in the campaign against the 1834 Poor Law. He organised boycotts against shopowners who failed to support the reform movement and in Huddersfield in 1838 he played a prominent role in encouraging people to disrupt meetings of the local Poor Law Guardians. As a result of this campaign, Stephens was arrested from making seditious and inflammatory speeches, and in August 1839 he was found guilty and sent to prison.

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Dickens, Household Words (25th May, 1850)

A few Sundays ago, I formed one of the congregation assembled in the chapel of a large metropolitan Workhouse. With the exception of the clergyman and clerk, and a very few officials, there were none but paupers present. The children sat in the galleries; the women in the body of the chapel, and in one of the side aisles; the men in the remaining aisle. The service was decorously performed, though the sermon might have been much better adapted to the comprehension and to the circumstances of the hearers.

The usual supplications were offered, with more than the usual significancy in such a place, for the fatherless children and widows, for all sick persons and young children, for all that were desolate and oppressed, for the comforting and helping of the weak-hearted, for the raising-up of them that had fallen; for all that were in danger, necessity, and tribulation. The prayers of the congregation were desired "for several persons in the various wards, dangerously ill"; and others who were recovering returned their thanks to Heaven.

Among this congregation, were some evil-looking young women, and beetle-browed young men; but not many - perhaps that kind of characters kept away. Generally, the faces (those of the children excepted) were depressed and subdued, and wanted colour. Aged people were there, in every variety. Mumbling, blear-eyed, spectacled, stupid, deaf, lame; vacantly winking in the gleams of sun that now and then crept in through the open doors, from the paved yard; shading their listening ears, or blinking eyes, with their withered hands, poring over their books, leering at nothing, going to sleep, crouching and drooping in corners. There were weird old women, all skeleton within, all bonnet and cloak without, continually wiping their eyes with dirty dusters of pocket-handkerchiefs; and there were ugly old crones, both male and female, with a ghastly kind of contentment upon them which was not at all comforting to see. Upon the whole, it was the dragon, Pauperism, in a very weak and impotent condition; toothless, fangless, drawing his breath heavily enough, and hardly worth chaining tip.

When the service was over, I walked with the humane and conscientious gentleman whose duty it was to take that walk, that Sunday morning, through the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls. It was inhabited by a population of some fifteen hundred or two thousand paupers, ranging from the infant newly born or not yet come into the pauper world, to the old man dying on his bed.

In a room opening from a squalid yard, where a number of listless women were lounging to and fro, trying to get warm in the ineffectual sunshine of the tardy May morning - in the "Itch Ward", not to compromise the truth - a woman such as Hogarth has often drawn was hurriedly getting on her gown, before a dusty fire. She was the nurse, or wardswoman, of that insalubrious department - herself a pauper - flabby, raw-boned, untidy - unpromising and coarse of aspect as need be. But, on being spoken to about the patients whom she had in charge, she turned round, with her shabby gown half on, half off, and fell a crying with all her might. Not for show, not querulously, not in any mawkish sentiment, but in the deep grief and affliction of her heart; turning away her dishevelled head: sobbing most bitterly, wringing her hands, and letting fall abundance of great tears, that choked her utterance. What was the matter with the nurse of the itch-ward? Oh, "the dropped child" was dead! Oh, the child that was found in the street, and she had brought up ever since, had died an hour ago, and see where the little creature lay, beneath his cloth! The dear, the pretty dear!

The dropped child seemed too small and poor a thing for death to be in earnest with, but death had taken it; and already its diminutive form was neatly washed, composed, and stretched as if in sleep upon a box. I thought I heard a voice from Heaven saying, It shall be well for thee, O nurse of the itch-ward, when some less gentle pauper does those offices to thy cold form, that such as the dropped child are the angels who behold my Father's face!

In another room, were several ugly old women crouching, witch-like, round a hearth, and chattering and nodding, after the manner of the monkeys. "All well here? And enough to eat?" A general chattering and chuckling; at last an answer from a volunteer. "Oh yes gentleman! Bless you gentleman! Lord bless the parish of St. So-and-So! It feed the hungry, Sir, and give drink to the thirsty, and it warm them which is cold, so it do, and good luck to the parish of St. So-and-So, and thankee gentleman!" Elsewhere, a party of pauper nurses were at dinner. "How do you get on?" "Oh pretty well Sir! We works hard, and we lives hard - like the sodgers!"

In another room, a kind of purgatory or place of transition, six or eight noisy madwomen were gathered together, under the superintendence of one sane attendant. Among them was a girl of two or three and twenty, very prettily dressed, of most respectable appearance, and good manners, who had been brought in from the house where she had lived as domestic servant (having, I suppose, no friends), on account of being subject to epileptic fits, and requiring to be removed under the influence of a very bad one. She was by no means of the same stuff, or the same breeding, or the same experience, or in the same state of mind, as those by whom she was surrounded; and she pathetically complained, that the daily association and the nightly noise made her worse, and was driving her mad - which was perfectly evident. The case was noted for enquiry and redress, but she said she had already been there for some weeks.

(2) Fred Copeman, Reason in Revolt (1948)

This life of mine started in the year 1907 at the Wangford Union, a Workhouse near Beccles, Suffolk. I can still vaguely remember the cold uncharitableness of the place and its inhuman poverty. Most of the two or three hundred inmates were very old, and many were treated as hospital patients. Looking back through memory's years, I see an atmosphere of hopelessness which gave me, surrounded as I was by the old, the infirm and even the insane, the feeling that all had come here to die. Life was a continuous repetition of work, sleep and funerals. I could never make out why so many people had to die.

All the ground floors, with the exception of the Master's quarters, were of stone. The upper walls and ceilings were a dirty cream, the lower part a monotonous battleship grey. The dining hall to me was a huge place. It had lines of well scrubbed tables and stools on the stone floor. There was one small, round, closed-in iron stove, with a long chimney reaching to the ceiling. The dormitories were on the first and second floors, with the infirm people in two wings, one for men and the other for women. There were buildings attached to either wing for the male and female tramps, who appeared to have a life of their own organised separately from the Workhouse itself. The tramps, curiously enough, were the envy of the inmates because of their freedom to leave at will.

My mother was a little old lady, thin and frail, and almost totally deaf. She seemed unhappy. She always seemed to be discussing what she would do when her ship came home. All the inmates had this habit and talked constantly of what they would do when they got out. Very few of them ever left, however.

I would often meet Mother, scrubbing the stone passages which, to me, were miles long. It seemed that she did all the work. She was perpetually on her knees, and her hands were rough and sore from being so much in cold and dirty water. Talk between us was difficult, and for that reason she seldom showed her feelings. Even at that age I felt pity for her, coupled with hatred for those who were better off. I compared her with the Master, the cooks or the women who worked in his quarters. They appeared well off in comparison.

Our Sundays were never the happy time they might have been, sitting at the table in the bare dining hall separated from the others, because her deafness made us shout, causing much noise. This drew attention to us, making us feel we were the joke of the crowd. George often cried. How I hated all of them for it. Looking back, I realise that Mother had a real deep love for us. Though she never displayed it openly, I sensed it all the same. Often I saw her crying, but could not get to know the reason. I never knew a father, and if he existed she seldom mentioned him.

(3) Emmeline Pankhurst described her experiences as a Poor Law Guardian in her autobiography My Own Story.

The leaders of the Liberal Party advised women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in municipal offices, especially the unsalaried offices. A large number of women had availed themselves of this advice, and were serving on Boards of Guardians, on school boards, and in other capacities. My children now being old enough for me to leave them with competent nurses, I was free to join these ranks. A year after my return to Manchester in 1894 I became a candidate for the Board of Poor Law Guardians. I was elected, heading the poll by a very large majority.

When I came into office I found that the law was being very harshly administered. The old board had been made up of the kind of men who are known as rate savers. They were guardians, not of the poor but of the rates… For instance, the inmates were being very poorly fed.

I found the old folks in the workhouse sitting on backless forms, or benches. They had no privacy, no possessions, not even a locker. After I took office I gave the old people comfortable Windsor chairs to sit in, and in a number of ways we managed to make their existence more endurable.

The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad, summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change in the fashion of their clothes.

I also found pregnant women in the workhouse, scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their babies came into the world. Many of them were unmarried women, very, very young, mere girls. These poor mothers were allowed to stay in the hospital after confinement for a short two weeks. Then they had to make a choice of staying in the workhouse and earning their living by scrubbing and other work, in which case they were separated from their babies. They could stay and be paupers, or they could leave - leave with a two-week-old baby in their arms, without hope, without home, without money, without anywhere to go. What became of those girls, and what became of their hapless infants?

(4) Marie Corbett was one of the first women in Britain to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. Her daughter Margery Corbett Ashby described her mother's work as a Poor Law Guardian in her book Memoirs.

My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor. She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed all the children, whom she boarded out with village families… When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died, many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me… and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."

(5) In an article Votes for Women, that Elizabeth Robins wrote in December 1909, she criticised the way that the Government looked after orphan children. Robins argued that when women had the vote, the Government would come under stronger pressure to improve the workhouse system.

The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour, the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did so in boiling water, and it died."

"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing. In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within the year."

I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English Poor Law Commission… What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised cruelty in the treatment of the poor… that thousands of innocent children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages of measles, whooping-cough, etc.

Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject, the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.