Old Poor Law

The early Poor Laws of Tudor and Medieval rules and regulations were changed somewhat by the 1601 Elizabethan Poor laws. The law changed at this point from being specifically forced to drive away 'vagrants' by punishment, to being more 'corrective' and 'assisting' in attitude. This change was much called for, and took a significant step towards changing attitudes from the 19th to 20th century. The New Elizabethan poor law, although regarded as an important step away from Tudor and Medieval laws, did not change again until the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

This gap in time gave allowance for new ideas and theories to develop and thereby abolish the Old Poor Law altogether. Whether this was a good or bad idea is questionable, as the new laws have been criticised for not really setting down any 'concrete' changes that affected the Poor. The Old Poor law suggested the idea of punishment for the indigent so that those who were able-bodied were clearly distinguished from the lazy. This distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, allowed relief to be given out accordingly.

Although there was sufficient punishment, there was also a degree of compassion for those who were genuinely impotent or ill or aged, who were to be looked after in almshouses or poorhouses. Social stability was encouraged by Parish 'overseers' who were responsible for administering relief to those deserving it (decided by the settlement laws expressed in 1662) through means of a poor rate on property. By embedding the administration of the Poor law in 1500 parishes across England and Wales, the Old Poor Law ensured local needs would be met appropriately.

However they also laid the grounds for immense diversity in practice and therefore in fairness and effectiveness. This was a weakness of the poor law, accompanied by the hostility between class relationships. The habit of 'deference' prevailed and tyrannical behaviour had much opportunity to come to pass because of the given responsibility to Parish overseers. Furthermore, any local crisis such as a poor harvest could place an almost intolerable burden on locally raised finances, (as did the Napoleon wars of 1792-1815. )

The Napoleonic Wars, bad harvest periods and many suggested systems and solutions to the problem of strain on these Old Poor Laws made it clear that change needed to occur. Contemporary theories from philosophers, economists and political theorists such as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, put pressure on the government to enquire into the real need of the poor. With a change of government from the general election in 1831 came the general consensus for something to be changed regarding the escalating costs of maintaining relief for the poor.

The abolition of the Old Poor Laws, was suggested to the Whig government, through a Commission of enquiry. This commission would have good effects for the Parishes because it recommended that they should group into Unions for the purpose of providing workhouses for the four separate groups of 'poor' (the aged and infirm, children, able-bodied females and able-bodied males) so that pressure could be financially shared. In 1834 this law was put into practice, concentrating on central authority, unity in Parish work, and the new use of 'harsh condition' workhouses.

However as with the Old Poor Law, Parishes across the country varied in fairness and effectiveness. The abolition of the Old Poor law did not change the core principle for there to be a clear distinction between those who were poor genuinely, and those who were indigent. The abolition therefore, did not at all radically change ground that was set by the Old Poor Laws. The reason why abolition was such a good idea was because the Old Poor Law had constantly struggled through times of crisis.

The growing belief that administers of relief were corrupt, the swing riots, and fear that unrest would turn into revolution meant there was never really at a steady point of receiving and giving out money to the poor in an effective manner. The arrangements set up by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 suggested that the Old Law itself was the cause of poverty! Therefore this system was reformed, making it cost effective and efficient.

The abolition of the Old Poor Law was undoubtedly a good decision, as the constant difficulties and strain upon the laws of relief and the burden of administering help to the needy became questionably corrupt and dangerously close to breaking point. The strengths and weaknesses of the Old Poor Law were much the same however, of the new law that was passed in 1834. Fairness and effectiveness still varied from location to location. The central authority granted in the Poor Law Amendment Act was a concern to some who felt there would be room for tyrannical behaviour – much the same as those who felt 'overseers' of relief would become.

The relationships between class groups did not break down and arguably grew further, as a result of what the Marxist view would suggest as middle class exploitation. The main change in the abolition of the Old Poor Law was in attitude. Poverty wsa seen as a problem which could be solved, rather than a natural way of life. There was therefore emphasis on intervention from the state, and emphasis on social and environmental factors of causation of poverty. Some would argue that the abolition of the Old Poor Law did not solve anything.

But what it did do was bring about realisation of important matters of definition and attitude. The culmination of events from the making of the Poor Law up to the 1832 Enquiry Commission made it clear that change was necessary. The abolition of the Old Poor Law system had to happen in some way or another, and the 1834 Act built upon the strengths of the Old Poor Law rather than the weaknesses, not changing any foundational structures but changing perspectives.