Poor Law in Victorian welfare policy

The poor law changed after the great reform act of 1834 (based on the principle of eligibility). The main difference being that the relief of the poor was changed from a local responsibility into a group one. Groups of parishes turned into Poor Law Unions removing community responsibility. Poor law welfare provision was designed to encourage people to work, rather than become dependant on the welfare provision available. Poor law welfare was not designed to reduce poverty but to deter destitution.

Only when people found themselves so deep in poverty and destitution that they were unable to support themselves and families did the poor law intervene. Outdoor assistance relief was discouraged, and the laws of settlement were abolished; the workhouses became the main source of welfare provision. Welfare operated through test systems on the basis of eligibility, ensuring that any assistance provided for the able bodied was at a lower rate than any wages in the lowest paid work, but also in such a way as to make pauperism degrading and less respectable than work.

In fact conditions in some of the workhouses (which had been operational for some two centuries) were terrible. The nation was shocked after the Andover workhouse scandal of 1847 when it was found that workhouse inmates were so hungry that they were eating scraps from the bones they had been given to crush for fertilizer. But what made the workhouse unmistakably less eligible was the demeaning, degrading fact of being in it.

The very idea of it, family being separated, losing all personal possessions, forced to dress in workhouse uniform, monotonous diet and the loss of respectability and dignity implied by it that created the real deterrent – the stigma attached. The separation of married couples was commonplace while on the other hand the separation of old couples was felt as a great hardship, and provision stated in 1847 providing husband and wife, both being above the age of sixty, received into a workhouse couldn't be forced to live separately.

This was at times carried further, in that guardians could, at their discretion, allow husband and wife where either of them was infirm, sick or disabled by any injury, or above sixty years of age to live together, but every case had to be referred to the local government officer. However, it is also fair to say the workhouse provided better physical accommodation than most agricultural labourers' cottages, the diet contained about 33% more in solid food than most agricultural labourers would have: the food was solid if unappealing and boring, and inmates were provided with free health care.

Children were removed from the workhouses and placed in district/workhouse schools, always segregated from the adult paupers. Some children were sent to lodging homes or were sent out to apprentice. In 1840 movement was made to establish a new grant based system to train children from the ages of thirteen, they could chose to follow apprenticeships for some five years,. Guardians would train the children to become teachers, some of the brighter pupils were given royal scholarships to maintain the training.

The system of education was a very slow one, in 1858 we see the establishment royal commission who were appointed to look at education systems in Britain, they were particularly judgemental (particularly in Wales) of the provision of education, which was not widespread and inclusive. Indeed in 1862 we see a new scheme established with a system of payment by result, with two ways of funding religious charitable schools, funding was granted on the basis of the number of pupils in schools and the numbers who achieved proficiency the 3 r's.

The sick and infirm were sent to the poorhouses and those regarded as dangerous lunatics were placed in asylums or in separate wards or buildings or even in voluntary hospitals in the parishes. Sometimes the guardians would subscribe to a voluntary hospital to facilitate the transfer of a sick paupers needing attention more readily available in a hospital than a workhouse infirmary. As the patients requiring separate accommodation due to contagious afflictions increased in number, the infirmary or sick wards in the workhouses/poorhouses could simply not cope as they did not provide the type of accommodation the new conditions required.

During the Victorian period Private charitable organisations spent more on welfare than the government. Because the operations of the Poor Law were so demeaning and the poor unwilling to apply for relief, other ways of dealing with life's troubles became increasingly important. Almsgiving and charitable endowments already had a long history but from the end of the 18th century the number of voluntary charities grew. Charity at the time was directed at those least able to help themselves, such as children and the sick, while relief for the destitute was influenced by the ideology of self-help.

This placed an onus on charities to encourage moral regeneration and the virtues of self-reliance and respectability. Like the poor law, charities distinguished the 'deserving/eligible' from the 'undeserving/less eligible' poor. The Charity Organisation Society was founded in 1869, at a time when outdoor relief was being abolished, in an attempt to coordinate the growing numbers of private charities that were being founded dedicated to human misery or ill health (indeed, there were many hundred already established in London).

The paupers were not helpless recipients of state welfare provision, and were not simply benefiting from groups with charitable intent. Charity (the majority of which was religiously based) was not only different in nature from relief; it was aimed at different people in a different way. Religious based charities were extremely influential and delivered welfare in such a way as to impress Christian values and morals on to the recipients.

Relief was intended for those who were in a condition of destitution; charity for those "deserving poor" who were temporarily in need of help and for whom appropriate provision of help would prevent their fall into a state of pauperism. Various different organisations providing different welfare services had a very different impact on their clients. Charity would not duplicate relief or discriminate and would above all require the recipient of charity to exercise the same self-discipline, the same virtues, required of all the poor.

I believe it is true to say that the Poor Law achieved it's aims and objectives to deter people from seeking help the provisio n was designed to encourage people to work, rather than become dependant on the welfare provision available. Poor law welfare was not designed to reduce poverty but to deter destitution, this in turn encouraged charitable contribution, indeed, many of the charities established all those years ago are still prevalent in society today campaigning for better welfare for the public.

The Poor Law welfare policy was, and is still historically important today as set a precedence for the basis of future welfare provision. During Government under Margaret Thatcher "good old days" and "back to basics" values were embraced, such as people looking after their own and each other, and the promotion of the 3 r's. The majority of the elderly and infirm today experiences much of the "poor law" care of the Victorian times, and it has been said that the elderly of the poor law system were often better off than in our "civilised" society of today.

The Social Services provision of the 1980's is a reflection of the Victorian poor law of the 1800's, and many could argue that the principles of welfare provision have not changed much since the poor law times.


Jones, Kathleen (1991) The making of social policy in Britain 1830 – 1990. Athlone. London. Fraser, Derek (1984) The evolution of the British welfare state. Macmillan. London. Thane, Pat (1996) Foundations of the welfare state. Longman. London and New York.