Why Was the Poor Law Reformed in 1834?

The Poor Law was first enacted in 1536 and was the Tudor version of a contemporary social security system. Life was very tough then, with many working class people living on a thin line between poverty and pauperism. It was the first time the government had recognised any kind of social responsibility, opinions as to the role of the government in welfare were changing, expectations to provide for the deserving were arising. Reasons why the government at the time introduced support for the poor are disputed.

There was much fear of vagrancy and the social disorder that could entail as a result from this, this was no recent phenomenon, vagrancy laws had been in place since the fourteenth century. Some historians speak of bands of 'sturdy beggars' who were robbing and terrorising the countryside (Hazlett 1973), whereas other feel that these stories are greatly exaggerated (Fraser 1984 p32). The numbers of paupers had risen noticeably during the sixteenth century because of two factors; firstly the dissolution of the monasteries which up to then had been the main source of welfare for most, and secondly the process of enclosure.

The Old Poor Law, or the 43rd of Elizabeth, is characterised by three main features. That of classification, localisation and of settlement. There were three types of pauper; the able bodied or the unemployed, the impotent poor or those unable to work due to old age, sickness or disability, and finally the persistent idler, who was seen to be merely unwilling to work. The old poor relief was localised, the parishes were responsible for both collecting their poor rates and distributing them accordingly.

The Act of Settlement in 1662 required people to claim relief solely in the parish of their birth or marriage making it very difficult for people to seek work outside of their parish. Relief was mainly given in the form of 'outdoor relief', but varied from parish to parish. Some choosing to give alms to those in need, others putting the unemployed to work, either in the parish or in the case of larger towns and cities, in the workhouse, termed 'indoor relief'.

During the nineteenth century Britain was going through a period of dramatic industrial growth, employment was shifting from having been largely agricultural to being focussed in the growing industrial towns and cities. With that, society was changing as a whole, attitudes reforming, the political environment facing different challenges and new ideologies (Kidd 1999 p4). In 1834 the Poor Law was amended as the result of a report written by a royal commission appointed to enquire into the poor law.

The amendments as the result of this report were very significant and saw three important changes to the law; centralisation, less eligibility, and the 'workhouse test' requiring everyone in receipt of relief to enter the workhouse, regardless of individual circumstance. The process leading to the amendment act included several main aspects. Firstly, the changing philosophy of the period. Many people felt that the Poor Law should be abolished completely, two influential advocators of this were Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo.

Thomas Malthus was a political economist troubled by the conditions of poverty in the nineteenth century. He saw the rising level of population exacerbating the already strained Poor Law rates, and felt that it gave no incentive to the poor to limit the size of their families as the parish would provide for children they were unable to support. In chapter 5 of his 'Essay on the Principle of Population' he states that 'The poor-laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor…

to increase population without increasing food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family in independence. They may be said therefore in some measure to create the poor which they maintain' Malthus goes on to say that resources spent on workhouses are removing resources from the 'more industrious and more worthy'. He called for the 'total abolition of all the present parish-laws'.