THE NEW POOR LAW - 1834 - Britain

Life for the Victorian Poor

In 1834 the New Poor Law was enacted which joined together about six Parishes into a Union for the administration of the measures to deal with the poor under the national leadership of the Poor Law Commissioners. Several citizens in the Parish, usually the well to do, were appointed to run them, the Guardians.

The Guardians

1. Served ratepayers interests not the paupers.
2. Regarded poverty as the fault of the poor.
3. Supported and carried out harsh treatment of the poor.

Every Union had a Workhouse. A system of out-relief was abolished which had kept the poor in their own communities (with a few exceptions). Homes were broken up and people moved into the Workhouse it they had no relatives to look after them.

Life in the Workhouse was harsh, with hard work and poor food. Such was the social stigma attached that many old people died of shame. Workhouse dwellers were given a uniform in exchange for their clothes, usually a coarse gown or cotton shirt. These would have letters sewn on to them, `P' for Pauper, followed by the letter of the Parish. Couples were separated, families also.

The poor belonged to their own Parish, and Union. The Settlement System tended to send the poor back to their Settlement Parish, sometimes miles away and probably where they no longer had family connections. If the pauper lacked a Settlement Certificate then the person could end up being shunted around from Parish to Parish. Even pauper children could not be taken in by a Parish.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1844 allowed for Unmarried mothers to go to Petty Sessions for claims against the child's father. It also allowed for ratepayers to have votes for the Boards of Guardians.

Later developments:

1847 Poor Law Commission abolished due to the abuses which occurred, especially at the Andover workhouse. The Poor Law Board was set up. Henceforward an increase in National control of Poor Law issues.

1909 Old Age Pensions Act. Pensions for people of 70+ with incomes of less than 31 10s a year.

1926 Pension age dropped to 65 and 60.

1929 End of Boards of Guardians, County Councils and Borough Councils assumed responsibility for local poor.

1930 Poor Law Act - Public Assistance started. Only the aged found their way into the Workhouses and outdoor relief was restored.

1931 A system of means testing Public Assistance was introduced.

1946 The National Insurance Act - introduced the modern welfare state. Followed by the National Health Service Act which brought affordable health service care to the poor.

1948 The National Assistance Act - Poor Law abolished and cash payments made instead from the state.

The New Poor Law records can be found by searching in the County Record Offices or try the A2A website. The Family and Local History Handbook is useful for addresses or try Google.


This page is compiled by Timothy J. Owston of York, England, February 2009.
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