Looking back: what was ‘the poor law’?

Black and white hands

The Poor Law that was introduced in 1834 was a Law that was put in place to support the poor. The law was introduced because it was getting increasingly expensive to look after the poor so parliament introduced it in hopes it would diminish the cost of looking after the poor and to get the poor out of the streets and into workhouses. Parliament promised that this new law was to give the poor Clothes, free education, food and a place to stay.

The Poor Law was introduced because it was too much money to pay to look after the poor, so in hopes to take the poor off the streets and to stop money going to the poor the government introduced the law in 1834. The law was also put in place to embolden the poor to get back into work and support themselves, There was a law before 1834 called the “Old Poor Law” this was found to be insufficient because there was nothing in place to help the poor because even though they set up workhouses for the poor they didn’t offer accommodation for the poor. There was an act passed in 1795 called “The Speenhamland System” which allowed employers to pay their workers exceptionally low wages during these years the middle and the upper classes were getting more angry because they were the ones paying for the poor who would avoid not going to or do any work.

The two main principles of the Poor Law Commission were less eligibility which means that a pauper should be less well off than a labourer, the second principle was called The Workhouse test and what that meant was that there was no relief given outside of the workhouse so if someone who was poor wanted help it couldn’t be given unless you were to enter a workhouse. Thomas Robert Malthus was a scholar and cleric who contributed to the creation of The Poor Law act. He proposed that that Human populations grow rapidly while the food production grows at a steady rate which means that population was growing so much that Malthus believed the country would be unable to feed the growing population this is also called a “Malthusian Catastrophe” his views were written in his 1798 book called “Essay On The Principle of Population“. Thomas was for Welfare reform. Malthus argued that the recent poor laws provided a system welfare where the government was giving out huge sums of money to poor families depending of the amount of children that were in the family this made Thomas believed that the poor were just having numerous amounts of children to get these large sums of money and the more amount of children they’d have the wages would get even lower meaning the poor would get even poorer.

David Ricardo was a political economist who believed in a number of things relating with Classical economics, one of those being the Iron Law Of Wages in which he believed that the wages you needed to survive (Minimum wage) is a subsistence wage and that wages tend toward in the overall long run of things. “The workers wouldn’t work below what they needed to survive if they did, they’d die” (McClung, 2017) in the grand scheme of things. He also believed in the Labour Theory of Value which was an attempt in which economists tried to come up with an explanation for why goods were being exchanged for different prices on the market.

The main feature of the Poor Law was the formation of workhouses, this was different from any laws before because workhouses not only provided work but provided a place to live. Before the Poor Law was introduced the poor had to buy what they wanted from wealthy people so this included food and clothing all of which were provided in the Poor Law.

Not everyone was in favour of the Poor Law however, as a solicitor at solicitormidlands.co.uk explains.

“Richard Oastler was amongst those who called the workhouses ‘Prisons for the Poor’. Indeed, the poor both feared and hated the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns.”

“This is not surprising since conditions were fairly shocking. Workhouse grub would often have been no more than watery gruel and sleeping on the floor with just a sack for covering was common. Interestingly Dickens wrote his classic story Oliver Twist with the intention of showing the system’s treatment of an innocent child born and raised in the workhouse system.”

There’s some features of the Poor Law that remain today the some of the Welfare states promises are similar to the Poor Law. The article from BBC GCSE Bitesize – The Welfare State states that William Beveridge wanted “a national health service, free education, council housing and full employment.” All those are similar to what was promised in the Poor Law. A place to live although not necessarily a house the workhouse was somewhere for the poor to live, also the workhouse meant that the poor would be in employment just what the Welfare State promised the same goes for free education and health care all features are linked to the Poor Law.

A limitation of the Poor Law is that the poor were treated horrifically, Hampshire History The Scandal Of The Andover Workhouse claims that “The Paupers were starving to the extent that they fought over the bones they were forced to pound to make fertilizer.” this is a big limitation because the workers were promised food if they joined the workhouse but instead they were being starved and in doing so they’d eat anything including the flesh from bones. Another limitation is that there was fear among the poor surrounding the workhouses, in northern England there were riots due to the pear hating and fearing the workhouses. If the government at the time wanted the poor to work they shouldn’t have injected this much fear into workers, the third limitation is that the Poor Law didn’t really help the poor according to the 1834 Poor Law – The National Archives “Poor people could only get help if they were prepared to leave their homes and go into a workhouse.” so unlike before where they could buy clothes or food from wealthy people they now had to do some real hard labour to get what they wanted. A strength of the Poor Law could be that unlike other laws before they offered the poor food, clothes, free education for children and a place to live even if the conditions were disgusting.

To summarise the Poor Law wasn’t really for the poor it was more for the wealthy getting rid of the poor from the streets and making them do the most vile of jobs, like crushing bone with their hands to make fertiliser. The Union Workhouse, a history & resource even states that “The bones were not all animal bones either!” This was a truly degrading time in History as it stripped people of their rights and treating them worse than animals. Although things were put in place to help the poor it was all a deception terrible meals, uncomfortable living conditions and they were all put through excruciating pain to have what the government thought were luxuries. The Andover Workhouse scandal just proves that the Poor Law wasn’t what the government made it out to be, the food that was promised whether they were given it or not they ate not just animal but human flesh from the bones of the dead. The work that was also promised was absolutely horrific you’d do hard work and get hardly anything in return. The Poor Law was unacceptable and shouldn’t have happened.

This article was written by a student and is used under licence, with some additions and edits. The beautiful image featured on this post is by Leroy Skalstad from Pixabay.

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