The Poor Law of 1601was introduced as a response by the Government to rising levels of concern over how ‘the poor’ should be supported. As a result of several poor harvests, and soldiers returning from war there was increased vagrancy which concerned the Government who were increasingly worried about the possibility of social disorder and revolt. Under The Poor Law of 160, each parish was made responsible for its own parishioners that were impoverished, frail or handicapped and in need of support.
Each parish became obliged to relieve the old and the helpless, to provide work for those deemed capable but who were finding it difficult to find work in their usual trade. The parishes also became responsible for helping to support unprotected children, often by introducing them into apprenticeships at a young age. The funding for providing this was collected by a ‘Parish Administrative Unit’ which was responsible for collecting poor-rates from the other parishioners.
This was a form of revised local tax which was means tested and calculated, collected and then allocated and distributed by unpaid Churchwardens or Parish Overseers (later known as Relieving Officers) who were elected by the parish vestry every year. There were two types of relief provided for the needy, ‘outdoor relief’ (through money, supplies of materials such as flax/ wool to provide a skill from which they could make money and work, or as basic foods such as bread) or ‘indoor relief’ (which included various form of institutional care).
Outdoor relief was normally offered to people who were temporarily out of work (e. g. due to seasonal demand of their trade falling), or to fund the cost of a physician to treat those who were sick. Indoor relief was provided in different forms, depending on the classification of the pauper. Three types of poor people were identified in order to assess whether or not and to what extent people were in ‘genuine need’, and to evaluate the most appropriate ways to provide relief to suit what the individual was seen to require.
The first group were ‘The Impotent Poor’ who were disabled, chronically sick, blind or mentally ill. They were viewed as being poor through no fault of their own and were seen as deserving relief. This was often provided in the form of admission to ‘houses of dwelling’, almshouses or poorhouses instead of workhouses. The second group were ‘The Able-bodied Poor’, who were the unemployed but that were deemed as able to work.
They were placed in work-houses where they were given basic labouring jobs in return for food until they could return to their normal work or find an alternative job. The third group were ‘Persistent Idlers’. These were the able-bodied who either refused to work, persistently quit jobs or regularly absconded. As a punishment for this ‘idleness’ they were placed in Houses of Correction which aimed to teach idle citizens how to become respectable through a strict regime of discipline that often involved flogging and beating.
Very few changes were made to the Poor Law Act 1601 until the late 1700’s (The Gilbert Act 1782-relating to workhouse unions), but the provision of outdoor relief for the poor gradually declined and the workhouse system was favoured as an alternative as it saved the parish money, and also acted as an incentive for the able-bodied poor to find stable work (as they received no income in the workhouses and were given very low status) and to discourage continued reliance on parish relief.
By the early 1800’s little changes to the original Poor Law of 1601 had been made, and there were many criticisms of way it worked and the way in which relief was offered. In 1832 there were 1. 5 million paupers in England (10% of the population) and it was felt that the existing Poor Law was not doing enough to reduce the problems of poverty and pauperism. The cost of providing for the poor had increased substantially and people claimed that it but an unfair expense on the mostly middle-class rate payers who had to fund the welfare provision through local property taxes.
The standards of relief in the workhouses varied greatly, in some the conditions were very poor, while in others the standard of living was often higher than that of the working rate-payers who funded them (‘pauper palaces’). It was also claimed that where the standards of living in workhouses were high, the benefits of using relief encouraged idleness and discouraged personal independence. The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834 in response to these concerns and primarily aimed to deter the able-bodied from claiming poor relief but continue to provide relief for the ailing and the helpless.
There were four main recommendations of the new act. Firstly the issue of ‘Centralisation’ whereby local overseers would remain involved in poor relief but would now be accountable to a Central Board of Control who would hold overall responsibility for the care of the poor and needy. The second was that of ‘Uniformity’. Care provided would be of the same standard regardless of where in the country it was offered. This meant that the Elizabethan Settlement Acts (where paupers were returned to their place of birth to receive support) were no longer needed.
This aimed to reduce the discrepancies in the levels of care provided in different areas, with affluent areas having better services than poorer districts. A ‘Workhouse Test’ was introduced under the Poor Law Amendment Act, which was a self assessment test. The only form of relief that was to be offered to the able-bodied poor was a position in a workhouse so a person either had to accept the hard regime of a workhouse or remain independent and live with the consequences. It was hoped that this harsh system would discourage those who did not genuinely need support from claiming it.
The payment of outdoor relief was not abolished altogether (despite attempts to do so), although it was now available to far fewer, very rarely to any able-bodied poor and often only to the chronically sick to pay for medical care. The conditions within workhouses were to change also under the ‘Principle of Less Eligibility’, introduced as a means of social control aiming to reduce the desirability of claiming state welfare (as it was seen as affecting the work ethics and people’s independence).
The conditions in a workhouse in terms of diet and living conditions would at all times be maintained at a lower level than those of the lowest independent worker, so that entering a workhouse was only preferable to starving to death. Often inmates had personal belongings confiscated, were not allowed chairs to sit on and could not receive gifts of any sort. These amendments are characteristic the Victorian attitude towards pauperism, that it is a result of a combination of self inflicted circumstances.
There were two main themes of the Poor Law Amendment Acts in dealing with the poor, one of providing a caring role (for those in genuine need) and one as a deterrent role (in making the prospect of claiming welfare less attractive to encourage people to find their own way out of poverty). IT has been since argued that the Poor Law Amendment Acts instead of actually being aimed at reducing poverty (as was claimed), was more about finding means to deter pauperism.