12.5. The New Poor Law 1834

In 1795, as a response to the high prices of corn, the “Speenhamland System” for subsidising the poor was introduced in a large number of agricultural parishes. The idea was to guarantee the head of family, or the single man, a cash income calculated as a function of the number of members of the family, and the corn price in shillings per bushel in eash month. If the man did not reach this level of earnings with his weekly wage from the farmer, etc., then the parish would make up the difference. The moneys came from the rents collected from the persons with houses or properties in the parish. The parish authorities continued with their payments to ill persons, orphans, and widows.

This system worked without large problems during the War years, that is, from 1795 to 1815. This was because there was more agricultural work to be done than there were adult workers, due to the large number of men taken to fight in the Army and Navy. The parishes were practically only paying cases of families with large numbers of children, and families with the father away in the wars. The lack of working men was partially compensated by the introduction of the threshing machines. 

But from 1815 onwards, the situation in the villages changed, as suddenly there were 300,000 men returned from the wars, and there was no work for them. For the first time in English history, the parishes had to pay “able-bodied men” who had no work, or work at very low pay. 

This caused a number of problems:

  • many men decided not to work on the farms, as they had their income guaranteed;
  • the farmers did not have enough workers for the activities on their farms;
  • thus the agricultural output of the country suffered;
  • there was a lot of “gaming the system”, for example, men who worked at non-agricultural employment with good wages during the summer, spent all the money, and “threw themselves on the parish” in the winter half-year;
  • in many cases, the parish put the unemployed men to non-useful work, such as picking up stones in the roads, just to be sure that they were not doing nothing;
  • there was friction between the farmers and the ratepayers, as the latter had to pay higher rates.

As an added financial problem, the small farmers were in a bad situation, because they were losing money in their operations. The income from the sales prices was too low, and they had high expenses from paying land that they had taken up, and from tithes and taxes. 

The British Government in 1834 decided to make a radical change which was generally known as the New Poor Law. The decision was to abolish “outdoor relief”, that is, there would be no payments in cash or in kind to people who were housed outside official facilities. These workhouses were deliberately organised, such that no one who could work would want to live in them. They were built like prisons, the food was sufficient but uninteresting, education for children and clothing were given, and the sexes were separated in different sections and the families could only have contact at mealtimes and at Divine Service. Obviously, a large number of families decided to work at very low wages, instead of going into the workhouse. At the maximum moment, there were 300,000 to 400,000 persons in the workhouses. The New Poor Law, which was basically designed to solve the problems in the agricultural southern counties, was not fully introduced in the North, and in the South many parish administrators found pretexts to make payments from the rates to deserving cases.

The effects on the living conditions and the incomes of the agricultural families were as follows:

  • a large number of “able-bodied men” did decide to take up work at the wage level that the farmers were offering;
  • the men who had had long-term employment with the farmer, continued at the same wage level (thus the statistical unit, “weekly winter wages”, stayed constant);
  • many families went into the workhouses, because they had no option;
  • in many cases, the earnings of men who had not had fixed employment, but now started working, had to accept very low wages, about 6 shillings, which was not enough to feed a family;
  • the women and small children in large families had to work in the fields, to bring more money to the family.

The last point shows that the situation for large families was worse than in 1787, as in the earlier date, the parish authorities did give money to families with a number of small children. 

“Even granted that the labourer himself now needed no allowance, what had he in place of the allowance for his family and the out-of-work relief? Something in place of these he must have, for even labourers’ families must live, and he got nothing now from the poor-rates, while the farmer neither could nor would give higher wages, and paid only for work done. What was the way out? The labourer must sell more labour-power: and since his own was already sold, he must put that of his family on the market. This was how the problem of the wage of the married man was solved.” (Hasbach, 1894/1908, p. 224)

“When Dr. Kay [proponent of the New Poor Law] was examined before the Lords’ Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act, he described the astonishment of travellers at the number of women and children working in the fields, and traced their increased employment to the Poor Law.” (Ibid., p. 225)

A parish priest, reporting the incomes of agricultural families in his area of Somerset in 1846 to the Poor Law Commissioners, with respect to the worst paid example, showed how the position of the worker was affected by the reglamentation of the Poor Law and the Workhouses.  

“…. You see the funds from which he has to draw; whatever other means he has must be from private benevolence or dishonest ways. The master will not, nor can he expected to give higher wages to a man with family, than one who has none, and the law affords him no help; he can, therefore, barely drag out a miserable existence without a sufficiency of the poorest food to satisfy his hunger. Their condition has certainly become worse from the operation of the New Poor Law, for without opening any new method for improving their condition, or in the least raising wages, it has deprived many families of at least 2s. a-week. I am not an advocate for returning to the old system of head-money, but I am confident that something must be done to better the condition of these families; the poor man coming to the Board of Guardians with his tale of woe must not have his complaint always met with the same reply- “You are an able-bodied man, we can do nothing; here is an order into the house;” but his circumstances must be enquired to, and assistance given with discretion. At least some clothing to the elder children as soon as the parents would get a respectable situation, would be a great encouragement to the parents, as they would then see in prospect some end to their toil; but now, if they have a girl of 11 or 12, they have no means of buying suitable clothes, and few will take her into a house without them. So they go into the fields to work at 2d. or 3d. a-day, spoiling the few things they have, and doing themselves little good. 


Let me entreat you to give this your serious attention, and to use all the influence which your office and ability afford you, to arouse in the hearts of all men in authority a deep sense of their obligation to obey the Divine command, and remember the poor.”

(Tufnell, 1846, evidence of Rev. W. S. Escott, pp. 138-139)    

“The farmers do not hesitate, if a man has a large family, to say, “I cannot afford to keep him, he wants more wages than I can afford to pay;” consequently many men with large families are turned upon the parish; and if the farmers can give but 6s. a week, they must either reduce the quantity of labour on the farm, or they must have the same number of men at a less price. They are getting now into the habit of hiring men at reduced wages; and as young healthy men have no resource, from the new Poor Law, they are offering their services at less money.”

(Select Committee on the State of Agriculture, 1837, Mr. John Lewis, Miller and corn merchant, p. 52) 

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