April Julia Ang and Alvin Wee of the University Scholars' Programme created the electronic text using OmniPage Pro OCR software, and produced the HTML version of this document. Added by Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.

Introduction to the Poor Law Act (MB)

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was a classic example of Benthamite reforming legislation. It was preceded by a Royal Commission that produced a plethora of evidence to support its recommendations. The legislation received parliamentary support and passed into law with very little discussion.

The machinery of the Poor Law Commission introduced an administrative revolution because it established a central body that was not under direct ministerial or parliamentary control; it had wide powers to

The principles on which the commissioners were to act followed from the recommendations of an earlier report:

It proved impossible to apply these principles in the northern and midland industrial districts where either most people were either working or were unemployed at the same time, depending on the state of the economy; and as early as 1837 the commissioners allowed the issue of outdoor relief in Nottingham where the creation of the workhouse coincided with a period of acute unemployment. In 1841 a general order was issued to a number of northern unions setting out rules for outdoor relief to able-bodied men: half was to be in bread, potatoes and so on, in return for some form of supervised work.

The local Boards of Guardians had more freedom in the administration of relief than generally is believed and poor relief could be obtained without entering the workhouse or taking 'the workhouse test'. In 1841, some 1,300,000 persons received relief; only 192,000 of these were in workhouses. The remaining 1,108,000 were receiving outdoor relief. Of the £3,884,000 spent in poor relief from the rates, only £892,000 was expended in the workhouses, while nearly £3 millions were spent in outdoor relief.

An Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales. [ 4 & 5 Will. IV cap. 76]

It shall be lawful for His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, by Warrant under the Royal Sign Manual, to appoint Three fit Persons to be Commissioners to carry this Act into execution.…

  1. … the said Commissioners shall be styled 'The Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales'; and the said Commissioners, or any Two of them, may sit, from Time to Time as they deem expedient, as a Board of Commissioners for carrying this Act into execution.…
  1. … the said Commissioners shall once in every Year, submit to One of the Principal Secretaries of State a general Report of their Proceedings; and every such general Report shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament.…
  1. … from and after the passing of this Act the Administration of Relief to the Poor throughout England and Wales, according to the existing Laws, or such Laws as shall be in force at the Time being, shall be subject to the Direction and Control of the said Commissioners; and for executing the Powers given to them by this Act the said Commissioners shall and are hereby authorized and required, from Time to Time as they shall see Occasion, to make and issue all such Rules, Orders, and Regulations for the Management of the Poor, for the Government of Workhouses and the Education of the Children therein, and for the Management of Parish Poor Children.…
  1. … no General Rule of the said Commissioners shall operate or take effect until the Expiration of Forty Days after the same, or a Copy thereof, shall have been sent, signed and sealed by the said Commissioners, to One of His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State; and if... His Majesty, with the Advice of His Privy Council, shall disallow the same or any Part thereof, such General Rule, or the Part thereof so disallowed, shall not come into operation.…
  1. … it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners… by and with the Consent in Writing of a Majority of the Guardians of any Union, or with the Consent of a Majority of the Rate-payers and Owners of Property… to order and direct the Overseers or Guardians of any Parish or Union not having a Workhouse or Workhouses to build a Workhouse or Workhouses…
  1. … it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners, by Order under their Hands and seal, to declare so many Parishes as they may think fit to be united for the Administration of the Laws for the Relief of the Poor, and such Parishes shall thereupon be deemed a Union for such Purpose, and thereupon the Workhouse or Workhouses of such Parishes shall be for their common Use.…
  1. …where any Parishes shall be united by Order or with the Concurrence of the said Commissioners… a Board of Guardians of the Poor for such Union shall be constituted and chosen, and the Workhouse or Workhouses of such Union shall be governed, and the Relief of the Poor in such Union shall be administered, by such Board of Guardians; and the said Guardians shall be elected by the Rate-payers, and by such Owners of Property in the Parishes forming such Union as shall in manner herein-after mentioned require to have their Names entered as entitled to vote as Owners in the Books of such Parishes respectively; and the said Commissioners shall determine the Number and prescribe the Duties of the Guardians to be elected in each Union, and also fix a Qualification without which no Person shall be eligible as such Guardian.…
  2. … if the said Commissioners shall, by any Order under their Hands and Seal, direct that the Administration of the Laws for the Relief of the Poor of any single Parish should be governed and administered by a Board of Guardians, then such Board shall be elected and constituted, and authorized and entitled to act, for such single Parish, in like Manner.…
  1. … the said Commissioners may and are hereby authorized, by Writing under their Hands and seal, to make Rules, Orders, and Regulations, to be observed and enforced at every Workhouse already established.…
  1. … it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners… to direct the Overseers or Guardians of any Parish or Union… to appoint such paid Officers with such Qualifications as the said Commissioners shall think necessary for superintending or assisting in the Administration of the Relief and Employment of the Poor.…
  1. …the said Commissioners may… as and when they shall think proper, by Order under their Hands and Seal, either upon or without any Suggestion or Complaint in that Behalf from the Overseers or Guardians of any Parish or Union, … remove any Master of any Workhouse, or Assistant Overseer, or other paid Officer of any Parish or Union whom they shall deem unfit… or incompetent.…
  1. And whereas a Practice has obtained of giving Relief to Persons or their Families who, at the Time of applying for or receiving such Relief, were wholly or partially in the Employment of Individuals, and the Relief of the able-bodied and their Families is in many Places administered in Modes productive of Evil in other respects: And whereas Difficulty may arise in case any immediate and universal Remedy is attempted to be applied in the Matters aforesaid; be it further enacted, That from and after the passing of this Act it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners, by such Rules, Orders, or Regulations as they may think fit, to declare to what Extent and for what Period the Relief to be given to able-bodied Persons or to their Families in any particular Parish or Union may be administered out of the Workhouse of such Parish or Union, by Payments in Money, or with Food or Clothing in Kind, or partly in Kind and partly in Money, and in what Proportions, to what Persons or Class of Persons, at what Times and Places, on what Conditions, and in what Manner such Outdoor Relief may be afforded....
  1. … in case any Person shall wilfully neglect or disobey any of the Rules, Orders, or Regulations of the said Commissioners or Assistant Commissioners, or be guilty of any Contempt of the said Commissioners sitting as a Board, such Person shall, upon Conviction before any Two justices, forfeit and pay for the First Offence any Sum not exceeding Five Pounds, for the Second Offence any Sum not exceeding Twenty Pounds nor less than Five Pounds, and in the event of such Person being convicted a Third Time, such Third and every subsequent Offence shall be deemed a Misdemeanour, and such Offender shall be liable to be indicted for the same Offence, and shall on Conviction pay such Fine, not being less than Twenty Pounds, and suffer such Imprisonment, with or without hard Labour, as may be awarded against him by the Court by or before which he shall be tried and convicted.

Victorian History

Last modified 12 August 2002