The Speenhamland system and other types of allowances-in-lieu-of-wages were not a common means of poor relief in the north of England. There was plenty of employment most of the time because of industrialisation and when there was unemployment, then everyone was unemployed. It made more sense to maintain outdoor relief as the major means of helping the poor. However, it was decided that the administration of the 1837 Registration Act would be undertaken by the Poor Law Guardians: by coincidence, an existing economic downturn worsened that year and unemployment in the north increased rapidly.

In Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire a successful organisation that had campaigned for factory legislation already existed; in 1836 the 'Short-time committees' turned their attention to demanding the repeal of the Poor Law Amendment Act. The man at the heart of the anti-Poor-Law campaign was Richard Oastler. He was supported by Feargus O'Connor, Joseph Rayner Stephens and many Tory landowners who did not want to see their power taken away by a London-based Poor Law Commission.

Because Oastler lived near Huddersfield, he was able to co-ordinate the opposition there to the point where it proved impossible to implement the PLAA for almost two years. The following texts demonstrate the strength of feeling against the legislation.

Report from the Commissioners to the Right Honourable Lord John Russell, relative to proceedings in the Huddersfield Union. Poor Law Commission Office, Somerset House, 21 June 1837

My Lord

We have recently issued under our hands and seal, as the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, certain orders relating to thirty-three townships in the upper division of the Wapentake of Aghigg, in the West Riding of York, and in the execution of those orders circumstances have arisen which we deem it our duty to report for the information of your Lordship, as her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department.

By orders, of the dates 21st January and 26th January respectively, the townships in question were ... declared a Union for the administration of relief to the poor, under the title of the Huddersfield Union, and the Guardians of the poor of that Union were directed by the original order of the 21st January, to hold their first meeting at the George Inn, Huddersfield, on the 15th February, and to proceed thereat or as soon thereafter as conveniently might be, to the election of their clerk, and to the exercise of the functions assigned them [under the 1836 Registration Act]. ...

At the first meeting of the Guardians, held on the 15th of February, in pursuance of this order, a motion was made by Joseph Armitage, Esquire, of Mills Bridge, an ex-officio Guardian, seconded by Mr. Thomas Leigh, of Almonbury, in the following terms:- 'That as there is in the House of Commons a Bill to amend the Poor Law Bill' — it is believed that an allusion was intended by these words in the Bill for amending the Registration Act — since passed into a law — 'that as Honley is not represented, and three or four other Guardians have not produced their authority to act, this meeting be adjourned to Monday the 3rd day of April, at eleven o'clock, at this house, then and there to meet for the purposes of this Act, and the Act for the Registering Births, Deaths and Marriages'.

By way of amendment to this motion, it was proposed "That the Board proceed to the election of a Clerk", and on a division the amendment was lost, and the original motion carried by a majority of 18 to 14.

It is material to observe, that the effect of this adjournment was to postpone all proceedings in execution of the order of Union until the election of a new Board of Guardians, which had been directed to take place on the Monday next following the 25th March.

In the interval which thus occurred between the first meeting of the 15th February and the time for electing a new Board, exertions of an extraordinary nature appear to have been made to excite a spirit of hostility to the provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act throughout the several townships of the Union, with the distinct and avowed object of defeating the operation of the law. Amongst the various means by which individuals interested to effect this object endeavoured to obtain their end, was the publication in writing as well as by harangues, of false and inflammatory statements regarding the mode of administering relief to the poor intended to be introduced under the authority of our Commission, and the excitement thereby produced among the lower classes of operatives was openly directed by the leading parties engaged in this system of agitation against the persons and property of any who should dare to undertake the office of Guardian in a spirit friendly to the operation of the law. We regret to say that these proceedings were successful to the extent of causing Guardians to be elected for some of the townships whose disposition was known to be unfriendly to the introduction of the new law, and who were understood at the time of their election to be disposed to pursue in a hostile spirit that system of adjourning the proceedings which had been commenced in the he first instance under the sanction of the ex-officio Guardians at the meeting of the 15th February.

In pursuance of the adjournment above mentioned, the new Board of Guardians met on the 3rd April. This meeting was intruded upon by a large number of persons who demanded to be present at the proceedings, and who refused to withdraw from the room where the Guardians were assembled. The meeting was in consequence adjourned for one hour, and on the re-assembling of the Guardians the exclusion of all strangers from the place of meeting was effected by a number of special constables, acting under the direction of those magistrates who attended the meeting as ex-officio Guardians, viz., J Armitage, Esq., BRN Battye, Esq., and WH Battye, Esq.

At this meeting several motions for adjournment were proposed, and effect of which would have been to postpone any proceedings under the order, until after the 1st July, by which the due operation of the [Registration Act] would have been defeated. It appeared, however, that a majority of the Guardians were not prepared at this time to act so directly in contravention of the law, since on the representation of the Assistant Commissioner that any such adjournment would be a direct breach of the law, and adjournment to the 5th June was brought forward by way of amendment, and supported by many Guardians on the Ground that it was expedient to avoid the expense of a clerk as long as possible.

Ultimately a division took place on a motion to proceed to the election of a clerk, when there appeared to be 18 Guardians in favour of that motion and 21 against it, the three ex-officio Guardians voting in the minority. Subsequently the proposed adjournment to the 5th June was carried by a majority of 19 to 10, the three ex-officio Guardians again voting in the minority, and several of the elected Guardians declining to vote altogether.

Previously to the 5th June, the day on which the adjourned meeting was to be held, a letter was addressed by us to the Board of Guardians, of this the following is a copy: —

Poor Law Commission, Somerset House
3rd June 1837

Gentlemen

The Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales have had under their consideration the proceedings which took place at the first meeting of the Board of Guardians of the Huddersfield Union, and also those which occurred at the subsequent meeting of the 3rd April last.

The Commissioners perceive with regret, that on both those occasions the Guardians declined proceeding to the election of a Clerk of the Union, and to the exercise of their functions under the [Registration Act], and that instead of proceeding therein, the Guardians adjourned their meeting on both those occasions to a subsequent period.

The Commissioners now call the attention of the Board of Guardians to the circumstanced that the [Registration Act] is to take effect from the 1st July next , before which time it will be necessary that the Guardians should have not only appointed their clerk, who by virtue of his office will become Superintendent Registrar of the Union, but should also have divided the Union into districts, and have appointed a registrar to each of those districts, and the Commissioners have to express their earnest desire that the Guardians will no longer delay the execution of the powers and functions assigned to them by the Act above mentioned.

The Commissioners also think it their duty to acquaint the Guardians, that if the provisions of the Registration Act should fail of being carried into effect through their default, they will alone become responsible for defeating the intentions of the Legislature' and the Commissioners have to state it as their opinion, that any further postponement of the necessary proceedings will be a direct contravention not only of the Order of Union, but of that section of the Registration Act which required the Guardians to exercise the powers in question.

Edwin Chadwick, Secretary.

At this meeting we have reason to believe, from information supplied to us through various sources, that a considerable majority of the whole number of Guardians were prepared to proceed to the election of a clerk, and to execute the functions assigned them under the provisions of the Registration Act, and that the law failed of being carried into effect on this occasion in consequence of the personal intimidation of the parties who were called upon to act in that behalf.

It appears that on the morning of the 5th June, about one hour before the meeting of the Guardians, which had been appointed to take place at the workhouse in Huddersfield, at eleven o'clock, a large assemblage of persons collected in front of the Druid's Arms Inn, and were addressed in violent and inflammatory language by Mr. Oastler and other persons; that at the our appointed for the meeting of the Guardians, this assemblage proceeded under the exhortation and direction of the speakers to the workhouse, where the Guardians were about to assemble; that on arriving at the workhouse the outer gates were immediately forced, and the yard and entrances to the building filled with persons in a state of great excitement; that the Guardians having adjourned their meeting to the Albion Hotel, on their way thither were insulted, threatened with violence, and actually assaulted in several instances by the accompanying crowd; that the chairman of the Guardians was at this time preserved with great difficulty from violence of a serious nature, and the police officers and special constables engaged in protecting his person, and the persons of the other Guardians, underwent many personal injuries themselves from the violence of the crowd; that the Guardians, having with difficulty obtained possession of the room provided for them at the Albion Hotel, were during the whole time of their meeting beset by a crowd of persons who several times attempted to force their way into the building; that their proceedings were interrupted by stones being thrown into the room in which they were assembled; and that ultimately the meeting broke up prematurely under the dread of violence from those assembled without.

We are informed from sources in which we place confidence, that it was under the influence of intimidation thus exercised that a majority of the Guardians on this occasion declined to proceed to the election of a clerk, a resolution to that effect having been negatived by a majority of the Guardians present. By another resolution the meeting was adjourned to meet again on Monday 12th June following at the Albion Hotel.

On receiving full intelligence of these occurrences, a verbal communication on the subject was immediately made by us to the Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the following letter was despatched by the post of Saturday 10th inst. ...

To the Guardians of the Huddersfield Union
Poor Law Office, London, 10th June, 1837

Gentlemen

The Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales have received from your chairman an official report of the resolutions passed at your recent meeting of the 5th June instant.

It appears from that report that a majority of the Guardians have declined to proceed to the election of a clerk, and that the appointment of a superintendent registrar is contemplated in lieu thereof, and may probably take place at the next meeting of your Board.

The Commissioners are therefore desirous of stating for your immediate information, that they are fully of opinion that your Board has no authority to proceed to the appointment of a superintendent registrar, under the present circumstances of the Huddersfield Union, but that the only legal course by which the Guardians can proceed to make the necessary arrangements under the Registration Act, is to elect their clerk, who will by virtue of his office become superintendent registrar of the Union, provided he chooses to accept that situation; it is only in case of his refusal to accept that situation, that the Guardians can appoint any other person than their clerk to be the superintendent registrar of the Union.

The Commissioners desire also to point out to the Board of Guardians, that no act or resolution of a majority of their body, which is in direct contravention of the law, can be of any force or validity to prevent such portion of the Board as may be willing to act in execution of the law from proceeding effectually therein, provided that three Guardians be willing so to act, which number is sufficient to constitute a quorum under the ... Poor Law Amendment Act.

The Commissioners entertain an anxious hope that the above explanation of the actual state of the law will induce a sufficient number of the ex-officio and elected Guardians of the Union to proceed in execution of the functions which have been distinctly assigned to them by the Legislature.

Edwin Chadwick, Secretary

A copy of the above communication was forwarded to each of the ex-officio Guardians of the Union, together with a circular letter in the following terms:-

Poor Law Office, London, 10th June 1837

Sir,

I am directed by the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales to forward to you, as an ex-officio Guardian of the Huddersfield Union, the accompanying copy of a letter addressed by them to the Board of Guardians of that Union, and to request the favour of your attendance at the meeting of the Board, which will take place at the Albion Hotel, Huddersfield, on Monday next the 12th instant, when it is hoped that that part of the order of the Commissioners of the date 21st January last, which related to the appointment of a clerk of the Union, will be carried into effect by the ex-officio Guardians, and such portion of the elected Guardians as may be induced to act in execution of the law.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant / Edwin Chadwick, Secretary

Of the proceedings which took place at the meeting of the 12th June we have received information to the following effect: — that several of the Guardians disposed to act in execution of the law were prevented by fear of violence from attending the meeting; that on the assembling of some of the Guardians in pursuance of the adjournment, several persons, not being Guardians, intruded themselves upon the meeting, asserting their right to be present at, and to witness the proceedings; that in the presence of these persons the Guardians proceeded to business; that although there were 25 Guardians present at the meeting, of whom it appeared that only 16 were opposed to the election of a clerk, yet no election of a clerk did in fact take place and that a further adjournment to the 11 September next was subsequently proposed and carried.

It appears further from our information that no ex-officio Guardian attended this meeting. From Joseph Armitage, Esq., one of the ex-officio Guardians, we have received the following letters which appear to have been written — the former in the morning of Monday 12th June, and previously to the meeting — and the latter in the afternoon of the same day and subsequently to the meeting.

Huddersfield, 12th June 1837

Sir,

In reply to your letter of the 10th, I regret that we did not receive it on Saturday, there having been on that day a bench of magistrates, and I might have had an opportunity of conferring with them thereon.

Yesterday being Sunday I did not send for my letters, and consequently your communication was not delivered to me till this morning.

With regard to my attendance as an ex-officio Guardian at the Board this day, I fear I shall be unable to be present, as I am called on by the Secretary of State to keep the peace of the town, and my services will be required elsewhere.

Should any other magistrates attend, your communication shall be laid before them, and if I can be spared so as to assist the Guardians in carrying the law into effect, I will do so...

Joseph Armitage

Milnsbridge House, June 12, 1837

Sir,

I had the honour of writing to you this morning, and now beg to inform you that the meeting of Guardians was held at the Albion Hotel, agreeable to adjournment. It was quite out of my power to attend as an ex-offico Guardian, as no other magistrate came into the town during the day. I, therefore, felt that the peace and safety of the town was intrusted to my care, and I remained at the George Inn, in communication with the civil and military authorities. I am informed the Guardians resolved not to elect a clerk' and adjourned the meeting for three months.

From the four other ex-officio Guardians, viz., &mdah; Joseph Walker, Esq., Sir John Lister Kay, Bart., BRN Battye, Esq., and WW Battle, Esq., — to whom our letters of 10th June were addressed, we have received no communication.


Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 12 November 2002