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The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 sometimes abbreviated to PLAA was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker passed by the Whig government of Lord Melbourne that reformed the country's poverty relief system. It was an Amendment Act that completely replaced earlier legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601. With reference to this earlier Act the 1834 Act is also known as the New Poor Law.

The Amendment Act was called for after an investigation by the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws which included Edwin Chadwick, George Nicholls, John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. The Act has been described as "the classic example of the fundamental Whig-Benthamite reforming legislation of the period", based on three main doctrines: Malthus's principle that population increased faster than resources unless checked, Ricardo's "iron law of wages" and Bentham's doctrine that people did what was pleasant, and would tend to claim relief rather than working.

The Amendment Act came two years after the 1832 Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle-classes. Some historians have argued that this was a major factor in the PLAA being passed.

The 1832 Royal Commission's findings

The Royal Commission's findings, which had most probably been predetermined, were that the old system was badly and expensively run. The Commission's recommendations were based on two principles. The first was less eligibility - conditions within workhouses should be made worse than the worst conditions outside of the workhouse so that workhouses served as a deterrent - only the most needy would consider entering them .The other was the "workhouse test", that relief should only be available in the workhouse. A problem with this system was the urban rate payers were faced with a dramatic increase in their poor rate because the principle of less eligibility made the rural poor migrate where there was work.

When the act was introduced however it had been partly watered down. The workhouse test and the idea of "less eligibility" were never mentioned themselves and the recommendation of the Royal Commission - that 'outdoor relief' (relief given outside of a workhouse) should be abolished - was never implemented. Policy officially changed after the passing of the Outdoor Labour Test Order which 'allowed' outdoor relief.

Doctrines

Malthusianism

An Essay on the Principle of Population by Malthus set out the influential doctrine that population growth was geometric, and unless checked, increased faster than the ability of a country to feed its population. This pressure explained the existence of poverty, which he justified theologically as a force for self improvement and abstention. As a political moralist he opposed the old poor laws as self-defeating, removing the pressure of want from the poor while leaving them free to increase their families, thus leading to an unsustainable increase in population. His views were influential and hotly debated without always being understood, and opposition to the old Poor Law which peaked between 1815 and 1820 was described by both sides as "Malthusian".

Of those serving on the Commission, the economist Senior identified his ideas with Malthus while adding more variables, and Bishop John Bird Sumner as a leading Evangelical was more persuasive than Malthus himself in incorporating the Malthusian principle of population into the Divine Plan, taking a less pessimistic view and describing it as producing benefits such as the division of property, industry, trade and European civilisation.

Iron law of wages

David Ricardo's "iron law of wages" held that aid given to poor workers under the old Poor Law had the effect of undermining the wages of other workers, so that the Roundsman System and Speenhamland system led employers to reduce wages, and needed reform to help workers who were not getting such aid.

Utilitarianism

Edwin Chadwick, a major contributor to the Commissions report, developed Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, the idea that the success of something could be measured by whether it secured the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This idea of utilitarianism underpinned the Poor Law Amendment Act. Chadwick believed that a central authority was needed to maintain standards and that the poor rate would reach its 'correct' level when the workhouse was seen as a deterrent and fewer people claimed relief. Bentham believed that "the greatest good for the greatest number" could only be achieved when wages found their true levels in a free-market system. Ironically the Poor Law Amendment Act meant greater state intervention.

Bentham's argument that people chose pleasant options and would not do what was unpleasant provided a rationale for making relief unpleasant so that people would not claim it, "stigmatising" relief so that it became "an object of wholesome horror".

Petersianism

Towards the end of 1833 the vicar of the parish of Skipton, Rev. Mark Peters, was publicly feted for an article in the Craven Herald, in which he fiercely criticised the administration of the Poor Law in his parish. According to him, "far too much is being spent on the procuration of indolence and vice via such wasteful handouts. Gents, this is not the time to be petty and even racist. We must root out this profligacy root and branch!". Although somewhat neglected by the national newpapers, this firebrand speech was remarked upon in very supportive tones by Chadwick in December of that year, in writing the report of the Commission. Most historical writers of the period (including Blanchard and Howarth) agree that Peters was a significant influence on Chadwickian philosophy.

The Terms of the Poor Law Amendment Act

  • The Bill established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system. This included the forming together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions and the building of workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief.


  • The Amendment Act did not ban all forms of outdoor relief. Not until the 1840s would the only method of relief be for the poor to enter a Workhouse. The Workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entering a Workhouse. Outdoor relief was 'discouraged' but not abolished.


  • The Act called for parishes to be put into Poor Law Unions so that relief could be provided more easily. Each union was to establish a workhouse which met the principle of less eligibility.




Implementation

The programme of reform was not laid down by Parliament. Commissioners were to interpret and implement the law. When the new Amendment was applied to the industrial North of Englandmarker (an area the law had never considered during reviews), the system failed catastrophically as many found themselves temporarily unemployed, due to recessions or a fall in stock demands, so called 'cyclical unemployment' and were reluctant to enter a Workhouse, despite it being the only method of gaining aid.

The Poor Law Commission

The central body set up to administer the new system for the Poor Law Commission. The Commission worked in Somerset Housemarker and was initially made up of:



The grouped were referred to as the The Barshaws of Somerset House.

Powers of the Poor Law Commission

The Poor Law Commission was independent of Parliament which made it powerless against criticisms from Parliament itself. Although the Poor Law Commission could issue directives the Poor Law Commission had no real powers to make reluctant parishes implement its directives. However the Poor Law Commission did have powers to veto workhouse appointments, set dietaries, and centralise accounting procedures

Putting Parishes into Unions

The Poor Law Commission had to put parishes into unions as these were to be the administrative unit for the registration of births, marriages and deaths which was to be introduced in 1837. The Assistant Commissioners were in charge of persuading parishes across the country to join up into these unions, because the Commission had no power to force parishes to comply.

Gilbert's Act

One problem with the Poor Law Commission encountered was that many parishes had already grouped together under Gilbert's Act. Many parishes refused to break up these amalgamations.

Select Vestries

Another issue was that some parishes had set up their own Select Vestries under the Sturges-Bourne Act passed in 1819. These were committees which were responsible for Poor Law administration which could employ assistant commissioners. The Act was passed in an attempt to rid the Poor Law relief system of corruption. Some parishes were still using the terms of older Acts rather than the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.

Workhouses

The Poor Law Commission had no powers to insist that unions built new workhouses although they could make them improve existing ones. A Board of Guardians could delay the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act through negotiation. Despite the fact that the Act was passed in 1834 most workhouses were erected in the 1850s and 1860s and until then the 'workhouse test' did not operate.In the West Riding, where there had been opposition to the Act, a workhouse was built to discourage the 'mobile poor' from claiming relief especially the Irish who had come to Britain in huge numbers during the Irish Potato Famine.

Problems with the Poor Law Amendment Act

After 1834 Poor Law policy aimed to:
  • Transfer unemployed rural workers to urban areas where there was work
  • Protect urban rate payers from paying too much.


It was impossible to meet both as the principle of less eligibility made people search for work in towns and cities. Workhouses were built and paupers transferred to these urban areas. However, the Settlement Laws were used to protect rate payers from paying too much. Workhouse construction and the amalgamation of unions was slow. Outdoor relief did continue after the PLAA.

The board issued further edicts on outdoor relief:

The implementation of the act proved impossible particularly in the industrial north which suffered from cyclical unemployment. Outdoor relief was both more humane and cheaper. The cost of implementing Settlement Laws in operation since the 1600s was also costly and therefore was not implemented fully - it often proved too costly to enforce the removal of paupers. The Commission could issue directives, however these were often not implemented fully and in some cases ignored this was to save on expenses (Darwin leadbitter 1782-1840 was in charge of the commissions finances).

The PLAA was implemented differently and unevenly across England and Wales. One of the criticisms of the 1601 Poor Law was its varied implementation. The law was also interpreted differently in different parishes as each parish had different levels of poverty and different parishes had developed more than others leading to an uneven system. Local Boards of Guardians also interpreted acts of law to suit the interests of their own parishes, resulting in an even greater degree of local variation.

Opposition to the Poor Law

See main article Opposition to the Poor Law.

Fierce hostility and organised opposition from workers, politicians and religious leaders eventually led to the Amendment Act being amended, removing the very harsh measures of the Workhouses to a certain degree. The Andover workhouse scandal, where conditions in the Andovermarker Union Workhouse were found to be inhumane and dangerous, prompted a government review.

Oliver Twist was written in retaliation against the Poor Law.

In the North of England particularly, there was fierce resistance since the system there was considered by local people to be running smoothly. They argued that the nature of cyclical unemployment meant that any new workhouse built would be empty for most of the year and thus a waste of money. In particular, this viewpoint was championed by the previous supporter of the act, the Rev. Mark Peters in mid-1835, who criticised the "wanton depredations incurred by overexpenditure on empty houses" However, the unlikely union between property owners and paupers did not last and opposition, though fierce, eventually petered out. In some cases, this was further accelerated by the fact that protests very successfully undermined parts of the Amendment Act and became obsolete.

References

  1. The anti-Poor Law campaign
  2. The New Poor Law - 1834 - Britain
  3. The Poor Law Amendment Act: 14 August 1834
  4. Craven Herald, 2 November 1833, pg. 8
  5. Royal Commission on the Poor Law, 1834, pg. 67
  6. Workhouse
  7. Craven Herald, 1 March 1835, pg. 3


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