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The Act of 1601
Acts of 1536, 1572, 1576 and 1597 prescribed relief for the poor on a parish basis. The Act of 1572 made poor relief the subject of local taxation, while the 1576 Act made provision for "setting the poor on work and for avoidance of idleness", including the creation of "houses of correction" for persistent idlers.
The Poor Law Act 1601 formalised earlier practices. It made provision for a national system, paid for by levying local rates (or property taxes). It made provision
- to set to work children who were orphaned or whose parents could not maintain them,
- to provide materials to "set the poor on work"
- to offer relief to people who were unable to work — mainly those who were "lame, impotent, old, blind", and
- "the putting out of children to be apprentices".
Relief for poor people might have taken place in the establishment of a parish poorhouse, while able-bodied beggars may have been placed in houses of correction. However, provision for the able-bodied poor in the workhouse, which provided accommodation at the same time as work, was a later development. The first workhouse was established in Bristol in 1697, nearly a century after the passage of the Poor Law.
There was much variation in the application of the law and there was a tendency for the destitute to migrate towards the more generous parishes. This led to the Settlement Act 1662 which allowed relief only to established residents of a parish. The Act was criticised in later years for its effect in distorting the labour market.
The eighteenth century
The eighteenth-century workhouse movement began at the end of the seventeenth century with the establishment of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor, founded by Act of Parliament in 1696. The corporation established a workhouse which combined housing and care of the poor with a house of correction for petty offenders. Following the example of Bristol some twelve further towns and cities established similar corporations in the next two decades. Because these corporations required a private Act, they were not suitable for smaller towns and individual parishes.
Starting with the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1714 several dozen small towns and individual parishes established their own institutions without any specific legal authorization. These were concentrated in the South Midlands and in the county of Essex. From the late 1710s the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge began to promote the idea of parochial workhouses. The Society published several pamphlets on the subject, and supported Sir Edward Knatchbull in his successful efforts to steer the Workhouse Test Act through parliament in 1723. The act gave legislative authority for the establishment of parochial workhouses, by both single parishes and as joint ventures between two or more parishes. More importantly, the Act helped to publicise the idea of establishing workhouses to a national audience. By 1776 some 1912 parish and corporation workhouses had been established in England and Wales, housing almost 100,000 paupers. Although many parishes and pamphlet writers expected to earn money from the labour of the poor in workhouses, the vast majority of people obliged to take up residence in workhouses were ill, elderly, or children whose labour proved largely unprofitable. The demands, needs and expectations of the poor also ensured that workhouses came to take on the character of general social policy institutions, combining the functions of creche, and night shelter, geriatric ward and orphanage.
In 1782, Thomas Gilbert finally succeeded in passing an act that established poor houses solely for the aged and infirm and introduced a system of outdoor relief for the able-bodied. This was the basis for the development of the Speenhamland system, which made financial provision for low-paid workers.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834
Dissatisfaction with the system grew at the beginning of the 19th century. The 1601 system had costs that fell locally on each individual parish and was widely perceived as implemented in a way that actually encouraged the underlying problems, pushing more people into poverty even while it helped those who were already in poverty. Jeremy Bentham argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems, The writings of Thomas Malthus focused attention on the problem of overpopulation, and the growth of illegitimacy. David Ricardo argued that there was an "iron law of wages". The effect of poor relief, in the view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the "independent labourer". In the period following the Napoleonic Wars, several reformers altered the function of the "poorhouse" into the model for a deterrent workhouse.
In 1832, a commission was launched to review the operation of the system. It was strongly influenced by Nassau Senior who did much of the work involved with diagnosing the problems and proposing and implementing solutions.
The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was based in two core principles. One was "less eligibility": that the position of the pauper should be less eligible (that is, less to be chosen) than that of the independent labourer. Outdoor relief was abolished. The other was the "workhouse test", that relief should only be available in the workhouse. The reformed workhouses were to be uninviting, so that anyone capable of coping outside them would choose not to be in one. It also established a Poor Law Board to oversee the operation of the system on a national scale.
The abuses and shortcomings of the system are documented in the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the aspirations of the reformers, the Poor Law was unable to make the workhouse as bad as life outside: one attempt to do so, at the Andover workhouse, led to a national scandal in 1845. The administrators of the Poor Law came increasingly to rely on the "stigma" or shame associated with the Poor Law.
The Poor Law was the only local administration in much of the United Kingdom, and the powers of the Guardians were gradually expanded to include education, public health, and hospitals. This system became the basis for local government in England and Wales.
The end of the Poor Law
The reforms of the Liberal Government 1905-14 made several provisions to provide social services without the stigma of the Poor Law, including Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, and from that period fewer people were covered by the system. Workhouses were officially abolished by the Local Government Act 1929 though some persisted into the 1940s. The remaining responsibility for the Poor Law was given to local authorities before final abolition in 1948.
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