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England New Poor Law, 1834 through 1948 (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

New Poor Law[edit | edit source]

1834 New Poor Law[edit | edit source]

The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions’ effects, together with the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, had unleashed huge pressure on the existing Poor Laws. Tens of thousands who wanted to work couldn’t find a decent-paying job and were forced into the workhouse, but assistance was not directed to the elderly and infirm where it was really needed. It was time for change.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 abolished the old system by removing responsibility for the poor from the parish to a Board of Guardians of a union of parishes. David Hey, The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, relates how this was met with much opposition from the north of England, where many vast parishes existed and the new workhouses were derogatorily called bastilles. Guardians were elected by local landowners and rate-payers, and the national system was supervised by three Poor Law Commissioners. The significant changes in administration were:

  • Outdoor relief was virtually abolished—you either entered the workhouse or had no benefits—this being known as the workhouse test. However, contrary to Act regulations, some outdoor relief continued to be paid at the discretion of individual boards, especially to the old or sick who lived with relatives, and to widows with dependant children, and to the deserving poor. The person responsible for making decisions about care was the relieving officer who reviewed all claims for relief.
  • Employers were forced to pay a living wage.
  • The able-bodied taken into the workhouse were expected to work. Suitable occupations were undertaken within the house to make it self-sustaining - cooking, laundry, cleaning and child-minding for the women, and gardening, shoemaking and stone-breaking for men, although many were sent out to labour on necessary projects. Oakum picking (the unravelling of waste tarred ship’s rope for later use in caulking ships) and stone picking in the fields was done by both sexes.
  • There was a belief amongst the upper and middle classes that pauperism was a character defect made up of unreliability, idleness and particularly drunkenness, and this needed to be stamped out in order to rescue civilized society. Hence workhouses were made as unpleasant as possible in order to discourage indolence (and drinking), and force the able to work. A common phrase was that the Poor House was the last step to hell. However, considerable variation occurred depending on the individuals Boards of Guardians and Masters. Mark Herber states in Ancestral Trails that ‘conditions varied from humane and clean (and possibly better than many paupers’ homes) to institutions that were little better than prisons. It has been shown that most able-bodied men who sought relief were not wastrels, but just could not find work. It was not until Charles Booth’s survey of London in 1889 and Rowntree’s of York in 1901 that the true causes of poverty were understood to be unemployment, under-employment, the death of the family breadwinner, or having large numbers of children.
  • Parishes were encouraged to provide one or more larger workhouses within each union, and close the former small parish ones. In East Anglia larger areas such as hundreds erected Hundred Houses to serve this purpose. All unions had workhouses by about 1865.
  • The old settlement rules were modified, with birth and parentage as well as marriage for women, being the prime determinants, with no change by yearly hiring. Paupers from elsewhere would be removed to the workhouse of the union that was responsible for them, which was frequently not located in their home parish.

Workhouse inhabitants were colloquially referred to as being in the union, in the house, or with the old terminology in the poorhouse, and those receiving any kind of help may be stated as on the parish or on relief. Families were separated, men, women and children (except babies) being housed in different dormitories, called wards, and the able-bodied were kept separate from the infirm. There was also an itinerant, tramp’s or vagrants’ ward for those looking for work and staying only a few days; they too would be expected to perform a few hours hard labour in return for a very simple bed and a bowl of gruel.

The new unions were often conveniently centred on a market town, which evened out the rates payable by rural and town dwellers, and frequently overlapped several county boundaries. An unpublished study by the author found that 10% of parishes were in unions based on a place not in their own county. The New Poor Law remained in effect for well over a century, with modifications and numerous realignments of parish and union boundaries over time. Some 15,000 parishes were grouped into the approximately 600 Poor Law Unions (PLU’s) of 1834, and formed the basis of the Registration Districts created in 1837 for the new civil registration of births, marriages and deaths, and also for the censuses. This jurisdictional information is therefore essential for effective research. To find in which union a certain parish belonged consult the author’s Parishes and Registration Districts in England and Wales. The physical location of the workhouse can be ascertained from directories, maps, enquiry to the county archives or census returns. They are not always located geographically in the union that runs them, particularly in large cities, as land was cheaper further away.

Most workhouses had an attached or separate union infirmary and this was usually the only place where free medical attention could be sought. The average family would have made use of this facility even if not on poor relief, and so many of our ancestors spent their last days sick in the union and died there. Because of the social stigma attached to the workhouse, workhouse masters frequently gave the street address on birth and death certificates rather than the name workhouse (Humphrey), and the master may write occupant rather than his title. As other facilities developed to cater for specific groups formerly in the workhouse, workhouses gradually evolved into orphanages and hospitals, particularly for the aged, infirm and feeble-minded and were an important part of the medical system.

Workhouses had always been responsible for finding apprenticeships for their pauper children as early as possible. This was probably done as much to get them off the poor rates as for the social and economic well-being of the children. Some workhouses established schools for their children in the mid-19th century as another way of helping end the cycle of poverty. These existed until local board schools started in the 1870s and 1880s.

1835 Highway Act[edit | edit source]

Responsibility for highways passed to the new civil, local authorities, and the post of Surveyor of Highways abolished.

1842 Parish Constables Act[edit | edit source]

Constables now appointed by the Justices of the Peace, and county constabularies started in 1839, gradually replacing the parish constables.

From this date the parents of an illegitimate child could not be forced by the overseers to marry.

A person who had lived for five years in a parish without claiming poor relief was deemed to be settled there, and this was reduced to three years in the 1860s.

Minimum age for binding an apprentice raised to nine.

1851 Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act

By this act local authorities were enabled to borrow money to erect or purchase lodging houses for the working classes. John Richardson,The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia, states that it was totally ignored.

Charity Commissioners were appointed to control abuses in almshouses and from now on most establishments gradually came under public control.

Civil Highway Boards took over maintenance of roads.

Poor Rate was replaced by a Union Rate.

1869 Formation of the Charity Organization Society[edit | edit source]

Which recognized the weakness of the pauperism theory, and spoke of the difference between deserving poor, who should be aided by charitable groups, and the undeserving poor for whom the Poor Law was really designed.

1871 Local Government Board Act
This act introduced a central government department for administering both poor relief and public health.

1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act
Gave authorities the power to compulsively buy up and either improve or demolish slum property however it, too, was rarely used.

1876 Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act
It was the first time the settlement laws were substantially changed since 1697.

1890 Housing Act[edit | edit source]

Local authorities were assisted in clearing slums, and public subsidies were made available for building working class housing, with adjustments in 1923 and 1924. Authorities were getting concerned about health issues by this time and more action was taken. It should be noted that in the 1891 census statistics were compiled on overcrowding in towns and cities by asking how many rooms were occupied.

Establishment of County Councils and County Boroughs.

1894 Local Government Act[edit | edit source]

The Local Government Act (1894) divided England and Wales into about 14,000 parishes, mainly following the boundaries of the former civil parishes. At this time rationalization of boundaries was also achieved by removing detached portions and dealing with divided parishes. These are the parishes in use for modern records; the researcher is cautioned to ascertain the precise boundaries of his parish at the time of ancestral habitation by the use of contemporary maps and other sources.

Children were removed from the workhouse, and the first old age pensions were introduced.

Labour Exchanges started up to assist the unemployed to find work.

Unemployment and health insurance introduced.

1919 Ministry of Health[edit | edit source]

Took over administration of the previously combined poor relief and public health.

1929 Local Government Act[edit | edit source]

This act abolished the Boards of Guardians whose functions were taken over by new County Councils and County Boroughs, which established Area Guardians Committees.

1930 Poor Law Act[edit | edit source]

So many other institutions and programmes had now come into being that this act allowed only the aged and infirm to apply for care in the workhouse, but outdoor relief could be given if necessary. Another provision required local councils to care for orphans. Many workhouses closed but the buildings were adapted to other uses, particularly as auxiliary or cottage hospitals, or asylums. The author was born during the war in a still-functioning workhouse, in the tramps (or itinerant) ward that was in temporary use as a maternity ward for evacuees. My mother remembered the old ladies who cleaned the ward as long-time workhouse inmates. This 1835 building, the interior modernized and with some additions, is now the hospital in Winslow, Buckinghamshire. The place of birth on my birth certificate reads 1 Buckingham Road, Winslow so no-one would know of my ignominious start! At least anything I did in life would be a move up the social scale!

National Health Service[edit | edit source]

1948 National Health Service[edit | edit source]

One of the first priorities of the Labour Government elected after the Second World War was the establishment of an egalitarian health care system. The National Assistance Act closed the remaining workhouses, moving the few aged and infirm occupants to other facilities, and set up the National Health System which survives with modifications today.

Earlier Laws[edit | edit source]

For information about earlier and later poor laws, see:

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The underlying problem was that there were so many different needs to be met, thus any one method was bound to be inadequate. There developed a series of solutions to parts of the problem and two bold initiatives were taken with the Old and New Poor Laws of 1601 and 1834 respectively. It wasn’t until more comprehensive measures were taken in the 19th and 20th centuries to properly address each different need from orphans to old age pensions, and from bastards to bad harvests and beggars, that the ‘problem’ of the poor was largely solved.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.