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The Poor Law Commission

The Poor Law Commission was the body established to administer poor relief after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The entire organisation comprised three Poor Law Commissioners (the "Bashaws of Somerset House"), their secretary and nine clerks. Assistant Commissioners were responsible for local inspections. The Commission lasted from 1834 to 1847 then between 1847 and 1871 it became the Poor Law Board.

The Poor Law Commission was based at Somerset House in London; even before the legislation had passed, men were canvassing for the post of Commissioner. William Day was one of the first applicants; Francis Place was another but he was ignored because he was a tailor by trade and the government wanted to appoint men of rank and station to the posts. Edwin Chadwick - who had been influential in writing the Report of the Royal Commission and in framing the legislation - had the strongest hope and expectation of being appointed but he was ignored by ministers as well. Lord Althorp saw Chadwick as a doctrinaire, abrasive Benthamite who was likely to create mistrust and resentment. The three men appointed were Thomas Frankland Lewis, George Nicholls and JG Shaw-Lefevre. The latter was a Whig and also the friend, protegé and bailiff of Lord Althorp.

They were each paid a salary of £2,000 per annum. Chadwick grudgingly accepted the post of Secretary to the Board, at an annual salary of £1,200.

On 23 August 1834 the three Commissioners took the oath of office and began work, the volume of which increased rapidly. At that point, the problems of rising unemployment that invariably occurred in wintertime had not yet been encountered. However, it was decided that Assistant Commissioners should be appointed to carry out the work of establishing 'unions'.

The Poor Law Commissioners edited the reports of the Assistant Commissioners so the reports presented to parliament do not reflect actual conditions 'on the ground', since they wanted to give a positive image of their work. For example, the Poor Law Commissioners and inspectors said that they had achieved the end of allowances and produced independent labourers. They also claimed that increased employment ended the problem of surplus labour in the countryside.

Although there was some evidence that these aims had been met in some areas, their sweeping generalisations did not reflect reality. In 1836 the Commissioners reported that they had combined 7,915 parishes into 365 Unions, involving a total population of 6,221,940. This was 43% of the population of England and Wales and accounted for 65% of the total poor rates. By 1839, some 350 workhouses had been built, mostly in the rural south of England

What they did not report on was the opposition to the creation of Unions and implementation of the Act. The Reports did not detail "abuses" where the Poor Law Guardians exercised their wide discretionary powers to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied in contravention of the law. Also, the intended central supervision of local Poor Law Boards was ineffectual because it was limited to the biannual visit of the Poor Law inspector and regular returns - accounts - to Somerset House of paupers and expenditure.

The first annual Report (1835) gives an account of Somerset House's successful initiatives with some manufacturers and a "trial run" at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire which led to the resettlement of 83 people in Lancashire. The efforts at resettlement were extended and by the end of 1835, the Poor Law Commission employed an 'emigration agent' at £400 p.a. to facilitate this work. Between 1835 and 1837, the Poor Law Commission organised the migration of 4,323 families to the industrial north. They arrived just as the economic depression hit the textile mills: most of them returned to the rural south where at least they had a support network.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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