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The 1832 Commission of Enquiry into the operation of the Poor Laws

The 1832 Commission into the operation of the poor laws was influenced decisively by utilitarianism and was the most thorough investigation up to that date. Twenty-six investigators visited about 3,000 parishes/towns in 1832 to find out details of poor law administration. The investigators began with the hypothesis that allowances and indiscriminate parish relief were widespread and harmful.

A questionnaire was also sent out. Only 10% of them were returned, covering some 20% of the population. The questions were poorly phrased and so produced misleading data. They failed to distinguish between family allowances on wages and wage subsidies, although the Commissioners wanted to show that family allowances led to bigger families. Furthermore, the sample of parishes was not random, because of the small number of returns. However, it seemed that poor relief was higher in the Speenhamland counties although the system - which had been in vogue during the French Wars - often was abandoned after the 1824 Select Committee on labourers' wages.

The old Poor Law looked costly, was clumsy and often was wasteful. The new Poor Law took the initiative out of the hands of the 15,000 parishes and gave it to a central authority and to elected guardians of the poor. It brought in a professional administration, which represented the uncompromising, middle-class attitude to poverty.

The financial burden of the old poor law apparently was heavy:

1784 = £2 million)
1815 = £6 million)
a three-fold increase

Agricultural areas and areas of developing trade and industry had high poor rates; industrial areas spent less because there was more work.

The period 1815-22 saw heavy poor relief expenditure but there was no national picture because of poor communications. There was no compilation of annual trends in unemployment, agricultural or industrial relief. Parliament primarily was composed of southern landowners who were suffering from 'agricultural distress' in periods of low corn prices. These men made up the opinion for the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This opinion was formed between 1815 and 1822 when harvests were good but unemployment increased. The 1821 Census showed an increased rural population, which seemed to justify Malthus' attack on the allowance system. A hardening of opinion against Poor Law administration came with

The 'reforms' in Nottinghamshire carried out by Nicholls, Becher and Lowe began to attract publicity in 1821-22. The reforms aimed at harsher administration of poor relief, the central feature of which was a deterrent workhouse. They also specifically attacked allowances.

The Poor Law Commission was provoked by

a) the upward trend of relief 1830-32
b) rural unrest - the 'Swing' riots of 1830 et seq.

Rural population growth was low in the 1820s and 1830s, although per capita relief rates were high. The poor law commission ignored this because it wrecked their hypothesis.

Who comprised the 'pauper host'?

They were seen as potential Jacobins by the wealthy. Statistics are inaccurate, but paupers seem to have accounted for

i.e. 70% were NOT able bodied adults

By 1802 the most notorious of the later Speenhamland counties had a worse-than-average pauper problem. Agitation against the old Poor Law was based on parochial experience - small communities where the financial burden fell heavily. The old system was humane and flexible.

The annual bill for relief would be £500 p.a. between 40 or 50 ratepayers in a parish where, of 600, 14% to 20% were receiving temporary/permanent relief. Most labourers were not continually in receipt of relief.

The pauper group grew and became more varied because of

There is no firm evidence that poor relief or the Speenhamland system led to a growth of population.

There was little need to reform the old poor law in Yorkshire and Lancashire because well-run relief existed. There was much opposition here to the new Poor Law from radicals, Chartists (after 1836), manufacturers and publicists. The Lancashire middle-class resented central authority interference and liked free movement of labour for factories. They were also humane. Industrialists knew what caused unemployment because they discharged their workers. They did not want to punish the unemployed as well. As late as 1858, the Rochdale Union was still more like almshouses than the workhouse. The north and north-west had little experience of the Speenhamland system and there were more ratepayers, so the poor rates were low.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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