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Why, and with what justification, had the Old Poor Law attracted so much criticism by 1834?

This essay was written by Mark Harbor. My thanks to him for allowing publication on this web site.

Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice.

Royal Commission on The Poor Laws Report, 1834

The above passage, penned by Edwin Chadwick in his section 'Remedial Measures' of the report, essentially summarises the criticisms of the Old Poor Laws. It suggests that too much money was being spent on poor relief, echoing the complaints of the Poor Rate payers. [1] It also implies that the monies were distributed in a haphazard manner, and that the laws were such to discourage 'honest' labour.

That expenditure on poor relief was increasing at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century is without doubt; in 1784 it was estimated at £2 million, had doubled by 1803, and by 1813 stood at £6.5 million. [2] This data suggests that the cost of relief was rising in a somewhat dramatic and consistent manner. Examination of Figure 1 suggests that while the trend in expenditure increase was consistent, actual changes were not always increases, and also that there were few dramatic changes.

Source: 1750-1803 - Slack, P, The English Poor Law 1531-1782, MacMillan, 1990, Table 1, p. 30.1802-1833 - Marshall, J.D., The Old Poor Law 1795-1834 (2nd Ed.), MacMillan, 1993,Table 1, pp 28/9

The data shows two dramatic increases in expenditure, the first between 1803 and 1813, and the second 1815-16. In the first period it is likely that the effects of enclosure on the smaller landowners and squatters were beginning to make themselves felt. Arthur Young stated in 1801 that 'by nineteen enclosure bills in twenty the poor are injured' and 'all we can look forward to is the parish poorhouse.'[3] The Hammonds stated that 'before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land, after enclosure he was a labourer without land. The economic basis of his independence was destroyed'.[4]

In the second period there are two potential reasons for the dramatic increase in expenditure. Firstly, at this time some 250,000 servicemen were returning from the French Wars [5] leading to a saturation of the labour market and increasing unemployment. Secondly, the Corn Law of 1815 served to maintain grain prices at artificial levels, making it more expensive than it would have been if trade had been unrestricted. [6]

Figure 2 shows the year-on-year percentage change in both wheat prices and poor relief expenditure. It can be seen from the five year moving average for both sets of data that expenditure closely follows increases in wheat price.

Figure 2: Source: Marshall

It can be seen from the above data therefore that while expenditure on poor relief was increasing, this was not necessarily due to over-generosity on the part of administrators, but that other causes, such as inflation, beyond the control of either the poor or the administrators had some influence.

The allowance systems that had been designed to compensate for inflation, such as the Speenhamland System, [7] also came under attack by critics of the Old Poor Law. The critics maintained that these systems actually increased the pauper population by encouraging the poor to produce offspring even though they could not afford their upkeep; and that employers deliberately kept wages low because they knew that the parishes would support the workers.

Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on Population (1798) (text here), suggested that the 'obvious tendency (of allowances) is to increase population without increasing food for its support'. He further suggested that because the free labourer could only purchase smaller amounts of food, due to the increase in population, he himself would be forced to apply for relief. This argument is flawed in its logic; if, at any given time, the 'provisions of the county' are fixed, and the rising population means they are 'distributed to every man in smaller proportions', then for the free labourer to apply for relief would be pointless as there is no additional sustenance to distribute or purchase.

If, as Malthus suggests, the pauper population increases as a result of the allowance systems, it is logical to assume that, in areas employing the systems, relief expenditure would increase in line with population increase. Conversely, in areas where these systems were not employed, population growth would not be as dramatic as areas where they were. Figure 3 shows data for three counties designated as 'Speenhamland' counties. Sussex was a county with below average rural population growth where, in 1832, more than 50% of parishes reported the use of child allowances. While the per capita expenditure for Sussex is the highest in the figure, the use of these allowances can hardly be blamed for excessive population growth as, in the period shown, the rate of increase is falling. Nottinghamshire on the other hand, had above average population growth, but few parishes reported the use of child allowance systems.  This fact did not appear to inhibit population growth, as Nottinghamshire's rate of increase is the highest in the figure.

Figure 3: Source: Marshall, Table 3., pp 44/5

So, Malthus' contention that allowances caused population growth, particularly the pauper population, is not supported by the data shown. The expenditure data for Nottinghamshire most likely reflects the work of the 'Nottingham Reformers'. George Nicholls and the Rev. Robert Lowe both pre-empted some the 1834 Act's measures by eliminating allowances. [8] Following Malthus' logic, these measures would have resulted in a reduction in the rate of increase of population; this is clearly not the case.

The second main criticism of allowance systems is that, because employers knew that the parishes would supplement labourers' wages, they deliberately kept those wages low [9] much concerned with maintaining or increasing their income. Evidence for this is the Corn Laws of 1804 and 1815, [10] which were designed to maintain the landowners' income. If they could reduce their outgoings by paying their workers less, in the full knowledge that the workers' incomes would not suffer because of allowances, they would have been more than willing to do so; particularly as they were Poor Rate payers — they would not want to pay for the labour twice.

There were also other pressures on wage levels. The rural population was rising rapidly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until about 1820 approximately 80% of the population still lived in rural areas. [11] The organisational changes (such as enclosure) and technological changes (such as threshing machines) in agriculture made food production more efficient, requiring fewer workers to produce the same amount or more. This increase in population, with the requirement for fewer workers, would naturally lead to a glut in the labour market, resulting in a 'buyers' market' where low wages would be the order of the day. So, it can be argued that the allowance systems were not the only reason for low wages.

The increase in unemployment, and under employment, in agriculture, together with the increasing demand for workers in industry, began a limited migration from rural to urban areas. The growth of towns from the middle of the 18th century is shown in Table 1.

Year No. of Towns
(greater than 50,000 inhabitants)
1750 2
1801 8
1851 29

Table 1: Growth Of Towns 1750-1851. Source Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 86.

This migration, albeit limited and over short distances [12] gives no credence to another of the criticisms of the Old Poor Laws; that the laws of settlement restricted movement of labour to areas where work could be found.

Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote

The very unequal price of labour…is probably owing to the obstruction which the law of settlements gives to a poor man who would carry his industry from one parish to another…

Malthus also commented on these obstructions in his essay,

And the obstructions continually occasioned…by these laws…add to the difficulties of those who are struggling to support themselves without assistance.

It is unlikely however that the laws hindered the movement of useful labour. The laws in fact sanctioned movement of some labour such as apprentices and domestic servants. It is likely that they were used selectively to prevent people who were likely to be a burden moving into a parish. It is unlikely that young, employable men would be returned to their parish of settlement. [13]

There is evidence that the settlement laws did increase the burden on the largely amateur administrators of the Old Poor Laws. [14] Another criticism of the Old Poor Law lies in the administration of the laws. The Royal Commission Report was critical not only of the amateurish administration in the parishes, but also the lack of uniformity in the application of the laws. [15] There is evidence to support this in Figure 3, and the rest of Marshall's material from which the data was taken.

The critics of the Old Poor Law were correct when they complained that the cost of maintaining the destitute was increasing; they would appear however to be incorrect as to the reasons for these increases. There were dramatic increases in expenditure on poor relief, but these were due to reasons other than over-generosity. It has been shown that there is apparently little connection between allowance systems, particularly child allowances, and population growth or expenditure on poor relief resulting from the increasing population. The laws of settlement were unlikely to restrict movement of labour, and even encouraged this in some cases. While there was little uniformity in the application of the Old Poor Law, the old laws were very adaptable to differing situations. [16]


Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire, Penguin Books, 1990.
Murphy, D. (ed), Britain 1815-1918,Collins Educational, 1999.
Poynter, J.R., Society and Pauperism, Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1969.
Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation(2nd Ed.), Routledge, 1990.
Slack, P., The English Poor Law 1531-1782, MacMillan, 1990.
Taylor, D., Mastering Economic and Social History, MacMillan, 1988.
Marshall, J.D., The Old Poor Law 1795-1834 (2nd Ed.), MacMillan, 1993.


[1] Taylor, D., Mastering Economic and Social History, p 241. [back]
[3]Course Handout No.9, Source F, 21 March 2000. [back]
[4] Ibid. [back]
[5] Taylor, p. 222. [back]
[6] Murphy, D. (ed), Britain 1815-1918,  p. 36. [back]
[7]Ibid., p. 30. [back]
[8]Taylor, p. 242. [back]
[9] Murphy, p. 91. [back]
[10] Ibid., p. 36. [back]
[11] Taylor, p. 9. [back]
[12] Ibid. p. 10. [back]
[13] Slack, P., The English Poor Law 1531-1782, pp 37-38. [back]
[14] Ibid. [back]
[15] Taylor, p. 242. [back]
[16] Marshall, J.D., The Old Poor Law 1795-1834 p. 12. [back]

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