Key dates in the Sociological history and development of Great Britain



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Key dates in Poor Law and Relief 
Great Britain 1300 - 1899


1344 Royal Ordinance decreed that lepers should leave the City of London and "betake themselves to places in the country".


1388 The Statute of Cambridge ("Poor Law") concerning Labourers, Servants and Beggars strengthened the powers of the justices of the peace; distinguished between "sturdy beggars" capable of work and "impotent beggars" incapacitated by age or infirmity; forbade servants to move out of their "hundred" without legal authority; and made each "hundred" responsible for housing and keeping its own paupers, but made no special provision for maintaining the sick poor. This statute pointed the way to the Tudor Poor Laws, but for the next two centuries the aged and infirm depended upon charity for survival.

The first English Sanitary Act dealt with offal and slaughter houses; prohibited the casting of animal filth and refuse into rivers or ditches, and "corrupting of the Air".

1389 Justices of the peace given powers to fix the wages of labourers.


1391 The second Statute of Mortmain ordered that upon the appropriation of a benefice a proportion of its fruits should be reserved for distribution among the poor of the parish.

1494 Vagabonds and Beggars Act. “Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid”. Beggars who were too infirm to work were to remain in their Hundred and be permitted to beg.


1530-40 Suppression of the monasteries. Until this time the almshouses and hospitals of the Church dispensed charity to those who could not benefit from the help given by the craft guilds to their sick or aged members. When the State was forced to intervene, the parishes under the supervision of the justices of peace (in turn under the surveillance of the Privy Council) were made the agencies for the collection of voluntary (at first) alms and their distribution. Later, London levied the first compulsory poor rate and organised a system for poor relief through four institutions - Christ’s Hospital for children (1552), St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas Hospitals for the sick and Bridewell for the able-bodied destitute (1553). Other cities developed their own local schemes.

Poor Law Act (22 HenVIII, c.1 2) directed “how aged, poor, and impotent Persons, compelled to live by Alms, shall be ordered, and how Vagabonds and Beggars shall be punished". The former were to be licensed to beg (see 1531), the latter if found begging were to be whipped or put in the stocks for three days and nights with bread and water only and then to return to their birth-place and put to labour.

1531 Justices of the peace were ordered to issue a licence to beg to the infirm poor, thus making begging by the sturdy an offence.


1535 (Poor Law) Act required that “all Governors of Shires, Cities, Towns, Hundreds, Hamlets and Parishes shall find and keep every aged, poor and impotent Person, which was born or dwelt three years within the same limit, by way of voluntary and charitable Alms ... for as none of them shall be compelled to go openly in begging. And also shall compel every sturdy Vagabond to be kept in continual labour ... “and gave powers to apprentice children aged between 5 and 13. Voluntary contributions for the relief of the poor were to be collected by the justices of the peace and churchwardens.


1547 Branding and slavery imposed as the punishment for persistent vagrancy, and “foolish pity and mercy” for vagrants condemned.

1552 Parishes were ordered to register their poor; onus for the relief of the poor was placed on parish councils; and the parson was to exhort his parishioners to show charity to their neighbours. Each parish, Parliament suggested, should appoint two collectors of alms to assist the churchwardens after service on Trinity Sunday to “gently ask and demand of every man or woman what they of their charity will be contented to give weekly towards the relief of the poor”. The collectors had to receive the weekly payments and distribute the money :o the registered poor of the parish.

1562 (Poor Law) Act required that charity for the relief of the poor should be collected weekly by assigned collectors and distributed to the poor; those who refused to give voluntarily may be taxed by justices of the peace, and if still refusing to pay may be imprisoned.

1572 (Poor Law) Act made each parish responsible to provide for its own aged, impotent and sick poor; appointed “overseers” of the poor and empowered them to assess the parish; introduced compulsory poor rate; and made refusal to work for lawful wages or work provided by the overseer punishable offences.

1574 Scottish Poor Law Act.

1576 (Poor Law) Act authorised counties to establish houses of correction for vagrants; and set out the “Punishment of the Mother and reputed Father of a Bastard”.

1586 Severe famine.

1593 An Act for the Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Mariners stated that “Every parish shall be charged with a sum weekly towards the relief of sick hurt, maimed soldiers and mariners”. Amending acts raising the amounts to be collected were passed in 1597 and 1601.

1594-98 Intermittent famines, some associated with typhus and dysentery (“bloody flux”). “People were starving and dying in our streets and in our fields for lack of bread”.

1597 Poor Law Act consolidated and extended previous acts and provided the first complete code of poor relief. Re-enacted the requirements for raising local poor rates, replacing voluntary giving by taxation decided by the overseers, and required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, and to supervise “Overseers of the Poor” for the purpose of setting to work those in need, apprenticing children, and providing “the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”. The scheme was centrally supervised by the Privy Council to whom the justices had to report and send returns. The act affirmed the mutual liability of parents and children to support each other.

Act for Erecting Hospitals, or Abiding and Working Houses for the Poor permitted the founding and erecting of hospitals by charitable gifts provided that they be endowed for ever with sufficient means for an adequate yearly income.


1601 Poor Law Act consolidated and replaced all earlier acts, but did not innovate. This act remained the basis on which the poor were helped until 1834. Although administration was sometimes lax and sometimes heartless, it was often well intentioned and recognised that poverty was a problem requiring social action. The parish was the unit of administration which raised difficulties in large urban areas and in the scattered hamlets in the north and west.

1662 Relief of the Poor (Settlement) Act empowered churchwardens and overseers, with the approval of the justices of the peace, to remove any stranger likely to require relief within forty days of his arrival in their parish, unless the stranger occupied house and lands worth at least £10 a year or could provide satisfactory security to ensure that he would never require help from the poor rates. The act also provided that where a parish was exceptionally large, each township within it should be responsible for its own poor. This act regularised procedures and actions already being taken in many areas. The act arose in part because of the considerable movement of population due to the Civil War.

1685 Poor Law Act continued the 1662 act, but defined the period of 40 days residence as starting from the date that the incomer gave written notice of arrival to one of the churchwardens or overseers.

1689 Dr Hugh Chamberlen (court physician and accoucheur) submitted a “Proposal for the Better Securing of Health” suggesting that medical treatment should be available to “all sick, poor or rich ... for a small yearly certain sum assessed upon each house”, and, “that the laws already in being may be revised, which provide against the sale of unwholesome food; that bread may be well baked; beer well brewed, and houses and streets well cleaned from dirt and filth; all these being common causes of diseases and death”.

1691 Poor Law Act introduced the registration of parishioners in receipt of poor relief.

1696 Gregory King (statistician) calculated that 63 per cent of the population had incomes below the poverty level which he put at £40 p.a.; “cottagers and paupers” had only £6 l0s.

1697 Poor Law Act introduced badges to be worn by paupers.

First dispensary opened in the premises of the Royal College of Physicians in Warwick Lane, where the poor were oven free consultation and advice, and prescribed drugs dispensed from a special stock. Branches were opened later in other parts of the City. Closed in 1725.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731, journalist and novelist) proposed that the insurance principle should be applied to the social problems of the poor, including disability pensions and medical and institutional care.

Eighteenth Century

England at the start of the century was still mainly a land of hamlets and villages with the majority of the population living in the south. The population probably numbered about five and a half million.

In the towns, houses, including the cellars, were desperately overcrowded; there were no sanitary systems, and streets were unpaved and filthy. In the early part of the century) only about one child in four, born in London, survived.

During the century transport between towns improved, mills and factories were built; and, as towns developed, dispensaries, general hospitals, hospitals for special groups of patients, and charity schools were founded in London and in provincial towns. By the end of the century ideas of state intervention in public health matters were emerging, and concern was expressed about the conduct of asylums (madhouses) and the treatment of prisoners.


1722 Settlement, Employment and Relief of the Poor Act urged parishes to make greater use of workhouses, and provided for parishes to combine in whatever way they chose to share workhouses or to contract out the care of paupers.

1729 Poor Law Act tightened up the regulations as to the issue of settlement certificates and the orders that costs of removal shall be paid by the parish of settlement.

1738-9 Special rates amalgamated with the poor rate.

1744 Rogues, Vagabonds, and other Idle and Disorderly Persons Act prescribed punishment of up to one month in the “House of Correction” for those who abandoned their wives and children to the support of the Parish, lived idly and refused work or begged alms. A reward of five shillings could be paid to any person apprehending an offender. The Act also prescribed punishments for confidence tricksters and other deceivers. The justices were empowered to impress incorrigible rogues into naval or military service.

Poor Relief Act to remedy “some defects” in previous acts (especially that of 1601) mainly appertaining to overseers and their accounts. Parish officers were enforced to keep proper “poor relief” accounts.


1753 A Bill proposing “taking and registering an annual Account of the total Number of People, and of the total Number of Marriages, Births and Deaths; and also of the total Number of Poor receiving Aims from every Parish and extra-parochial Place in Great Britain” was passed by the House of Commons on the 8th May with 57 members in favour and 17 against. Mr Thornton, MP for York (a “teller” for the "Noes”), did not believe “that there was any set of men, or indeed, any individual of the human species so presumptuous and so abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard ... I hold this project to be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty”. After the second reading in the Lords the Bill was referred to a committee, but the session ended before it was considered and so the Bill lapsed.

1769 Dispensary for sick children of the poor opened in Red Lion Square by George Armstrong (1719-1789, physician and author of “An Essay on the Diseases Most Fatal to Infants, 1767); later moved to Soho Square, closed in 1781.

1773 An Act for the better Regulation of Lying-in Hospitals, and other Places appropriated for the charitable Reception of pregnant Women; and also to provide for the Settlement of Bastard Children, born in such Hospitals and Places.

1774 Act for Regulating Private Madhouses followed the report of a Select Committee of the House of Commons (1763) and introduced licensing, in London by Commissioners elected by the Royal College of Physicians, and elsewhere by justices at Quarter Sessions. The Act had many weaknesses, not least that the Commissioners had no power to revoke licences on the grounds of ill-treatment or neglect of patients.

Westminster General Dispensary opened in Gerrard Street, Soho, and provided medical, surgical and midwifery services to the local poor for the next 182 years - until 1956.

John Howard (1726-90, philanthropist and prison reformer) described to the House of Commons the appalling conditions in British prisons. His name and work are perpetuated by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

1775-8 Series of Select Committees investigated poor relief and vagrancy.

1782 Act for the Amendment of the Laws relating to the Settlement, Employment, and Relief of the Poor (Gilbert’s Act) encouraged parish unions to build larger workhouses with better management. Thomas Gilbert (1720-98, barrister and Poor Law reformer) edited “Collection of Pamphlets concerning the Poor”, 1787. However as R Porter (English Society in the Eighteenth Century, Pelican, 1982) has commented “Bigger workhouses just ran at bigger losses. Only a few hundred were founded. Their main ‘success’ was custodial - they shunted paupers out of sight (for this reason locking people up was a solution which went from strength to strength). Parishes floundered from expedient to expedient. Supplementary relief would be tried and then abandoned for a spell in favour of a house of correction or an experimental workhouse, followed by contracting out to entrepreneurs, and then back to botched-up outdoor relief.”

1790 Justices of the peace empowered to inspect and report on workhouses

1792 Acts dealt with abuses in the removal of vagrants and forbade the whipping of females; and another act introduced punishment of overseers for neglect of duty.

1793 Registration of Friendly Societies. Many of the Societies provided medical attention to their subscribing members.

1795 Poor Law Act authorised overseers, with the approval of the vestry, to give “out-relief” to the poor (i.e. in their own homes) without imposing the ‘workhouse test.

“Speenhamland System”. The local justices and clergymen meeting in May at the Pelican Inn, Speen, near Newbury, to consider the conditions arising from poor harvests and the rise in the price of grain, decided to introduce a subsistence level pegged to the price of bread and to use the poor rate to supplement the wages of labourers to that level. Although not the first to take that decision, they were widely copied and this use of outdoor relief became known as the Speenhamland System. Although such relief was better than nothing, it resulted in lowering wages, increasing the poor rate, and removing the distinction between pauperism and independence.


1808 County Asylums Act for “the better Care and Maintenance of Lunatics being Paupers or Criminals” enabled counties to construct asylums for the insane.

1815 Corn Law prohibited the importation of corn into Britain until the home price reached 80 shillings per quarter. The cost of a four pound loaf of bread in London averaged over one shilling between 1816 and 1818. See 1846.

1815 Poor Law Act extended the power to give outdoor relief.

1819 Poor Relief Act, Sturges Bourne Act, attempted to ensure that property owners had an influential say in the conduct of poor relief; gave parishes optional power to hire paid officers (assistant overseers), and to establish a formal procedure whereby they might elect committees to supervise the work.

1824 Vagrants Act amended the definitions of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds; set out powers of searching persons and premises; and prescribed maximum penalties and terms of imprisonment.


1834 Poor Law Amendment Act followed the publication of the Report of the Royal Commission on Poor Law. The Act limited outdoor relief to the aged and infirm who were “wholly unable to work”; encouraged the building of workhouses, and introduced a spartan regime and the “Workhouse Test”; and considered any relief given to be a loan. The Act required wards to be set aside for the impoverished sick and empowered justices of the peace to give an order for medical relief to any poor person with “sudden and dangerous illness”.

The Act set up the Poor Law Commission to consist of three commissioners to supervise the implementation of the act, the first secretary of the Commission was Edwin Chadwick (1800-90). Boards of Guardians were encouraged to combine into Unions to build the workhouses. Disraeli proclaimed that the new law was “announcing to the world that in England poverty was a crime”.

1838 Report by Dr Neil Arnott (1788-1874) and Dr James Kay and another by Dr Southwood Smith exposed the extent of preventable disease and the dreadful living conditions under which people existed in Manchester and London respectively.

1840 Vaccination Act made free vaccination available as a charge on the poor rates. Vaccination was, thereby, the first free health service provided through legislation on a national scale and available to all.

1841 Vaccination Act declared that vaccination should not be considered as “parochial relief” and that no person shall by reason of vaccination be deprived of any right or privilege or be subject to any disqualification whatsoever.

Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane formed. In 1865 the name was changed to the Medico-Psychological Association (in 1925 became Royal) and in 1971 it became the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

1842 Lunatic Asylums Act gave power to the Metropolitan Commissioners (see 1828) to inspect, twice yearly, all asylums and madhouses in the country whatever their legal status.

1844 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced changes in the election of guardians and empowered mothers of illegitimate children to apply to justices in petty sessions
for a maintenance order against the father.

Reports of the Select Committee on Poor Law Medical Relief (chairman, Lord Ashley)
outlined a comprehensive picture of current practice; opposed the requirement for a relieving officer to determine need and eligibility for medical attention; and favoured direct access to a medical officer. No change followed the report.

1845 Lunatics (Care and Treatment) Act and Regulation of Asylums Act
improved the procedure for certification; and set up a Board of Commissioners (chairman, Lord Ashley) to inspect and supervise asylums and other places
where mentally ill people were cared for.

Poor Law Scotland (Amendment) Act retained the parish as the unit of administration with parochial boards consisting of elected representatives and, ex officio, the chief magistrate as the manager. Each board had to appoint an inspector of the poor who had direct control of relief and could only be dismissed by the central Board of Supervision, also setup by the act. Relief was limited to the aged and infirm poor. Parochial boards were permitted to subscribe to any public infirmary, lying-in-hospital, asylum or dispensary and were required “to provide for medicines, medical attendance, nutritious diet, cordials, and clothing for such Poor, in such manner and to such extent as may seem equitable and expedient; and it shall be lawful for the parochial board to make provision for the education of poor children who are themselves or whose parents are objects of parochial relief”.

1845 Potato blight in Ireland caused widespread famine; recurred until 1849 resulting in high mortality and emigration. Scotland was also affected with similar results.

1846 A Select Committee of Parliament was set up to inquire into the over-harsh and
inhumane treatment of paupers in the Andover Workhouse.

Convention of Poor Law Medical Officers founded.

1847 Poor Law Administration Act revised and consolidated previous legislation setting out rules and principles for the administration of the poor laws. The intention was to ensure more humane practice than that of many boards of guardians, but the new
powers were used sparingly and the enforcement of the principles gradually fell into desuetude.

1847 Corn Laws, which imposed duties on imported corn, repealed


1853 Vaccination Act introduced compulsory vaccination for all infants within four months of birth, but contained no powers of enforcement. Responsibility was with
the poor law guardians.

Charitable Trusts Act appointed Charity Commissioners and introduced regulations to supervise private philanthropy.

1855 Poor Law Medical Reform Association formed with Richard Griffin (1806-1 869,an outstanding leader in the campaign to reform the Poor Law medical services) as the first chairman.

1858 Workhouse Visiting Society formed with William Cowper (1811-88, later Lord Mount-Temple) as president and Louisa Twining as secretary.

1860 Pressure mounted to reform Poor Law Medical Relief and a Medical Relief Bill was presented to Parliament, but rejected. The Poor Law Board issued "Consolidated Orders Respecting Medical Relief".

Select Committee on Lunatics received substantial evidence of wrongful detention and abuse of patients, but its recommendations were not acted on.

1861 Publication for the Workhouse Visiting Society of "A Plea for the Destitute Incurable" by Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). The plea was that the chronic sick should be separated from other inmates of the workhouses and be given extra comforts. There were about 80,000 people in the category of "destitute incurable" in the institutions. A petition to the House of Commons included signatures from leading physicians and surgeons of London hospitals who agreed that such people should not be kept for more than a brief period in any hospital established for the cure of the sick.

Nurses were appointed for the first time to the staff of a Poor Law hospital (Liverpool) and Agnes Jones (1832-68) was appointed the first superintendent.

1864 Metropolitan Houseless Poor Act authorised casual wards at workhouses to be used for vagrants in the London area.

A Select Committee reported that there were not sufficient grounds for materially interfering with the existing system of medical relief for the poor, despite the evidence presented to it of abuse and deprivation.

1865 Union Chargeability Act substituted a twelve months residence qualification for help from the local rates, in place of the rule that any pauper, no matter how long his or her residence in the parish, must be sent back to his or her parish of birth. The act permitted Guardians to examine the books and papers of the overseers and transferred the raising of the poor rate from the parish to the union.

1866 Labouring Classes Dwelling Act enabled the Public Works Loan Commission to make loans towards the erection of dwellings for the labouring classes.

Simon’s Annual Report for 1865 to the Privy Council contained the results of a survey, by HJ Hunter (1823-1908), of dwellings of the labouring classes in towns. A survey of rural dwellings had been reported the year before. The general conclusion was that existing powers were completely inadequate to control overcrowding or prevent the continued use of dwellings unfit for human habitation.

1867 Poor Law Amendment Act made the Poor Law Board permanent; amended administrative details of previous acts; and applied the principles of the Metropolitan Poor Act to the rest of the country, thus enabling boards of guardians to establish infirmaries for the treatment of the sick poor separate from the workhouses.

1869 The Charity Organisation Society founded as a "general family casework agency". The Society distinguished between "charity" for the deserving poor, which it took as its own sphere of activity, and "relief" for the rest, which it left to the poor law guardians. The Society was opposed to indiscriminate alms giving.

1870 The Poor Law Board raised in its annual report the possibility of establishing a system of free medical advice for all wage-earners; in the words of the report, to consider "how far it may be advisable, in a sanitary or social point of view, to extend gratuitous medical relief beyond the actual pauper classes generally".

1871 Local Government Board Act set up, following the recommendation of the Royal Commission, the Local Government Board with a minister as president. Public health, poor law administration and the supervision of local government were brought together. Simon was appointed chief medical officer to the Board, retired in 1876. The Board continued until it was replaced by the Ministry of Health in 1919.

1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act made ill-treatment, neglect of or causing suffering to children punishable; and prohibited begging by boys under 14 and girls under 16 years of age.

Poor Law Act permitted the admission of non-paupers to the hospitals of the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the instruction of medical students in the Board’s fever hospitals.

1895 The Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, (chairman, Lord Aberdare) did not recommend any major changes; and suggested that outdoor relief should be adequate, but that conditions in workhouses should be improved. The Commissioners considered that “pauperism is becoming a constantly diminishing evil, ultimately to disappear before the continuous progress of thrift and social well-being”.

1897 In this year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, an editorial in “Public Health” stated “of all the achievements of the Victorian Era ... history will find none worthier of record than the efforts made to ameliorate the lives of the poor, to curb the ravages of disease, and to secure for all pure air, food, and water, all of which are connotated by the term ‘sanitation’”. (Public Health, IX, 10, January, 1897, page 286).

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