Stoke-on-Trent Local History



The poor Law

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The Poor Law:

The poor law of 1601 was prompted by the fear of social disorder from large numbers of vagrants. The act identified three main groups to be dealt with: 

a) The impotent, such as the aged, the chronic sick, the blind and the lunatic who needed institutional relief and were to be accommodated in poor houses or almshouses. 

b) The able bodied were to be set to work in a house of correction. 

c) The able bodied who absconded and preferred the open road, or the persistent idler who refused to work, were to be punished in this house of correction.

This scheme was to be controlled by the only effective local government system available, that of the justices of the peace. Each parish was to administer its own poor relief by overseers who were to be appointed by the magistrates. Overseers were empowered to levy poor rates on property and the magistrates were to enforce these rights. The system lasted over two hundred years.

The role of the parish

One feature of the poor law was that each parish was required to look after its own poor. This involved returning vagrants to their own parish, that is the place where they had a settlement.

By the 1662 Relief of the Poor (Settlement) Act, a legal settlement was gained by birth, marriage, apprenticeship, and later in practice, inheritance. A stranger could be removed within 40 days of his arrival in a parish unless he occupied freehold land, but essentially men who did not require relief were left alone.

The parish overseers feared large numbers of strangers becoming chargeable, but since the Act required them to dispatch a stranger to his own place of settlement and not just to the next parish, they were unlikely to start the costly process of removal unless there was a real chance of increased demands for relief. Removals were still common with their attendant miseries and cruelties, but generally people were not  prevented from moving about.



 The development of workhouses was piecemeal because only the largest parishes could afford substantial workhouses. Gradually in the late 18th C parishes began to join together, often with a paid relieving officer. However, a pension or dole or payment in kind was the easiest and often most appropriate form of relief, often in conjunction with the roundsman system where local farmers employed the parish poor on a rota system.

At the end of the 18th C. scarcity resulting from bad harvests and dislocation cause by war brought on a crisis. One solution by magistrates at Speenhamland in 1795 was to supplement wages on a scale based on the price of bread. This system of helping the poor was heavily criticised over the next decades. But rising expenditure on the poor and unrest among the working classes in the early 1830s stimulated the Poor law Report of 1834, followed rapidly by the Poor Law Amendment Act of the same year.


Extract from the Report of the Poor Law Commission

 "The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally admitted… is that his situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class… Throughout the evidence it is shown, that in proportion as the condition of a pauper class is elevated above the condition of independent labourers, the condition of the independent class is depressed: their industry is impaired, their employment becomes unsteady, and its remuneration in wages diminished. Such persons, therefore, are under the strongest inducements to quit the less eligible class of labourers and enter the more eligible class of paupers. The converse is the effect when the pauper class is placed in its proper position, below the condition of the independent labourer…

We have seen that in every instance in which the able-bodied labourers have been rendered independent of partial relief, or of relief otherwise than in a well-regulated workhouse -


1. Their industry has been restored and improved.

2. Frugal habits have been created or strengthened.

3. The permanent demand for their labour has increased.

4. And the increase has been such, that their wages, so far from being depressed by the increased amount of labour on the market, have in general advanced.

5. The number of improvident and wretched marriages has diminished.

6. Their discontent has been abated and their moral and social condition in every way improved…

The chief specific measures which we recommend for effecting these purposes are… that except as to medical attendance [and other qualification re apprenticeship] all relief whatever to able bodied persons or to their families, otherwise than in well-regulated workhouses… shall be declared unlawful, and shall cease…

It is true that nothing is necessary to arrest the progress of pauperism, except that all who receive relief from the parish should work for the parish exclusively, as hard and for less wages then independent labourers work for individual employers, and we believe that in most districts useful work, which will not interfere with the ordinary demand for labour, may be obtained in greater quantity than is usually conceived … a well-regulated workhouse meets all cases, and appears to be the only means by which the intention of the statute of Elizabeth, that all the able-bodied shall be set to work, can be carried into execution."



The Poor Law Amendment Act, therefore, was designed to reduce expenditure on paupers, ensure that workhouses were worse than the conditions of the independent labourer by making entry a test - only those who were really destitute would enter - and provide a central administration for the first time. Relief would only be given on entry to the workhouse: outdoor relief was to stop. Parishes were grouped into Poor law Unions to enable expenditure on adequate workhouses and the old Select Vestries of churchwardens and overseers were replaced by elected boards of Guardians, responsible to ratepayers and the Poor Law Board.

This  framework lasted into the 20th C., but it did not work exactly as intended:

a) The central board could only advise, it could not compel. So local unions could behave with a degree of independence. This was most clearly seen in..

b) The continuation of outdoor relief. At times of trade depression in industrial towns, workhouses were hopelessly inadequate to house people - outdoor relief had to continue.

There was opposition to the Act, especially in northern industrial towns and this opposition rapidly developed into the broader movement of Chartism. Expenditure did, however, fall until about 1870 when it started to rise again.


By the end of the 19th C. there was an increasing awareness of poverty and a growing demand for an attack on it, but he Poor Law was too rigid a system for this. Government measures in the early 20th C. bypassed it, e.g. Old Age Pensions Act, 1908 and the Insurance Act, 1911. The latter brought insurance against sickness and unemployment - a quite different approach to having recourse to the hated Poor law when destitute.

 The large-scale unemployment of the inter-war years killed off the old poor law. The Poor Law Guardians were disbanded in 1929 and in 1930 the workhouse test was abolished, as was the term 'pauper'. An important Unemployment Act in 1934 tackled the problem of subsistence for those who were not covered by the 1911 Insurance Act by establishing the Unemployment Assistance Board with its own scales of relief. By 1937 the able-bodied maintained by the Poor Law were absorbed into the new scheme. Indoor relief remained as a specialised form of institutional care for children, the old or the sick. Only 13% of those in receipt of poor relief on 1st January 1936 were in institutions. The rest were receiving help in their home in the form of cash, kind or service. 


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Next: The Poor Law in North Staffordshire


Updated 30 Nov 2008