Stoke-on-Trent Local History



The workhouse and the community after 1834


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 The Workhouse and the Community after 1834.

 1) The official view

 Despite the intentions of the 1834 Act, the vast majority - even up to 90 percent in the early 1860's - received outdoor relief (- i.e. outside the work house, not as an inmate).  This relief took the form of a small sum of money (one or two shillings), or income in kind (usually loaves of bread) or both. it was normally granted for reasons like the death of a husband, sickness, desertion by the husband, age and infirmity and occasionally it was granted to able bodied men out of work.

However the Guardians frequently took people to court to ensure that they met their family responsibilities - most commonly husbands who had deserted were charged with neglecting to maintain their families. The Board took their duty to protect the ratepayers seriously.

The responsibility of family members was tested in other ways too. Did children have a duty to support their parents?


Order to maintain a Parent: 

William Ridley, engineer, in the employ of Earl Granville, was summoned to show cause why he should not contribute to the support of his father, William Ridley the elder.

Mr Clayton, relieving officer for the parish of Wolstanton, stated that William Ridley the elder was a poor person now living in the workhouse, and chargeable to the parish of Wolstanton. He was completely paralysed and unable to work. His son William was earning 29s a week, and was a married man without children. His wife also earned weekly wages.

Another son lived in Yorkshire, out of the jurisdiction of the magistrates, while a third was at present out of employment.

The cost to the old man's maintenance was 3s 6d a week. The bench ordered William Ridley to pay 3s per week towards this sum.  

Staffordshire Advertiser Newspaper  1st December 1860

Another man, whose wages averaged 12/6d a week during the last quarter, and who had ‘but one child, protested his inability to pay anything towards the support of his wife’ who was then in the County Asylum at an expense of 7s to the union. He was ordered to pay 2s. (Sta Adv 7.12.1850)

The Case of Mrs Beech (1872). (From Dupree), however, shows that sometimes people might use the poor law to develop their own line of action . One mother preferred to receive out relief rather than reside with any of her sons. They could all afford to keep their mother and each expressed a willingness to pay the amount if she would live with one of them . But she refused this preferring relief from the union , the magistrates ordering that the sons pay an amount each week towards her support . The point is that the poor law was not necessarily a last resort . (In Longton people spoke of ‘my parish allowance’ and claimed if as a matter of course after they had been ill for a week or so . One Guardian reckoned that people regarded such relief from the parish as a pension, a sort of insurance society or sick club assistance.


The Poor Law Commission did not approve of this: they had written to Stoke Guardians in 1836 to stress that, “for a!! able bodied applicants, relief in the workhouse is most in accordance with the spirit and provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act; and the commissioners therefore consider that no able applicant should receive out relief so long as there remains room in the workhouse.”

 But the Stoke Guardians persisted and petitioned the House of Commons in 1841 against renewing the powers of the Poor Law Commissioners for another 1 0 years. They asked the commons for larger discretion in the application of outdoor relief:

 That the inhabitants of this parish being chiefly employed in the manufacture of china and earthenware, a large part of which is exported , have of late years suffered from fluctuations of trade which have subjected a considerable portion of the working class to great privations.


That in these seasons of distress we have found the Poor Law Amendment Act too severe in requiring such persons to pass through the test of going into the workhouse . Many families have suffered the last extremities of wretchedness, rather than submit to such alternative and their objections being such as merit a most careful and kind consideration as will appear from the following facts .

Families of this class are at such times in arrears of rent if they consent to go into the workhouse, the landlord takes possession of the remains of their bedding and furniture and rents the house to others . They are then paupered for life and sink degraded into hopeless indifference to the future . In many cases the elder children are. employed in manufactories and contribute in part to the subsistence of the family; if the parents are taken into the workhouse with their infant children the working boys and girls are deprived of parental protection and of home . They are thrown on the temptations of the world... If they are taken with their parents to the workhouse the burdens of the parish are increased and they are prevented from learning a trade.

Your petitioners (who) have therefore found themselves unable to enforce the strict provisions of the Amendment Act without injury both to the ratepayers and to the poor want the House of Commons to allow a large measure of discretion to the guardians in the application of out-door relief , and that widows , orphans and working man suffering from a temporary stagnation of trade may be released from the rigours of the workhouse test . (From Dupree)


The guardians in Stoke continued to give outdoor relief to the able-bodied. A similar example can be seen in 1855, when the Stoke Guardians threatened to resign if the Poor Law Board would not allow them to pay outdoor relief at a time of general distress. The agreement was reached that ‘heads of families must go to the workhouse, perform a certain amount of work, have their meals at the house, and at night take home bread in proportion to their families.’ Sta Adv 24.2.1855


A further example of the failure of the Stoke Guardians to understand fully their role occurred in 1859, when they were personally charged with the cost of giving their paupers a treat at the last wakes, to the tune of £12.15s.6d. ‘The Guardians considered that the powers of the Poor Law Board, and the order that the Guardians should not give the paupers a treat out of the funds of the union, were oppressive...’ Sta Adv 9.7.59

In the 1870s there was a campaign against outdoor relief by the Local Government Board and at a series of meetings in Staffordshire, the chairman of Stoke’s guardians led opposition to the abolition of outdoor relief. Between 1871 -6 the number of recipients of outdoor relief in Stoke fell by 9%, compared with 33% for England and Wales as a whole. The Burslem-Wolstanton Union also resisted the campaign, having one of the highest proportions of paupers on outdoor relief in the country - 92% in 1870 and 89% in 1885, a time when some unions had less than 30%. (From Dupree)


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Updated 30 Nov 2008