Solving Poverty by Reforming Moral Character: How the New Poor Law Failed 19th Century British Society

By Fiona D. Xu
Inquiries Journal: Special Editions
2020, Vol. 2020 No. 1 | pg. 1/1


The 19th century, a tumultuous period which saw a momentous change to a way of life, also saw the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a decisive change in England’s relationship with its poor. The local parish based poor relief now became a national program run by the Poor Law Board, and what was a charity based model was tweaked into one focused on deterrence. Yet, as this paper argues, with all the good intentions with which these changes were implemented, the Poor Law Amendment Act ultimately failed to live up to its goal of lowering the number of impoverished citizens. This is because the Poor Law legislators focused on the perceived causes of moral dissolution and side stepped the actual causes that lead to the rising numbers in the lower class. This paper outlines the basic causes of poverty in 19th century England, as well as the aftermath of the Poor Law Amendment Act and its eventual failure.


When it was implemented in 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act was generally accepted as a law enacted with good intentions (Guarnier, n,d). It stopped the perceived deficiencies of the Elizabethan Poor Laws (from now on referred to as the Old Poor Laws), which through loosely controlled local administration, helped to promote the dependency and growth of the pauper population and demoralized the labor market. In its stead, the “New Poor Laws” were implemented, an effective national operation of welfare that standardized practice everywhere, and helped -- in theory -- to deter the poor from dependency. One of the main problems the New Poor Laws aimed to tackle - as argued by the upper class of the time - was the moral dissolution of the poor, perceived to be the central cause of poverty; to fix it would be to alleviate the problem of the poor in general. It is interesting then, to decipher where this perception came from: how it influenced the reform of the Poor Laws from a local and relief heavy project that seeked to assist, to a moralistic national project seeking to punish and deter. To do so, it is important to also understand the reasoning behind this shifting perception of the lower classes, as well as the effectiveness of the Old Poor Laws. Hence, it will be argued that the legislators of the New Poor Laws were trying to tackle their perceived problem of the poor - moral dissolution - instead of the actual problems causing poverty. In this end, the New Poor Laws became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the treatments against moral dissolution only served to dehumanize the poor instead of modeling them into respectable citizens.

New Poor Law Poster

"This nightmarish vision of imprisonment, forced labour and corporal punishment was created in response to the new 1834 Poor Law, which met with widespread criticism. Poor relief was now only supplied within the workhouse, where families were split up into gender-divided wards and not allowed to leave; in return for their relief paupers would carry out several hours of often gruelling labour each day." Credit: British Library National Archives.


This paper is written with the desire to understand how the working class was viewed by those with a higher social standing, and how these stereotypes in turn backfired on society. To approach this topic in a manageable fashion, this paper focuses on a single piece of legislation, the New Poor Laws, which ultimately were too simplistic and failed to consider the complexity of their own impact. To this end, to learn of the plight of the poor is to understand the judgements of the rich, whose power and influence over social policies saw these judgements truly take effect. Hence, though this paper will be focused on the poor, sources will be drawn from the more affluent social groups, who are more prolific writers and key advocates of the New Poor Laws. By looking at the failures of 19th century English society’s misguided legislation, we can glean a more universal reality, namely, that rulings based on stereotypes will backfire. Sources and statistics for this paper mainly constitute three types: (1) those that targeted the period before the Poor Law Amendment act; (2) those during; and (3) those commenting on the aftermath of this legislation. I will cite primary sources by legislators of this act, or those with a similar social standing, in order to fully understand the factors that propelled the formation of these stereotypes about the poor. Another reason for this choice is the relative rarity of primary sources written by working class authors on this subject. Many secondary sources were also consulted in this paper, with some written during the period which the New Poor Laws were active, and others by university scholars researching a similar topic. The enactment of New Poor Laws and its aftermath still resonates today with the current justice and legal system.


The eighteenth century was an age of momentous change due to the onset of industrialization, affecting all aspects of British society, especially traditional social and economic structures. The old social hierarchy during the late Stuart era, from 1603 to 1714, especially in the countryside, was still that of an oligarchy of the landed gentry, of which the “life of a hamlet, a village, a parish, a market town and its hinterland, a whole county, might revolve around the big house in its park” (Perkin, 2002, p35). The upper class held obligation in their oversight of the behaviors and actions of their dependants, and in cases needed, provided judgments and punishments in regards to conflicts. As much as it was their duty to uphold the morals of their dependents, they too were responsible for the unrighteousness of the dependents’ livelihoods, especially of the local market. These were values which not only the gentry sought to uphold; in fact, those traditional obligations were also enforced by the lower classes with such overzealousness, that as historian E. P. Thompson (1971) ironically points out, “the authorities were, in some measure, prisoners of the people”(p.79). He further argues that food riots during the century occurred in a pattern dictated by a moral and paternalistic view. Here, the call to retain old Elizabethan traditions, all the way to the Assize of Bread was mirrored in all walks of society, not only the gentry (Thompson, 1971). This need for preservation for traditional values carried into the treatment of the poor.

Established even before the Act for the Relief of the Poor in 1601, the idea of the deserving poor 1 and that of the undeserving, or able-bodied, poor whose supposed idleness and lack of effort had resulted in their affliction still carried on in the era of the New Poor Laws (McIntosh, 2005). This ideology of the poor and their moral failing corresponds with the somewhat feudal and paternalistic view, which proclaimed the failings of the lower orders in their reverence and subordination to their landed masters. From here, we can see complaints and arguments arise in favor of lower wages due to the inability to depend on the honesty of the poor, which truly was a leftover of serfdom and the expected condescensions from the upper class in their supposed moral superiority (Thompson, 1991). Though traditional values were certainly important in paving the way for reform, or at least contempt for the more “liberal” dispense of relief, the current circumstances serve to further highlight failings of the Old Poor Laws. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution around 1760 shifted the more traditional balance of wealth, power, and prestige, three intrinsic components of social stratification. Whilst in the old society political power was seen as a direct end to interest, it was increasingly transformed as a means which one uses to gain other kinds of economic and social power. This weakening of the state can be seen as an overt dissipation of the old paternalistic view, in turn making room for the domination of the capitalistic system (Thompson, 1991). Hence, money holds greater importance than before - it was which that measures the rankings of somebody within a status, or even what status they were in. The image of the “free laborer” was thus being increasingly promoted, and laborers were presented with more choices and mobility (Thompson, 1991). This erosion of paternalistic control marks a decisive change in the relations between the laborer and that of the employer; as Thompson puts it, “subordination was becoming (although between grossly unequal parties), negotiation'' (Thompson, 1991, p.28). This was a change that was entirely unwelcome among the upper class and was seen as an erroneous belief that may endanger the British social order, as in comparison to the French. Hence, it further caused a rift between the upper and the working classes, a rift which helped to perpetuate the poor law reform.

The Old Poor Laws

In addition to considering social hierarchy and the role it plays in poor law reform, it is important to also explore the Old Poor Laws and its properties ‒ to understand what the Poor Law Community wished to change. As much as it was preceded by a period of great transformation, the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) was also preceded by a period of great unrest. The period saw many wars and battles, namely the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 - 1815, that were all leviathans in their consumption of British resources, a country already burdened with an influx of migrants due to continental unrest across Europe from the French Revolution (Fieldman, 2003). This, combined with extended periods of unfavorable weather and the volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815, which caused a debris cloud affecting even Europe, saw a prolonged rise of wheat prices (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). Though historian Charles Feinstein estimated that the real wage increase for the majority of the working class was just under 40 percent from 1780 to 1850 (Griffin, 2018). The wheat prices across various towns in England rose from an average of 56.9 shillings per quarter to 138 shillings, a 242 percent increase (International Institute of Social History, 1999). All of this, which occurred at the early stages of industrialization greatly affected the earning abilities of agricultural laborers. The laborer used to be able to earn through the combination of rented land, day labor, and year-long cottage industry. However, he must now rely increasingly on waged labor itself (Boyer, 1990). All of which had promoted growth in pauperism, a phenomenon which exacerbates the supposed failings of the Old Poor Law.

To summarize the Old Poor Law, an overseer elected from the local church was usually assigned to see to the enactment of this law2, including assessing whether the applicant was deserving of relief and the extent the relief was implemented (Bloy, 2002). Starting from the seventeenth century, the Workhouse movement elected to combine and substitute both the almshouses for the poor, and the House of Corrections in every county where “vagrants” and beggars were put to work or taught a trade. It was calculated that by 1776, some 1,912 workhouses had been elected, hosting almost 100,000 paupers (Thompson, 1991). Though workhouses began to employ the vast majority of poor relief, especially after 1795, outdoor relief in the form of money and goods given was still very common (Boyer, 1990). To be on the receiving end of said relief, poor applicants were to provide proof of settlement, usually within the parish in which they were born. Paupers far from their birth parish would then return to that original parish to collect funds. If they could provide proof, they would then be assessed by the overseer to see if they were deserving of relief, and to what extent (Bloy, 2002).

The most common critique of the Old Poor Law was its increasingly high expenditure in relief, which promotes both the growth of population and moral failings within the poor. Under the arguments of political economist Thomas Malthus (1798), the Old Poor Law had collected “nearly three millions annually for the poor and yet their distress was not removed in the subject of continual astonishment” (p.24). As for the exact ways the Old Poor Law administered those annual three million pounds, it was usually administered in the six ways listed: allowances-in-aid-of-wages, payments to laborers with large families, payments to seasonally unemployed agricultural laborers, the roundsman system, the labor rate, and the workhouse system (Boyer, 1990). Other than the workhouse system, allowance was the most commonly given form of relief. Moreover, it was the most heavily criticized due to the belief that it promoted laziness and lack of effort. Critics projected that when allowance-in-aid-of-wages were extensively used, as they assumed it was, the poor would happily depend upon the society for a living and indulge their newfound wealth on leisure instead of striving harder to earn their keep. This, they contend, would upset the productiveness of the entire country (when the incentive of poverty was taken away), and effectively make the entire population poorer. Hence, as Malthus summarized succinctly, “dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful” (Malthus, 1798, pp. 25-27).

Though such belief was commonly held, evidence such as parish responses to the 1824 questionnaire form the Committee on laborer’s wages suggests otherwise. In 1824, 41 percent of the parishes who answered the survey had admitted to paying allowance-in-aid-of-wages. Eight years later, that percentage had decreased to 7.5 percent (Boyer, 1990). Even when allowances were commonly used, they served to levy the sharp rise in prices during years of bad harvests, where the barely sustainable wages of agricultural laborers do not allow for them to withstand the steep increase. This was exemplified by the temporarily enforced allowance scales by parishes during the years 1795 and 1800. There was fear in part that full adoption of allowances would lead to a slide in work productivity, not in the way that Malthus feared, but rather as an effect of farmers and contractors lowering wages since they no longer affected the employee’s income. It also speaks to the fear of “free riders,” where farmers will gradually lower their income and transfer their cost onto the back of ratepayers, who do not wish to be burdened even during peak years (Boyer, 1990). Hence, though the allowance system had indeed caused disincentives in the laboring population, its faults were not of those suggested by Malthus.

The Old Poor Laws offer relief in the forms of round-manship to those who were able-bodied and unemployed, people who were considered undeserving. Under this format, paupers will be offered as seasonal laborers to farmers during periods of surplus farm work, and to be assisted by low rate wages during the winter months. Though criticized by some “for forcing non-labor-hiring ratepayers ‘to pay part of the wages bill of their richer neighbours’,” it was nonetheless commonly adopted, as well as a similar system of labor rates, where the low winter wages were shared out by the community as a whole (Boyer, 1990, p. 25). Again, criticisms arose in regards to the disincentives unemployment benefits created in the current labor market, where vagrants choose to subsidize ratepayers for a meager living. This angered many people during the Old Poor Law, where many people thought poor relief was administered indiscriminately, which was actually not the case. Overseers at that time were operating on an extremely local scale, and thus distributing relief on a case-by-case basis. Also, wordings of almost all surviving allowance scales suggest that it was only given to “industrial” families. It can be then said that the moral deficiency so feared by the wider public in relief receivers were not as prevalent as assumed (Boyer, 1990).

The Poor Law Amendment Act

The arguments against the Old Poor Laws to lessen poverty in Britain were succinctly represented in the Poor Law commissioners report (1834), authored by political economist Nassau William Senior and social reformer Edwin Chadwick. In their report, the conclusions against that of outdoor relief of the Old Poor Laws can be neatly summarized in a quote from one of the interviewees, George Huish, Assistant Overseer of the Parish of Saint George's Southwark:

The most injurious portion of the Poor Law system is the out-door relief. I do not serve a day without seeing some new mischiefs arise from it. In the smaller parishes, persons are liable to all sorts of influences. In such a parish as ours, where we administer relief to upwards of 2000 out-door poor, it is utterly impossible to prevent considerable fraud, whatever vigilance is exercised. (Chadwick et al, 1834, p.44)

Within the report, they cite reasons such as inability to control the quality of recipients; mass fraud; and social pressure, where people who were not in dire need nonetheless seek relief because they see the ease which others were provided with it. From the continuous set of critiques against the outdoor relief, this came as no surprise. More interesting was their report considering the indoor relief administered during the Old Poor Laws. From what was described, the workhouse has always existed as a place where the cleanliness, lodgings, care, and food had been far better than not only what the pauper applicants were used to, but also above many of the ratepayers’ living standards. Within the workhouses, the paupers were frequently left to their own devices or pampered, instead of requesting them to take up a form of labor. It was in effect:

“ … a large almshouse, in which the young were trained in idleness, ignorance, and vice; the able-bodied maintained in sluggish sensual indolence; […] and the whole body of inmates subsisted on food far exceeding both in kind and amount, not merely […] but that of the majority of the persons who contribute to their support.”(Chadwick et al, 1834, p. 52)

In An Abstract of the Regulations and Statues of the Charity-School (1736), the workhouse was mainly furnished through donations of all sorts, be it clothing, furniture, or foodstuffs. The male inmates of said institutes were to follow a strict schedule of rising before six o’clock during summer and seven o’clock during winter, conveying in worship twice a day, and to be in bed by eight or nine under the watchful eyes of the chief master. It was also encouraged for the inmates to be taken to church and join them there in public worship. During the rest of the time, adult inmates were to engage in some form of manufacture while children were taught English, writing, arithmetic, and hymns.

The female inmates were to be controlled by the matron and will partake in chores of food (“Meat and Drink”) preparation, cleaning, and other housework. All applicants who were committed were given uniforms and shoes at their entry to the workhouse. If any were to commit a repeated offense, complaints would be filed to the treasurer (1736). The description of the workhouses that was given above aligned somewhat with the description given in the Poor Law Commissioners’ report in its focus on cleanliness and food, with the “meat and drink” suggesting a comfortable diet, something not as easily available to independent laborers. The lack of a formidable punishment, other than complaining to the treasurer and perhaps intentional discomforts, also seems to align with a lack of abilities for a workhouse to deal with troublesome inmates suggested in the report. The “breeding of idleness and vice” as so heavily repeated in the report seems to contradict the tightly scheduled days of inmates, though what was truthfully in practice may differ. Indeed, whatever level of efficiency workhouses under the Old Poor Laws may function, it was quite different from the more punitive and deterrent measures preferred by the Poor Law Commission.

As of support, it went down in history that the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 passed by with major support in the parliament, with all but a few radicals voting against it. In short, it constituted the following major changes: Relief would now be administered on a national scale, with parishes banded together in unions under the control of a central board. Outdoor relief was ceased for the able-bodied, and their relief shall be provided in workhouses which themselves would be rendered so spartan that only the most degenerate would accept it. Paupers were to be separated into classes judging from their worthiness, and sexes were to be strictly separated as to make regulations easier. Mothers with illegitimate children were to receive less welfare, as it was seen to promote bastardism. It was rather clear that the Poor Law Amendment Act was drafted with the moral duty of the poor as much in mind as it was with their physical affliction, with the canceling of out-door relief and the demotion of unwed mothers all partially stemming from the fear of moral degradation (Chadwick et al, 1834).

After its institution in 1834, the expenditure of poor relief saw a sharp decrease. Beforehand, during the year of 1832, the total expenditure of poor relief for both of England and Wales is 8,622,920£. Many forms of relief were abolished or pared down; this can be presented in the recorded annual relief sum in 1838, being 5,186,389£ total for a population around 15 million and the lowest levy in the century (Purdy, 1860). However, this was followed shortly by a sharp increase. It was recorded during the year 1848 that 7,817,430£ had been levied, excluding an average of three to four million worth of poor relief administered by independent and public charities. It can then be calculated in comparison that during the Old Poor Laws, the average sum was roughly 2s per person, but under the New Poor Laws, it was around 6s, with some districts amounting to 10s (Pashley, 1852). To place this in context of inflation and economy, here below was a table available to which the wheat price was compared with that of administered poor relief.

Figure 1

(Pashley, 1852, p.6)

That, and to take into consideration what will be levied for poor relief will be much larger than what was expended3, it can be assumed that poor relief rates have increased in slow and steady increments after the implementation of the New Poor Laws. It was equally important to learn the number of paupers receiving relief as it was to divide it down to the money spent on each person to successfully gauge whether the New Poor Laws was accurate in their hopes of lessening burdens of “honest ratepayers,'' and deterring all others except the most dire to seek assistance. According to the Annual Report of the Poor Law Board in 1849, the official number of paupers for 558 unions was 827,919. Yet the 558 unions encompassed an estimated total population of 14,501,000, while the total population of England and Wales was 17,564,656 at that time (The Poor Law Board, 1853).

Hence, to estimate a more accurate number, 16 percent more paupers would be added to the recorded pauper population, resulting in a number of roughly 960,400. Annual records also suggested a decreasing annual pauper population, where 1848 and 1847 all hosted more paupers than 1849. As suggested by Roberts Pashley (1852), the number of paupers relieved in workhouses annually in Britain may be upwards to 3,000,000; which after some calculation, gives a sum of 1£ 3s per head, taking into consideration the 2,700,000 relieved outdoors. Hence, it can be asserted that though the New Poor Laws succeeded as a deterrent, the expense did not lower much.

Even the workhouses themselves strayed from the original purpose of spartan punishment for the able-bodied. It was accepted that when entering a workhouse, applicants will be sorted by gender, and whether they were able-bodied (undeserving), or too young, vulnerable or ill (vulnerable / deserving). This separation itself brought problems of convolution, as there were no set standards regarding what was able-bodied. As in segregation, treatments do differ. Of all classes, the able-bodied was perhaps the most detested, as they were seen as the most morally degenerate.

Hence, even though the workhouse was originally designed as the sole relief source and deterrent for the able-bodied, they became an increasingly small portion of the actual workhouse population, especially that of able-bodied men, with more and more efforts dedicated to the vulnerable, or those who were seen as morally respectable. Elders, the young, and the ill, in other words the deserving poor, frequently found themselves moved to the workhouse when they were perceived to no longer be able to take care of themselves. In essence, the workhouse, which was originally seen as a punitive measure, was increasingly transformed into a welfare home and charity school (Newman, 2014).

Figure 2

(The Victorian Web. 1911)

The able-bodied inmates who were admitted often found themselves in an increasingly prison-like environment, with some workhouses electing to install iron bars, as well as an inmate numbering system and uniforms to remove individuality (Newman, 2014). To add to this, female inmates, whose morality were harshly judged by society, were more commonly classified as adult able-bodied inmates than men, and were given more housework tasks and less opportunities in general. Subsequently, it was harder for them to re-establish themselves in society, and were more likely to return to seek relief (MacKay, 1995).

Lastly, it is important to perceive what objections may arise to this paper. For one, many of these issues deserve much more depth, such as the intentions of New Poor Laws in disencouraging population boost. Here, an argument can be made that the New Poor was carried out with less moral judgment and more so a preventive measure to nationwide hunger occurring due to overpopulation. If that be the case, the large amount of Christian worship in workhouses4, as well as the Part 1 Section1 of the Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 which targeted the supposed moral dissolution of the Poor in the workhouse (especially concerning the mingling of prostitutes and how they “decoy the young girls”) gives a strong moral inclination to the reform (Chadwick et al, 1834, p.50). Other arguments can be made that the reform was headed by the “middle classes,” while the aristocracies sometimes even supported the more paternalistic Old Poor Laws. While these arguments are worth further studying, this paper cannot delve into them. For simplicity’s sake,all those who are richer than the laborers and paupers (of whom the Poor Law affects) are classified as the “upper class,” and the rest lower class or laborers. Also, this paper was focused less so on those who perpetrated the New Poor Laws, but rather the reason which it was amended; Hence, any who wish to delve into the specific social dynamics of the reformers are welcomed to do so in their study.


The goals of the New Poor Laws were to alleviate the burden of ratepayers, to deter the undeserving poor from seeking relief, and to care for the deserving poor. It arguably only achieved all three, partially. The rate was increased though the relief was more spartan, the measures taken to deter the poor from immorality only dehumanized them more, and the workhouse - the place of punishment for the “undeserving” - was increasingly transformed into a care house for the “deserving.” This systematic failure of the poor laws to reach its intended goals have implications for today. The Weldon Angelo case comes to mind as an example where a law fails to achieve its original goal. In 2004, the musician Weldon Angelo was accused of selling $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant, who also claimed that there was a firearm strapped to Weldon’s side during the transaction. Though there was no further evidence supporting this claim, Weldon was nonetheless sentenced to 55 years under the section 924(c) which required mandatory minimums for dealers who carry firearms during transactions. He was only recently released in 2016 after serving 13 years thanks to a bipartisan campaign (Flores, 2016).

Where, the law of minimum mandatory sentencing pushed by the Bush administration to combat drug use, saw a man’s life being ruined due to a punishment that did not fit the crime. Even the judge who sentenced him found this to be “irrational and unfair,” quoting that under similar cases, “an aircraft hijacker would have got 24 years in prison. [...] If he’d been a child rapist, he’d got 11 years in prison” (Oliver, 2015, 10:01) Unfair sentencing was not the only issue with mandatory minimums; in 2014, the prison Bureau recorded a 32% overcapacity in American prisons, with the majority being drug offenders serving mandatory minimums (Exum, 2016). By continuing to study the impact of the New Poor Law, connections can be drawn to impact justice today.


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An act for the amendment and better administration of the laws relating to the poor in england and wales. (1834, August). GEORGE EYRE and ANDREW SPOTTISWOODE.

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Oliver [Video]. HBO.

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1.) Frequently those associated with a more feminine and vulnerable status in society, such as orphans, widows and the heavily infirmed

2.) Which was enacted on a local Parish basis.

3.) Taken into account that much sum will be spent on things related to the administration of poor relief, rather than the relief itself.

4.) See example “Morning and evening prayers for workhouses and other institutions, for two weeks, and for the principal festivals of the Church, selected by L. Twining”

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