The British economy underwent massive structural change and a reallocation of resources in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Massive fortunes were made and the national wealth was generally held to have advanced during this period, but the rewards of industrialisation were unevenly distributed. As the old rural system of poverty relief began to collapse under the weight of a growing population and pauperisation of the peasantry, it was decided that a new system was needed: one based on Victorian ideas of virtue, thrift and industry. The framing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act highlights in itself the misconceptions about poverty and the poverty-stricken in nineteenth century Britain. It achieved its immediate aim of reducing the poor relief rate but could not produce a system of poor relief which was tenable in the long run, as it was socially unacceptable to the recipients of aid. Many nineteenth century observers seemed to miss the sweeping economic changes which were changing the income structure of so many people, instead focusing on imaginary evils which they believed to be exclusively causing the poverty of the times.

The old Elizabethan Poor Law, which had governed poor relief for nearly two centuries, began to become untenable in the 1780s. In the South the agricultural sector was undergoing massive restructuring which released labour and converted former long-term workers into day-labourers or made them unemployed altogether. As smaller yeoman farms declined in numbers, giving way to large estates, farmers could make use of economies of scale in labour – according to Arthur Young, the labour cost per acre of a farm with 0 – 50 acres was £1.50, and of one with 600 – 650 acres £0.49. Unemployment thus rose dramatically in the South, and unlike in the North there weren’t any large industrial cities to suck up the excess labour. Systems such as the Roundsman system and Speenhamland seem definitely to be a response to this sort of structural unemployment – they sprung up in the South and not in the North, where farmers had to compete with the towns for labour. The allowance system, which the 1834 Poor Law Commission considered the most pernicious of evils under the old system, was designed to top up depressed agricultural wages.

But the architects of the 1834 law believed in a different causality – they thought parishes which interfered with the labour market, especially of able-bodied males, were causing agricultural wages to depress and creating poverty. Based on the economic theories of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, this view had a persuasive logic. Malthus believed that generous poor relief removed the prudential restraint on marriage which all classes of people would exercise normally – Speenhamland especially encouraged people to marry earlier and have more children so that they would receive more poor relief. Because there was a limit on the amount of food a country could produce once it had reached its maximum point of technical efficiency (and there were signs that point was being reached in British agriculture at the start of the nineteenth century), famine would eventually act as a 'positive' check on population. By encouraging early marriage and larger families, the Poor Law would create more misery in the long run. Malthusian economics believed in a 'stable state' which forged the correct middle path between population and food supply – and although David Ricardo based his "law of iron wages" on rent, he similarly feared a huge growth in population which would cause a decline in real wages and increase of poverty.

There seemed to be evidence to support their theory. In 1750, the population of England had been 5.8 million – by 1801 it was 8.6 million, and by 1831 13.3 million. Although agricultural yields had been rising during the eighteenth century, they could still not transcend the limits of an organic economy for now – and England had to start importing grain at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet by 1871 Malthusian checks had failed to wreck havoc and the English population had increased to 21.5 million. In fact, English agriculture continually managed to feed her population - clearly the classical economists had been wrong to prophesise an impending catastrophe. But the increasing productivity of English agricultural workers did have the already-mentioned effect of throwing many able-bodied people onto the labour market. This is what contributed to the surging cost of poor relief that so irked observers in the early nineteenth century.

The impersonal economic forces which brought about this change affected the lives of many people in ways they couldn't control. There was little a day-labourer could do to augment his wages if farmers only offered them below subsistence level, so he was forced to fall back on the parish. He had a shrinking economic base and increasingly had no choice but to submit to wage labour. Migration was not encouraged by the settlement laws and a move to join the industrial proletariat would hardly better his condition. Was this a Universe in which the New Poor Law was appropriate?

The New Poor Law was based on utilitarian principles and was, in the spirit of the times, strangely benevolent– but it is arguable whether its architects truly enquired into the nature and causes of poverty. The idea behind the Law was that by doing away with outdoor relief and substituting the 'workhouse test', people would be much less willing to throw themselves on the mercy of the parish because to do so would involve 'less eligible' conditions than normal work. This deterrent was supposed to encourage people to work hard and prosper by their own industry rather than slothfully growing fat off the parish, as it was assumed they had chosen to do. Furthermore, the virtue of hard work was supposed to have a reforming influence on the whole working class, who would become inculcated with the values of the bourgeoisie. A deterrent workhouse scheme had already been tried in Cookham, Berkeshire (as in areas of Hertfordshire) and not a single able-bodied pauper had opted for it. The workhouse maintained the right to subsistence but divorced it from any concept of liberty or a 'moral economy' based on just prices and fair wages. The system was specifically designed to eject as many people as possible from the orbit of the Poor Laws and do away with the class of paupers who were increasingly seen as unworthy of aid.

Such a clear-cut distinction between rich and poor seems out of place in British society at this time. For a long time paupers were not a marginal group in society – up to 25% of households might receive some sort of aid during the year. Most people lived close to subsistence and were at the mercy of the seasons, harvest and wars. There was also the system of 'life-cycle poverty', which threw most people on the parish at some point in their lives. Because people in England married relatively late, they found themselves with child dependents at about the time their own parents were entering the stage of their life when they were unable to support themselves. The practice of a couple forming a new household at marriage increased the trouble of providing intra-familial aid, and so the elderly had to rely on extra-familial institutions. A collective identity existed between ratepayers and recipients of poor relief – families supported each other in the first period of deficit when children were being born, because those children would support them in old age. This simple redistribution of wealth allowed the community to survive the life-cycle of poverty. The important point is that many people were not paupers because they were indolent – most people would at some point in their lives require poor relief, while at others they would contribute to the scheme as ratepayers.

But the Poor Law Commission, and many observers in the nineteenth century, seemed to take for granted that a man would always be able to provide for his family if only he tried hard enough. Yet this was clearly not the case – there were cases of people starving rather than entering the workhouse, and surely the commissioners were right at least that hunger is a great spur to action. Behind the Commission's social statistics were people suffering in poverty with no way out, and ones who were merely at a low point in their life cycle. Substituting for the old localised system of poor relief, which was based on personal contact between ratepayer and recipient (which was considered an evil of the old system to the logical minds of the reformers) a system of homogenous relief which treated all the poor as if they were the same only makes sense in the context of the 'cruel to be kind' attitude of the reformers. They believed every pauper had made a personal failing and that the tough, paternal state would put them back on the right track. Indeed, the Poor Law Commissioners seemed rather disinterested in actually finding out the circumstances of the poor – they were more concerned with the details of legislation and administration. To them poverty was a legal issue which had been created by the state and could be legislated out of existence. Exceptions to this rule would be dealt with by individual philanthropy – and surely the flourishing of charitable organisations in the mid-nineteenth century should have acted as a clue that poverty was a wide social problem: such organisations spent more in London than the Poor Law authorities.

In the city as in the countryside, there is a vast body of evidence to show that poverty was not necessarily a case of moral failing as the Commissioners believed – most of the urban poor who applied for relief came from poorly-unionised occupations in which there was little job security and meagre wages. A particularly salient example was the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861 – 65. Massive unemployment resulted from a naval blockade during the American Civil War – this could quite obviously not be attributed to personal failing, and the government moved in to provide relief alongside philanthropic organisations. This highlighted to observers at the time that poverty could be caused by impersonal economic forces, and the argument that the poor were simply morally depraved was disproved by the peaceful attitude of the Lancashire urban poor during the cotton famine. Yet at the mid-century people were even turning to anthropological explanations for the supposed 'depravity' of the poor – popular art showed them as almost another species, subhuman and on the periphery of civilized society. This was clearly not the case – there has been an inequality in the distribution of wealth since wealth began to be accrued, and to think the continuation of this inequality was down to personal depravity was absurd. Similarly, the idea that the poor were somehow subhuman is refuted by the fact many people moved in and out of poverty during their life-cycle.

The economic boom in the third quarter of the nineteenth century generally improved the lot of the urban worker. In the face of a poor relief system that alienated them drastically from normal society, they set up trade unions and friendly societies to supplant the government structures. Rowntree found that 51.96% of people in 'primary poverty', i.e. unable to subsist, were there because of insufficient wages – their poverty was not due to indolence, but insufficient wages for the work they were doing. Increasingly it looked like the assumptions about the working class were incorrect – poverty existed in segments of hard-working people, and the so-called "residuum" seemed to be capable of supporting itself. Disraeli's acts in the period 1874 – 80 focused on issues of public health and education, with the latter made compulsory in 1880 – this is still self-help, but with more than just deterrence against failure from the state. Urban workers were enfranchised in 1867 and could henceforth exert a greater influence on politics. The poor labourer was no longer a fringe group of society – he was an important pillar of the state. Although some groups did espouse expropriation of the richer classes' property, Robert Roberts stresses that Marxism never got a foothold in the English working class. By and large the group seemed responsible and capable of self-help, but it was preferable for the state to offer solutions that were socially acceptable to the recipients – and the workhouse of the New Poor Law was not.

Views of poverty in the nineteenth century were dominated by ideology at the expense of reality. The Poor Law Commission did not investigate the causes of poverty at great enough length to discern them – rather they viewed the evidence through a jaundiced eye which had already decided what the solution was. The dire predictions of Malthus and Ricardo, on which the New Poor Law was based, turned out to be incorrect – population continued to rise and there were no subsistence crises. An economic boom engendered an improving standard of living in the urban areas. The 'workhouse test' may have been based on a correct principle – that people would rather do anything than enter the workhouse – but this was not to say that this was a humane or effective way to deal with poverty. Inequality of wealth is a problem that persists throughout all societies at all times, and to deny its existence or attribute it to personal failing is to avoid the issue. Each particular instance of poverty had behind it a complex story, and to reduce each one to innate depravity or indolence was a huge simplification indeed. As people such as Booth and Rowntree began to enquire into the true nature of poverty towards the end of the century, a more complex picture emerged – some people were poor through vice, but many were poor through no fault of their own. Social enquiry was needed to find out the true nature of poverty and provide effectively for its relief.


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D. Cannadine, Class in Britain (1998)
L.H. Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700 – 1948 (1998)
A. Digby, 'The Labour Market and the Continuity of Social Policy after 1834', Economic History Review (1975)
M. Rose, 'The Allowance System under the New Poor Law', Economic History Review (1966)
K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor (1985)
M. Blaug, 'The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New', Journal of Economic History (1963)
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D. Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy (1817)
D. Fraser, Evolution of the British Welfare State (2nd ed, 1984)
A. Fried and R. Elman (eds.) Charles Booth's London (1971)
B.S. Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901)

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