Poor Law Amendment Act 1837
There had been a system in place in England to deal with the problem of poverty for centuries. Elizabeth I had introduced poor relief throughout the county. The Industrial Revolution changed the demographics of the country enormously though and the poor relief system was put under incredible strain as a result. In 1834 an amendment to the poor Law was passed. It mirrored the views of many politicians of the day that poverty was the fault of the individual, that it was the result of laziness rather than something that people couldn’t escape. The new laws were met with a great deal of debate. In some authorities they were welcomed, in others they were vehemently opposed.
The following evidence looks at the way that the authorities in Huddersfield viewed the amendments.
Things to consider:
- What were the main reasons for the changes to the law?
- Why did some people oppose the amendments?
- What were the consequences of the Poor Law Amendment Act for poor people?
This is part of the evidence of Joseph Ellison to the Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1837
Q Notwithstanding that scarcity of work, your poor rates have been so low as 1/- upon the rack rent, for buildings, and 2/- for lands?
A Yes, in the last year.
Q That being the case, you think you would have good reason to believe that you could not have the law more satisfactorily conducted, both for the ratepayers and the rate receivers, than it has been during the last year under the operation of the old Poor Law?
A We do think so, and at a late meeting of our select vestry every one concurred in the answer I have just now given to you, that under no system of management could things be carried on more satisfactorily, both to the ratepayers and to the paupers and this is the opinion of nineteen-twentieths of the ratepayers of that township where I reside.The general feeling is this, “What a pity that a system that has worked so well, and has produced so much good, should be now broken up!” That is the universal exclamation. I am not speaking of the working classes, for they do not understand these things; but amongst the most respectable portion of the ratepayers, the clergymen and such gentry as we have, and the principal ratepayers, that is the universal feeling. Indeed, you need not be surprised at that, when the rates have been reduced, within the last twenty years, to the amount that I have stated. The clergy are, I believe, to a man, opposed to the new law; they have seen the good effects of the old system, and are satisfied that it cannot be improved upon; but I am speaking always of the Select Vestry Act; that was the greatest improvement that ever took place in the Poor Law, so far as regards manufacturing districts.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. This was harsh legislation which said, in effect, that if people were poor, it was entirely their own fault.
The only cure was for them to be put in workhouses and treated badly. It was the only form of social security known at the time.
The law also provided for workhouses to be built in every parish, or under the aegis of a union of smaller parishes.
This did not go down very well, particularly with the poor. So they protested. They gathered outside the new court and made their feelings known to the occupants.
Among these were the newly-appointed Poor Law Guardians, and at least one magistrate, a Mr Paley.
As the protest turned ugly, it became necessary to read the Riot Act. This was a legal effort to strengthen the power of civil authorities and in effect it said that if more than a dozen people gathered together, and a magistrate didn’t like it, then he could read the Riot Act to the assembled mob, which would then have an hour to disperse – or suffer the consequences.
The consequences could be severe. Mounted troops charged unarmed civilians at a reformers’ rally on St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in August 1819, trampling, hacking or shooting to death 11 men and women and a child, and injuring about 400 others
In the Huddersfield Union in the West Riding of Yorkshire, many members of the Board of Guardians were active members of the anti-Poor Law movement. They obstructed the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act by refusing to elect a Union Clerk, without whom no business could be transacted. Some of the guardians were favourable to the new system and felt that the local magistrates (as ex officio members of the board) were too sympathetic towards the anti-Poor Law faction and were failing to use their influence to control them or to protect the board from the threat of mob violence. One of the pro-Poor Law men was George Tinker, who wrote this letter to the Poor Law Commission.
I take the liberty of addressing you for the purpose of calling your attention to the peculiar circumstances in which I together with several others of the Guardians of the Poor in Huddersfield Union are situated. You are probably aware of the excitement prevailing in this district respecting the Poor Law Amendment Act, and of some of the means which have been taken to provoke and continue that excitement – such as the recent West Riding meeting. But I believe you cannot be aware of the perfect state of organisation into which the district has been put and the violent and unprincipled measures which are in operation to defeat your intentions.
The peoples’ feelings have been worked up to a state of madness by gross misstatements. An Association is formed having for its avowed object direct opposition to the law. Delegates are appointed and contributions levied for the purpose of paying the wages of itinerant agitators and for securing the return of Guardians pledged to oppose your orders. It has so far succeeded as to secure the return of a majority of the Guardians who communicate with and act according to its instructions. In the present alarming state of the district it will be dangerous to put the Law into operation.
At a meeting held on Monday the 5th inst. the proceedings of which I suppose will be communicated to you, the mob amounting to 6 or 8 thousand persons, led on by the notorious Oastler, broke open the gates of the workhouse and threatened to pull down the building if the Guardians did not immediately break up their meeting. It was with difficulty and by a very small majority that the meeting was adjourned to another place in the town, a motion having been made and strongly supported that it would be adjourned to the 1st Monday in April 1838. On the way to our second place of meeting, the guardians who were known to be favourable to the Law were repeatedly surrounded by the mob, and their lives threatened if they attempted to carry it into effect. The magistrate present, R, Battye, Esq. placed us under the merciful protection of Rchd. Oastler, and refused to read the Riot Act, notwithstanding that the heads of several of the constables had been broken and the windows of the room demolished with stones thrown by the mob. The opposition guardians during the meeting, regularly communicated its proceedings to the mob outside by haranguing them out at the windows and by writing. Only eleven out of thirty nine guardians present voted for electing a Clerk, and those who had the manliness to do so were individualised and the mob was promised that they should be afterwards acquainted with their names.