1834 Poor Law

The New Poor Law poster, 1837
(HO 44/27 pt 2)
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What did people think of the new Poor Law?

In 1834 a new Poor Law was introduced. Some people welcomed it because they believed it would:

  • reduce the cost of looking after the poor
  • take beggars off the streets
  • encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves

The new Poor Law ensured that the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse paupers would have to work for several hours each day.

However, not all Victorians shared this point of view. Some people, such as Richard Oastler, spoke out against the new Poor Law, calling the workhouses ‘Prisons for the Poor’. The poor themselves hated and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns.


Tasks

1. Click on this extract from an anti-Poor Law Poster drawn in 1837.

  • How desperate are the people trying to get into the workhouse?
  • What is the response of the workhouse master?

2. Click on this extract from the poster.

  • What work are these paupers doing?
  • The paupers believe they are treated much worse than slaves in the West Indies. Why would this statement have shocked people at this time?
  • Why do you think the paupers’ heads have been shaved?

3. Click on this extract from the poster.

  • What has ‘Joe’ got in the truck?
  • What is he going to do with it?

4. Click on this extract from the poster.

  • What does this part of the poster tell you about the treatment of the old?
  • Why do you think that the government was keen to make sure that people in workhouses worked?

5. Click on this extract from the poster.

  • According to the poster how long were inmates expected to work each day?
  • How many hours sleep were they allowed?
  • What punishments can you see in the poster?

6. What does the artist think about the new Poor Law?

7. What are the problems of using this poster as evidence of what the workhouses were like?


Background

Before 1834, the cost of looking after the poor was growing more expensive every year. This cost was paid for by the middle and upper classes in each town through their local taxes. There was a real suspicion amongst the middle and upper classes that they were paying the poor to be lazy and avoid work.

After years of complaint, a new Poor Law was introduced in 1834. The new Poor Law was meant to reduce the cost of looking after the poor, prevent scroungers and impose a system which would be the same all over the country.

Under the new Poor Law, parishes were grouped into unions and each union had to build a workhouse if they did not already have one. Except in special circumstances, poor people could now only get help if they were prepared to leave their homes and go into a workhouse.

Conditions inside the workhouse were deliberately harsh, so that only those who desperately needed help would ask for it. Families were split up and housed in different parts of the workhouse. The poor were made to wear a uniform and the diet was monotonous. There were also strict rules and regulations to follow. Inmates, male and female, young and old were made to work hard, often doing unpleasant jobs such as picking oakum or breaking stones. Children could also find themselves hired out to work in factories or mines.

Shortly after the new Poor Law was introduced, a number of scandals hit the headlines. The most famous was Andover Workhouse, where it was reported that half-starved inmates were found eating the rotting flesh from bones. In response to these scandals the government introduced stricter rules for those who ran the workhouses and they also set up a system of regular inspections. However, inmates were still at the mercy of unscrupulous masters and matrons who treated the poor with contempt and abused the rules.

Although most people did not have to go to the workhouse, it was always threatening if a worker became unemployed, sick or old. Increasingly, workhouses contained only orphans, the old, the sick and the insane. Not surprisingly the new Poor Law was very unpopular. It seemed to punish people who were poor through no fault of their own.


Teachers' notes

The poster in this lesson is an excellent piece of evidence showing opposition to the new Poor Law and public conceptions of life inside the workhouses. One way of encouraging pupils to analyse this rich source is by helping them to see that the poster is really made up of smaller pictures. By dealing with one small picture at a time, commenting on and analysing the poster can become more manageable.

To extend their work, pupils can create their own new Poor Law poster, either for or against the law. Or they can be asked to write to the government complaining about the harshness of the new Poor Law. They could also work in groups to create an alternative plan to deal with the problem of the rising cost of looking after the poor.

The lesson can also be used as a starting point for investigating the new Poor Law in more depth and discussing attitudes to the poor in 19th century Britain.

Sources

Source 1 : EXT 6/1 (extracted from HO 44/27/2)


External links

The Workhouse
The Workhouse often conjures up the grim world of Oliver Twist, but its story is a fascinating mix of social history, politics, economics and architecture.

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