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