A ‘right’ to relief?

In what ways did paupers hold the Poor Law to account?

It has previously been assumed that paupers themselves had little knowledge nor understanding of the legislation governed their position, yet letters sent to the poor law commission from across England and Wales challenge this notion. In fact there is evidence that paupers were frequently writing to contest the way that they were being treated, complain about actions of their Guardians and in some instances even quoted specific parts of legislation in an attempt to change their lives.

The legal terminology contained in the letters written by the poor, and the inferences that historians can make from this is a fascinating challenge to students of both History and Law related subjects. This resource aims to demonstrate, through a selection of letters and accompanying tasks, how paupers were active in exercising what they believe to be their ‘right to relief’ and were in fact agents who held the Poor Law to account.


Poor Law Amendment Act Activities

The following pages are sections from The Poor Law Amendement Act 1834. They can be printed and provided to students as worksheets.

  1. Identify the following phrases in section 15:
  • “as they shall see occasion”
  • “interfere in any individual case”

These words are examples of ambiguity in the Poor Law Amendment Act; what does the Act mean by “occasion”? And what constitutes “interfering”?

  1. In the other sections, identify more examples of ambiguous language and/or guidance.
  2. Guardians were tasked with implementing the new Poor Law in their local union. What problems can you envisage (predict) from the lack of specific direction about how to implement the New Poor Law?
  1. What “rights” do paupers have in these extracts? Make a list of all the “rights” you identify.
  2. Using these extracts, suggest the extent to which you think paupers had a legal “right” to relief?

MH12 Letters – Activities

The following pages are pauper letters from our MH12 collection. They can be printed and provided to students as worksheets. Explore the letters and consider the following questions:

  1. Did paupers have any “right” to relief? If yes, how so?
  2. How did paupers hold their guardians to account? Can you find examples of paupers that complain about their treatment in comparison to expectations according to the Poor Law Amendment Act?
  3. How far do you agree that paupers held the poor law to account? Did you expect this to be the case when you began this enquiry?
  4. Study today’s benefits system. Can you find specific legislation that governs entitlement and provision of support for those on low incomes in today’s society? (for instance the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016)

Letter One – Thomas Henshaw

  1. Read the extract from Section 54 of the Poor Law Amendment Act and the letter whereby Thomas Henshaw quotes this particular section. How has Henshaw used the law to hold those in authority to account? Is his a valid claim?
  2. Can you find where Henshaw refers to his “case”? Consider this use of quasi (semi) legal terminology. What impact do you think it might have had?

Letter Two – William Jackson

  1. What do you think William Jackson means when he refers to “having served my country in the Unhealthy Climate of the West Indies”? Why do you think he writes about this?
  2. What does Jackson believe to be his “rights”? What is he requesting from the commissioners?

Letter Three – Thomas Hartley

  1. Highlight where Hartley uses this legal terminology:
    • rights • liberty • English law • arbitrary • duty.
    Discuss the impact of this choice of language.
  2. Towards the end of his letter Hartley uses satire to make a point about those in authority. Identify where he uses satire and consider what impact this might have had on the reader.
  3. Would you have expected this level of satire from paupers? Why/why not? (consider the risks of writing such statements).

Letter Four – Brutus Lloyd

  1. Lloyd refers to his situation as a “case”. He considers this a legal proceeding when he asks “is it the law for me to have no hope but to die a lingering death”. What impression of paupers do you get from this letter?
  2. Are you sympathetic to Lloyd? Why/Why not?
  3. Read the Circumtext carefully. To what extent do the Guardians/commissioners show sympathy?

Letter Five – Charles Leonard

  1. This letter reveals a great deal about how the poor were able to access the law in detail and use it to hold their guardians to account. Which book does Charles Leonard reference? Where did he get hold of this book?
  2. It was more common than might be expected for paupers to become aware of detailed aspects of the Poor Law. Discuss other ways paupers might have been able to source such information.

Letter Six – John Joseph Macdonald

  1. How many references does Macdonald make to his “rights” in this letter? What particular “right” is he most concerned the guardians in his Union are not upholding?
  2. How far do you agree that MacDonald has a valid complaint? Notice how the commissioners have attempted to use precedent (past decisions) to make a decision about MacDonald. Judges today use precedent all the time when deciding the outcomes of cases; how far does this demonstrate a law-based approach to poor relief?


After the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Poor Law Commissioners in London were tasked with implementing changes how poor relief was administered across England and Wales. However, discrepancies between poor law unions grew more apparent over time, meaning the experiences of paupers and the operation of the New Poor Law might have varied hugely depending upon the area one resided in.

Attempts were made to regulate the implementation of the New Poor Law via orders and circular letters that were sent to individual unions, collections of unions and indeed all unions, from the Centre. Some of were sent as directions – “what local unions should do” – and some were sent as permissions –“what local union could do” – should they wish. Knowledge of such regulations (of both types) quickly began to specify the day-to-day operations of out-relief as well as the conditions that should be set down for the workhouse inmate. Thus many paupers built up a picture of their “rights” under the law. In their letters to the Centre paupers and the wider poor complained about their treatment, and how it did not match what they believed was their entitlement, often referencing the Poor Law despite its often ambiguous phrasing. From this we learn that paupers were not oblivious to their position and became more vocal in challenging what they believed were social injustices.

Teachers' notes

This resource is designed to enable students to explore the concepts of rights, accountability, and agency in relation to paupers and the wider poor and their dealings with poor law officials and agencies in nineteenth century England and Wales under the New Poor Law.

Students will investigate extracts of the Poor Law Amendment Act to understand that paupers had few “rights” in law. The letters from paupers themselves encourage students to explore the way in which paupers used the law (and legal terminology) to hold local union officials to account for what they believed were injustices in their treatment or condition.

The accompanying questions are purposely explorative and open ended. Students will hopefully come to realise the extent to which paupers were aware of their position, and how they “should” be treated. The surprising use of legal terminology by those who are often assumed to be illiterate or “unintelligent of law” will challenge such assumptions. These letters, which illustrate how paupers were active in challenging the actions of poor law officialdom, demonstrates an agency that is often not revealed in other sources.
How teachers should use the resources in the classroom is not prescriptive. For upper key stage 4 students, teachers may wish to have students work in larger groups to investigate the sources. Alternatively older students would likely benefit from exploring the law in pairs or small groups before using this to interpret the letters.

Explanatory notes:

These selected extracts are designed to show the phraseology and scope of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 as it was published, (it is not the Act in full). Some extracts have been edited to provide accessibility but where possible the language and structure have been maintained.
Teachers/students could use these extracts in many ways however the prompts below are some areas to consider. The extracts could work alongside or prior to students engaging with the pauper letters.

Archival note:

Where letters/words were indecipherable we have used —— as the convention to show that such words are present in the original text.



open to more than one interpretation and not having one obvious meaning.


random, not based on any reason or system (letter 3)
limitless use of authority (letter 6)


the writing associated with pauper letters- usually notes written by officials within the Centre when suggesting responses. Note that the contents of the circumtext would never have been viewed by the letter sender – although some wording used as suggested responses can be seen in the office copy of such a response.

“Hold to account”:

requiring explanation of, or acceptance of, responsibility for actions.


being free from restrictions by authority on how a person lives.


a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something. In the case of these letters moral rights as used to extend the definition within legal rights.


using humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and/or criticize.

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