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The Poor Laws

From its beginnings in the fourteenth century, up to the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948, the evolution of England's poor laws is the story of one of the most significant and far-reaching strands of the nation's social policy and administration.

The history of the poor laws is conveniently divided into the Old Poor Law — crystallised in the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor<, and the New Poor Law — heralded by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

The Old Poor Law can be broadly characterised as being parish-centred, haphazardly implemented, locally enforced, and with some of its most significant developments (e.g. the operation of workhouses) being completely voluntary. The New Poor Law, based on the new administrative unit of the Poor Law Union, aimed to introduce a rigorously implemented, centrally enforced, standard system that was to be imposed on all and which centred on the workhouse.

In fact, there was very little that was actually new in the system introduced in 1834. Its key elements — the grouping of parishes into unions, the deterrent workhouse, and the workhouse test — had all existed under the Old Poor Law. Essentially, it was the manner in which poor relief was administered that changed under the New Poor Law

At a more profound level, however, the New Poor Law saw a fundamental change in the way that the poor were viewed by many of their "betters". The traditional attitude had been one of poverty being inevitable (exemplified by the oft-quoted biblical text "For the poor always ye have with you"), the poor essentially victims of their situation, and their relief a Christian duty. The 1834 Act was guided by a growing view that the poor were largely responsible for their own situation and which they could change if they chose to do so.

Not everything changed in 1834, however. One important and complex piece of poor law legislation which originated in 1662, and which did not finally disappear until 1948, was the Settlement Act. Remarkably, parts of the 1601 Poor Law Act were not finally repealed until 1967.

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