Pauper Migration under the New Poor law
Shortly after their appointment at the end of 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners (PLC) were approached by some eminent manufacturers in Lancashire, with the suggestion that a shortage of workers in the region's rapidly expanding manufacturing industries could be filled by unemployed labourers rural parts of the south. In March 1835, the Commissioners wrote to a number of northern manufacturers with an offer to promote such a scheme in suitable rural areas, and also to help with the vetting of applicants.
The first trial of the scheme took place at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, an area of high unemployment and low wages. An Assistant Commissioner visited the area and carried out personal visits to families in distress who, in a previous submission to the Commissioners, had stated that they were living on a total income of seven shillings a week. Despite being offered the possibility of work at an initial wage of 24 shillings a week (per family of four working hands), rising to 30 shillings after a year, there was little interest. However, two families finally agreed, and were followed by others, with a total of 83 individuals eventually migrating. Subsequent migrations followed from Princes Risborough, Chinnor, and other places in the county. The Commissioners trumpeted the success of the scheme in their annual report:
The first two families to move from Bledlow arrived in January 1835 at Quarry Bank in Cheshire to work at the mills of Samuel Greg and Company. In fact, the fathers of the two families were employed in farm work while it was their children who became mill hands. 38-year-old John Howlett worked 12 hours a day as a cowman and general labourer. His daughters Mary Ann (16), Ann (14), and Celia (12) did 11½-hour days at the mill, while 10-year-old Timothy worked 8 hours. The family received a combined wage of 24s. per week during their first year, rising to 27s. a week in the second. This compared with John's average weekly wage of 10s. back in Bledlow. Similar arrangements were made for John Steevens and his family. They were joined in March by another Bledlow family — widow Hannah Veary and her five children who were aged between 10 and 18. Also in March, 41-year-old Joseph Stevens with his wife and seven children moved to Turton, near Bolton, to work for Henry and Edmund Ashworth. Stevens, a husbandry labourer, had been able to earn 7s. per week when in employment, while his children had performed casual parish labour, mostly collecting stones from the fields for repairing roads. At Turton, the family soon had a combined income of 28s. a week. They were joined by George Allen, with his wife, seven children, and two orphans for whom he had become guardian, named Jesse and Thomas Neal. Two further families followed: Joseph Shepherd, with his wife and nine children, and James Fryer, with his wife and seven children.
As a result of the migration, the poor-rates of Bledlow were said to be reduced by a half. Further migration was organised from Cranfield in Bedfordshire, and from parishes in Suffolk, Kent, and Sussex. Their destinations included Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. To handle the detailed organisation of migrations, the Commissioners appointed two Migration Agents, Richard M Muggeridge for the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire, and Robert Baker, for the West Riding. Muggeridge conducted an analysis of the origin and destination counties of migrations that had taken place up to July 1836:
|County of Origin||No. of Families||No. of Individuals|
|Destination County||No. of Individuals|
By July, 1837, around 10,000 persons had undergone relocation funded by parish poor-rates. The agricultural county of Suffolk was one of the most prominent areas to take part in the scheme, with 275 families, amounting to 2005 individuals (20 per cent of the total), migrating by this date. 203 of these families (1660 individuals) had migrated with a definite contract of employment in place, and only 53 persons had returned home by the date of the survey. Of 72 families migrating without an employment contract, 59 out of a total of 345 individuals had returned to their home parish. The cost of parish relief given to all the migrating families in the 12 months prior to their migration had been £1954. However, payments for travel and outfits for those migrating cost parish funds just over £3746, an amount which they hoped would be justified by savings in future years. One of the migrating families, from the Hoxne Union, had been previously receiving parish relief for 30 years.
As well as lowering the cost of relief, the Commissioners anticipated that the reduction in surplus labour in areas from which migration was taking place would also increase the level of wages and availability of work for those who remained. A survey of a number of unions by Muggeridge in 1837 found mixed evidence as to the effect on the labour market in parishes from which migration was taking place. In many parishes, the numbers involved were felt to be too small to make a significant difference.
Migration was not without its critics who viewed the Boards of Guardians of southern unions as acting with mercenary motives in its promotion, and with little care for the future condition and welfare of the migrants who would be "out of sight, out of mind". To counter such views, the Commissioners published letters of gratitude from those who were happy in their new life. the following extract is of a letter from James and Elizabeth French, who migrated from Hoxne Union, Suffolk, to the employ of Messrs. Greenwood & Brothers, of Mytholmroyd Bridge, near Halifax. It was addressed to Mr. John Pettet (presumably Elizabeth's father), grocer and draper, of Altrington, near Eye, Suffolk.
We are all well, thank God for it. We have all according to the agreement. We have met with no disappointments. There is no fear of work here if it be contracted for, and by reason of contracts you will be sure of work; but if you come of your own heads perhaps you will not happen of a master. Men's wages run from 10s. to 25s. per week, and such as shoemakers, carpenters and tailors are scarce in the country. We have a house quite as large as yours; and, dear father, we are not disappointed. Here is a good living for the working hands, and the work agrees very well with all our families.
Another Suffolk migrant, John Brett, wrote:
However, the offer of employment at a distance was often declined, with many potential candidates being stirred into finding work in their own home parishes. Despite the Poor Law Commissioners' early optimism, home migration came to a virtual halt in the late 1830s, due to a severe downturn in the northern textile manufacturing industries. Despite this, however, they still viewed the scheme as having been successful, as this report notes:
A separate page describes the emigration of paupers to destinations outside Britain.
- Annual Reports of the Poor Law Commissioners (1835-1847). British Parliamentary Papers.
- Return relative to the removal of labourers from agricultural to manufacturing districts. PP (1843) xlv (254).
- Benton, A (1983) From Bledlow to the mills: pauper migration, in Origins, 7 (3), Bedfordshire FHS, pp.76-80.
- Boyson, R (1970) The Ashworth cotton enterprise: the rise and fall of a family firm, 1818-1880 (Clarendon Press)
- Redford, A (1926) Labour migration in England, 1800-1850 (Manchester: Manchester UP)
- Rees, C (1991) The sponsored poor law migration scheme, 1835-1837: a study of the Preston area in Lancashire Local Historian, 6, pp.23-31.
- Rose, MB (1986) The Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill: the rise and decline of a family firm (Cambridge: Cambridge UP)
- Worship, V (2000) Cotton factory or workhouse: poor law assisted migration from Buckinghamshire to northern England, 1835-37 in Family and Community History, 3 (1), pp.33-48.
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