East India Company

From Old to New Poor Law

Graham Goodlad considers the background to the reform of the Poor Law in 1834 and its impact on society.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the poorest members of English society were the responsibility of the individual parishes in which they lived. This was the underlying principle of the Elizabethan Poor Laws which, with a few modifications, had endured for two centuries. Each parish appointed officials known as overseers, whose task was to collect a poor rate from local householders. This money was allocated on a basis of need to individuals and their families. The emphasis was on ‘outdoor relief’: in other words, the purpose was to assist the able-bodied poor to continue living in their own homes. Subsequent legislation established the principle of ‘settlement’, under which parish authorities were empowered to return travelling paupers to the locality in which they were said to have ‘settled’. By the eighteenth century, however, these arrangements had been supplemented by the creation of parish workhouses where ‘indoor relief’ was provided. These institutions, run by private contractors, constituted a last resort for the starving, the sick and the elderly poor.

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