Link back to main ROSSBRET websitePoverty


Link back to main ROSSBRET websitePoverty


"The Workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness, with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity."
The Revd. H. H. Milman to Edwin Chadwick, 1832

Poverty and the Treatment of the Poor


Poverty had always been in existence in Britain, but due to Social and Economic changes in society during the late 18th and 19th centuries, the number of poor People rose dramatically. This became a major concern to the Government of the time, and the issues had to be addressed. 

During the early 18th century, the poor were supported in rural communities under the auspices of the Old Poor Law. A number of factors led to the rise in food prices and increased population, the Industrial revolution and higher unemployment. The Speenhamland System was introduced to supplement wages to the poor in line with the price of bread. However, criticism of the Old Poor Law increased especially from ratepayers who complained as to the increasing cost of caring for the poor. The Government set up a Commission to examine the Poor Law and recommend changes and improvements. 

Factors that led to Poverty

Pauperism caused by Old Age, Loss of the Major Breadwinner and Illness were considered Deserving Poor. Circumstances usually beyond their control had led to their demise. The Old Poor Law stated that they should enter a Workhouse, but in reality they often received outdoor relief from the Parish overseer. The Idle Poor were those whom it was considered did not wish to work, or did not work hard enough to earn their living. Under the Old Poor Law they were to be sent to the House of Correction (or Industry) where they would be given work in exchange for a meager diet. Orphans were cared for by the Parish until they reached an age where they could be "apprenticed". 

The Government set up a Commission in 1832 consisting of eight commissioners headed by an Economist, Nassau Senior, to investigate the Poor Law, and whether reform was required. 

These recommendations were incorporated into the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. 

A new system of classification of Paupers was introduced following the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, whereby all relief was to be given in a Union Workhouse. Those considered Idle Poor under the Old Poor Law were categorized Able-bodied Paupers. The view of Society was harsh towards them, feeling that they did not wish to work or that work could be found if they tried harder. In reality, a number of social changes led to their demise, namely:

Workhouse Life was intended to be harsh, and many cases were highlighted in an attempt to relieve the conditions. Opposition to the new Law increased especially to the Union Workhouses. Once again the running costs began to rise, and many Unions returned to using some forms of outdoor relief. Attention began to be raised as to the reasons for Poverty, and many Campaigners worked tirelessly to reform the treatment of Paupers. This led to a gradual and more sympathetic attitude to Poverty.

Major reform of the Poor Law commenced with the introduction of National Insurance followed by the Welfare State.

The Government Reforms from 1906

The First World War
The Great Depression

The future of Welfare following the second World War, was laid out by Sir William Beveridge in The Beveridge Report 1942. In 1948 the Labour Government set up The National Health Service.

Page updated March 12, 2008 by Rossbret