E1 Teachers Notes The Poor Laws and Disabled People.
The history of the poor laws is conveniently divided into the Early Poor Law, 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, which they could change if they chose to do so.
Early Poor Law
Under the feudal system most ordinary people were tied to the land. They were born in the manor, expected to work and fight for their Lord of the Manor and in return were granted shelter, grazing, cultivation and other rights. The family were expected to provide for the needy old, young and disabled with occasional help from the church or Lord of the Manor. Some who were sick or infirmed sought support in monasteries.
The earliest English laws dealing with the poor were largely concerned with suppressing beggars and travelling beggars. The Black Death (1348 -49) led to up to one third of the population dying. This led to a severe labour shortage. So groups of workers travelled the country to get the highest wages they could secure and begged for food and shelter as they travelled. In 1349, in reaction, Edward III passed an Ordinance of Labour. This kept wages at their former level and prohibited private individuals from giving relief to non-disabled beggars.
In 1388 the Statute of Cambridge (Richard II), introduced restrictions on the movement of all labourers and beggars. The growth of the Towns was beginning to act as a magnet to draw labourers off the land in search of a better livelihood. Each county became responsible for relieving its own ‘impotent poor’ –those who because of age or infirmity(disability and sickness) were incapable of work.
There remained considerable concern about vagabonds or tramps begging and further draconian laws were passed. There was often a concern that disabled beggars were pretending or faking it to get sympathy and hand-outs. The 1494 Vagabonds’ Act (Henry VIII) determined that ‘Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and shall be put out of Town’. Those capable of work were returned to the County Hundred they came from. Further, the Beggars and Vagabonds’ Act 1531(Henry VII) required vagabonds to be whipped and returned to their birthplace for three years, but also allowed the impotent poor to beg after obtaining a licence from a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate).
The seeds of the future direction of the poor law were sown in the short lived 1536 Vagabonds’ Act (Henry VIII) .This was the year of the dissolution of the monasteries and significantly increased the numbers of sick and disabled people begging. The Act required church wardens in each parish to collect voluntary alms in a ‘common box’ to provide hand-outs for those who could not work, while at the same time the idle and able bodied poor were obliged to perform labour with punishment for those who refused. The Act also prohibited begging and unofficial alms giving. A further Act of 1547(Edward VI) included provision for the ‘ impotent poor’ including the erection of cottages for them to live in-‘poorhouses’.
This Act was followed by a series of laws tightening the voluntary contribution to each household and then a series of local poor-taxes in London, Cambridge, Colchester, Ipswich, Norwich and York and became adopted nationally in the Vagabonds Act 1572 (Elizabeth I). The money raised was used to relieve ‘aged, poor, impotent and decaying persons’ and administered by an unpaid parish overseer-this was the first national pension and disability benefit scheme. Every town, city, market and market town was to lay in a store of wool, hemp, flax, iron and other materials to provide work for the poor able to work. In 1597, the Act for Relief of the Poor (Elizabeth I) required every parish to appoint Overseers of the Poor whose job it was to collect and distribute the poor rate, find work for the able bodied and set up parish houses for those incapable of supporting themselves. Impairment was common due to war, disease and rudimentary medical practice. Many amongst the poor judged as able to work would still have impairments and be classed today as disabled people. Classification was subjective and continued to be so under the Poor Law.
Old Poor Law or Elizabethan Poor Law 1601
These Acts were consolidated in 1601 Poor Relief Act (Elizabeth I) and also made ‘necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old , blind and such other among them being poor and not able to work’ the responsibility of the parish. The needy poor were also made the legal responsibility of their parents, grandparents or children, if such relatives were themselves able to provide support-an early means test. Implementation of this range of measures which became known as the ‘Old Poor Law’, was often patchy and non-sustained, but it continued with some amendment up until 1834 and elements can still be traced in social provision today .
Between 1697 to 1810 anyone receiving poor relief should wear a badge on their right shoulder. The badge , in red or blue cloth was to consist of the letter P together with the initial letter of the parish for example Ampthill parish would be AP. Initially this was to identify recipients of parish charity, but by 1697 it had acquired stigma and was to act as a further deterrent to claiming relief .
Parish poor relief was dispensed mostly through “out-relief” — grants of money, clothing, food, or fuel, to those living in their own homes. However, the workhouse gradually began to evolve in the seventeenth century as an alternative form of “indoor relief”, both to save the parish money, and also as a deterrent to the able-bodied who were required to work, usually without pay, in return for their board and lodging.
Various reforms were introduced throughout C18th giving more power to the representatives of rate payers rather than the church and vestry. The Knatchbull Act 1723 introduced a legal framework for workhouses, which could be contracted or farmed out to private providers and a workhouse test that should act as a deterrent and relief could be limited to those desperate enough to accept the regime of ‘indoor relief’, in the workhouse. The Gilbert Act 1782 aimed to organise poor relief on a larger scale, which to this point had only been done by a few places such as Bristol using separate acts of Parliament. Parishes could form ‘unions’ roughly the size of County Hundreds. The Unions could set up a common workhouse for a number of parishes, although this was for the benefit only of the ‘old, the sick and infirm and orphan children’. Able bodied paupers were not to be admitted, but were found employment near their homes with land-owners, farmers and other employers who received allowances from the poor rates to bring their wages to subsistence levels.
No statistics were published until 1777 for England and Wales which covered the year- Easter 1775 to Easter 1776.These recorded a total of 1978 workhouses with a capacity of 90,000 places (excluding a few Local Act parishes). Total expenditure was £1.55million with 5% spent on workhouse accommodation and 94% spent on out relief i.e. employment for able-bodied poor and handouts to the impotent poor in their homes. The population in this year was 8 million and around 306,000 people received some form of relief or 3.8% of the population .
An analysis over time shows a slow upward trend until the Napoleonic wars and the negative impact on employment at the end of this period, when dramatic increases occur leading to popular concern and the Royal Commission on the Poor Law in 1832 and the New Poor Law in 1834 following which the numbers claiming relief are reduced, only to slowly rise in line with population increase. Expenditure only rose dramatically again in 1930s and 1930s as the Great Depression hit.
Year Estimated Population Total Expenditure £ Expenditure per head
s d Estimate Nos receiving relief % of Pop. Receiving relief
1688 5,500,000 700,000 2/6 140,000 2.5
1714 5,750,000 950,000 3/3 190,000 3.3
1760 7,000,000 1,250,000 3/6 250,000 3.5
1784 8,250,000 2,004,238 5/0 400,000 4.8
1801 9,172,980 3,750,000 8/3 750,000 8.1
1813 10,505,800 6,656,106 12/8 1,331,000 12.7
1818 11,876,000 7,870,801 13/3 1,547,000 13.2
1821 11,876,000 6,959,251 11/7 1,444,000 11.7
1832 14,105,600 7,036,969 10/0 1,400,000 9.9
1835 14,564,000 5,526,418 7/7 1,105,000 7.6
1837 14,955,000 4,044,741 5/5 809,000 5.4
1847 17,076,000 4,760,929 5/8 3/4 952,000 6.2
If the two graphs in [Numbers and the New Poor Law] are examined it can be seen that the numbers on outdoor relief decrease with some variation for cyclical unemployment until in the early 1920’s it is 8 per 1000 of the population and indoor relief is 6 per 1000 of the population. However, this took 80 years with outdoor relief 7 to 4 times indoor relief throughout the Victorian period. By contrast the harsh regime on offer in the Workhouse succeeded in limiting numbers throughout the period.
Less eligibility’ was defined as follows: that the situation of the able-bodied recipient of poor relief “on the whole shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.” The New Poor Law created the workhouse structure, under the philosophy of the less eligibility test that only those willing to enter the unpleasant and liberty-reducing workhouses were poor enough to deserve aid. Those who entered the workhouse system were confined for twenty-four hours a day, separated from their children, parents, and spouses, and subject to rigorous discipline and arduous labour. The workhouse life was designed to be less desirable than the life of the lowest paid independent worker, so that their resources would not be too greatly taxed. Because of this, very few able bodied people chose to enter the workhouse system; the large majority of inmates were aged, infirm, or children.
The impact on the large numbers of disabled people who had no choice but to seek welfare in the Workhouse was to treat them very harshly and to depersonalise them. The views of disabled people that this engendered amongst those who administered the first comprehensive state provision has had a lasting impact in terms of attitudes to disabled people and the idea that it is OK for them to be financially penalised because they are disabled people.
Given the long-term implications of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act(PLAA), it was most unfortunate that the investigation of the Royal Commission was wildly inaccurate and unstatistical. The Commissioners sent out questionnaires to 15,000 parishes and received 1,500 responses: only 10%. The Commissioners did not seem to realise (or ignored the fact) that most relief went to the ‘deserving poor’ and not to able-bodied males. Only 20% of those claiming relief were able-bodied adult men. Those receiving relief comprised 13% of the total population, increasing to perhaps 20% between 1817 and 1821 (of a total population of 12 million). Of those,
• 50% were children under 15 years old
• 9% to 20% were sick, aged or infirm
Able-bodied male (pauper) labourers comprised about 2% of the entire population
The pressure to reduce the rates falling on land owners, new utilitarian ideas, the false idea that outdoor relief was artificially effecting wages, Malthus’s views of over-population being supported by poor relief and the need to force people to move to work to the new industrial areas all played a part in the framing of the PLAA .
The 1834 Act followed from the Royal Commission, which was based on extensive research and the wish to reduce costs, particularly for out-relief. One model followed the practice clergyman John T Belcher who had developed a harsh regime at Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire. This system was characterised by a strict workhouse regime-separation of the sexes, strict diet, the requirement of labour from the able-bodied, together with stringent control of out-relief. Although aimed at able-bodied paupers, this change of approach also had a negative affect on disabled people residing in workhouses. Admission to the workhouse was on a voluntary basis and the aim was to make the daily regime extremely uncomfortable and denying individuality.
“The main Classes are subdivided and distributed into distinct Wards, according to the Character and Conduct of the Paupers. This ensures subordination, and enables us to discriminate between the innocent and the culpable Poor…. But the Idle, the Improvident, the Profligate and the Sturdy Poor, are subjected to a System of secluded restraint and salutary discipline , which, together with our simple yet sufficient Dietary, prove so repugnant to dissolute habits, that they very soon apply for their discharge and devise means of self-support, which nothing short of compulsion could urge them to explore”.
“…It must be recollected, that out object is not to provide a permanent receptacle for able-bodied Adults, but a refuge for those who are rendered incapable of labour by mental imbecility, or by bodily infirmity; by the helplessness of Infancy, of by the decrepitude of Old Age. These are treated with all that tenderness to which they are entitled by their Misfortunes.” (Belcher p.83).
The differences for old and disabled people were not that great from other inmates as Belcher goes on to explain.
“ The aged, infirm and guiltless Poor, are not strictly subject to ordinary Diet, but are allowed Tea, a small quantity of Butter,, and other indulgences of this description. The Sick and the Infirm are sustained in such a manner as the Surgeon directs”.
The distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor was strongly enforced by law. Anyone found to be faking their impairment was severely punished. These rules (which were common) from St Andrews Workhouse in Holborn London demonstrate.
“THAT all Persons, who through Idleness may pretend themselves sick, lame, or infirm, so as to be excused their working, such Impostors so discovered, either by their Stomachs, or by the Physician, shall be carried before a Magistrate, in order to be punish’d severely as the Law directs”
The New Poor Law, as it was known, aimed to create a national, uniform and compulsory system of poor relief administered under a central authority, the Poor Law Commissioners (PLC). New administrative areas were to be created as Poor Law Unions, each managed by a Board of Guardians elected by local ratepayers.Depending on the value of the property they had between 1 and 6 votes. It built on the existing structures of the Old Poor Law. The PLC was given discretion to determine the type, amount and manner of relief. The Act allowed the Justice of the Peace to issue an order for the giving of medical relief or for out relief to the elderly or infirm.
There were major weaknesses in that the old Gilbert Unions and Local Act Incorporations did not come under the PLC and the PLC could not compel Local Unions to build workhouses. This resulted in six further amendment Acts between 1842 and 1851.
What was the impact of these changes on the lives of disabled people?
The idea of cutting outdoor relief and deterrence for able bodied labourers meant that the Workhouse was set up in a way that had a dreadful impact on disabled and aged people who for were together with children were the main inmates.
Many stayed away from the workhouse if they could acquire an occupation, employment or their families could support them. Others were not in this position, particularly those who acquired their impairment in later life. The exact numbers were not collected regularly, though many statistics were collected and require further research. In 1862 a detailed analysis was made of women resident in the country’s workhouses. Out of 39,073, 5,160 are classified as ‘Imbecile, Idiots or weak minded’, 5,300 are ‘respectable women and girls incapable of getting their living on account of illness or other bodily defect or infirmity’ and 470 are ‘Idiotic or weak-minded single women with one or more bastard children’. These account for 28% of women inmates who might count as disabled by today’s standards.
In 1861 a parliamentary survey examined the reasons why people were staying long periods or never leaving the workhouse and found that 21% or 14,216 inmates had been in residence 5 or more years and 6,445 more than 10 years. The reasons recorded for long-term residence were:
Old age and infirmity -42%
Mental disease- 35%
Bodily defects- 11%
Bodily disease- 6%
Moral defects- 1%
Over half (53%) and probably a considerable number classified as old or infirmed had ‘physical or mental impairments which have a substantial impact on their ability to carry out day to day activities’ . In addition many would have become institutionalised-dependent psychologically on the support they received in the workhouse and not feel able to manage in the outside world.
The largest group identified as disabled above consisted of those classified with a mental disease. In the C19th and early C20th this group would have been broken down as follows.:
‘Lunatics’, which covered all manner of mental disturbance from those who ‘acted out’ with manias and delusions some of who could be violent, to those who ‘acted in’ with ‘melancholia’ or depression.
Although a public system of asylums had begun in 1810 under the Lunatic Paupers or Criminals Act, allowing the setting up of county asylums, these were expensive and few. This became a legal obligation under the Lunatics Act of 1845. This and the 1834 Act had required the removal of dangerous lunatics-people with mental health issues, because of the additional expense to the Guardians of placing them in the asylum; the large majority of the ‘insane’ or those with mental health issues remained in the workhouse. Often this led to the most inhumane treatment:-
Assistant Poor Law Commissioner W.J. Gilbert reports on a female ‘lunatic’ in Tiverton ,Devon parish workhouse. “She was confined in a small room, having neither furniture, fire place nor bed; there was not anything in the room butt a bundle of straw. She was without a single piece of clothing, perfectly naked, and had been confined in that state during winter and summer for the last 28 years.”
Workhouses had two main strategies for dealing with those with mental health issues they chose not to pass on for treatment elsewhere- they either were placed in dedicated lunatic wards or more usually dispersed amongst other workhouse inmates.
An article in the Lancet in 1865 highlighted how cruel such strategies could be at Clerkenwell workhouse:-
“The women’s ward, in particular, offers an instance of thoughtless cruelty which nothing can excuse the guardians for permitting. Twenty-one patients live entirely in the ward…and the mixture of heterogeneous cases which ought never to be mingled is really frightful. There is no seclusion ward for acute maniacs, and accordingly we saw a wretch who for five days had been confined to her bed by means of strait-waistcoat, during the whole of which time she had been raving and talking nonsense, having had only two hours’ sleep and there was the prospect of her remaining several days longer in the same condition. There were several epileptics in the ward and one had a fit while we were present. And there were imbeciles and demented watching all this with frightened , half curious looks.”
A similar report on Shoreditch Workhouse where imbeciles and lunatics were found:
“ Moping about in herds, without any occupation whatever, neither classified, nor amused, nor employed; congregated in a miserable day-room, where they sit and stare at each other or at the bare walls, and where the monotony is only broken by the occasional excitement due to an epileptic or gibbering and fitful laughter of some excitable lunatic, they pass a life uncheered by any of the brightening influences which in well-managed asylums are employed to develop the remnants of intelligence and to preserve them from total degradation. They have here neither fresh air, nor exercise, no out-door occupation of any kind. The exercise-ground is a wretched yard with bare walls, confined in space, and utterly miserable and unfit for its purposes”.
Not until the 1890s was there a requirement for medical examination and the workhouse had to have suitable facilities. Some inhabitants of the workhouse with mental health issues just stayed where they were and transferred to the National Health Service in 1949, to long stay hospitals in the same buildings, just with a change of name.
‘Idiots and Imbeciles’- People with Learning Difficulty
During the C19th and first part C20th those with various forms of intellectual impairment were usually referred to as ‘mental defectives’. ‘Idiocy’ was considered more severe than ‘imbecility’ and was generally viewed as a congenital impairment. Another group with milder degree of impairment were known as ‘feeble minded’, ‘weak minded’ or ‘simple’. These would correspond to the labels Severe Learning Difficulty, Moderate Learning Difficulty and Mild Learning Difficulty used in schools today. Those with these conditions often ended up in the workhouse and were recorded in the census as such from 1871 to 1911.
The Parliamentary Survey of 1861 quoted above broke down the category of long stay inhabitants in workhouses of mental disease (35%) into the following categories
Idiot – 1,565
Weak minded -1,026
Paralysis- 465 ( c.f usually just a physical impairment)
Insane – 325
Palsy -21( usually a physical impairment)
This group of disabled people, as time went on, were increasingly hospitalised under the influence of eugenics and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, when they were seen as a threat to the gene-pool of the whole population. But already by 1870 the London Metropolitan Asylums’ Board had set up two large 2000 bed asylums for imbecile paupers in Leavesden in Hertfordshire and in (St Lawrence) Caterham, Surrey . Initially these included children and adults, but from1878 the Board opened a Children’s Asylum in Darenth in Kent and later a school for improvable patients. This was an early example of a special school for learning difficulty. Increasingly educable children were taken out of the workhouse to workhouse schools usually set in the country for those from urban areas, but those deamed ineducable were often left in adult institutions.
Epileptics- People with epilepsy were generally treated in similar ways to others with mental health or learning difficulties. They were usually mixed with other inmates. In the early C20th Poor Law Unions jointly established specialist facilities such as Moneywell colony, Staffordshire (1908) for ‘sane epileptics’ and Langho colony, Lancashire opened in 1906 by Chorlton and Manchester Joint Committee.
Langho Epilepsy Colony, Lancashire. The Langho Colony was founded by the Joint Asylum Committee of the Chorlton and Manchester Board of Guardians in the Ribble Valley in 1906 as a hospital for epileptics. In 1929 its control passed to Manchester City Council. It closed in 1984.
Hospitals. Due to agitation by Doctors and Medical Officers First in London and later throughout the country the sick were separated and sent to infirmaries with proper medical provision. These eventually became the first hospitals to cater for ordinary working class people. Many of these buildings were transferred to the NHS when it was set up in 1949.
i. Drawing largely o.n Peter Higgenbotham (2012b) The Workhouse Encyclopaedia’ Stroud,The History Press p208-211
ii. Workhouse Encyclopaedia p 35.
iii. Webb,s and Webb,B (1929) English Poor Law Policy Part Ii: The Last Hundred Years p1038-1040 quoted in Higginbotham (2012b) p255.
v. Belcher JT(1834)’The Anti-Pauper System’ p 8-19;quoted Higgenbotham P.(2012a) ‘Voices from the Workhouse’ Stroud,The History Press p.82.
vi. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/CityOfLondon/parishes.shtml 1727
vii Female Adult Paupers Parliamentary Papers 1862 and divided them up in 22 categories.
Paliamentary Papers(1861) Paupers in the Workhouse pii, quoted in Higgenbotham (2012b) p172.
viii Definition of disability in 2010 Equalities Act.
ix. Parliamentary Papers (1836) Second Annual Report of PLC p 326 reported in Higginbotham (2012b) p171
x. The Lancet 1865 Reported in Higgenbotham (2012b) p171-172
xi. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/MAB-Caterham/ See also story of Mabel Cooper and Camden Society for links about deinstitutionalising this hospital.
xii Higgenbotham (29012b) p173.
xiii Jean Barclay, Langho Colony/Langho Centre. 1906-1984: A Contextual Study of Manchester’s Public Institution for people with Epilepsy which is held in the Manchester Room@City Library (q 362.196853Ba(850)).