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Opposition to the Poor Laws: Wikis


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Both the Elizabethan Poor Law and the Poor Law Amendment Act attracted a great deal of opposition from a wide range of people in society, from paupers and workers; to the landed gentry and academics. Likewise, the reasons that people opposed the Poor Law were also just as varied.


Opposition to the Elizabethan Poor Law

Opposition to the Poor Law grew in the early nineteenth century after the Napoleonic Wars with France, especially among political economists. Free trade economists such as David Ricardo felt it should be abolished. Thomas Malthus thought it was self-defeating. Others, such as Robert Owen, thought that it did not extend far enough.[1]


Thomas Malthus

Malthus considered the Old Poor Law to encourage population growth.

Demographer and economist Thomas Malthus also felt that the Poor Law ought to be abolished, since it limited the mobility of labour. Although he conceded that if there had been no poor law there would be "a few more instances of severe distress," he still felt that "the aggregate mass of happiness among the common people would have been much greater than it is at present." However, he was one of the first to advocate so called 'indoor relief' in workhouses for the poor as opposed to handouts.

David Ricardo

David Ricardo criticized the Poor Law for suppressing wages

David Ricardo supported the abolition of the Poor Law in his book 'Principles of Political Economy and Taxation' published in 1817. He argued that moving resources into welfare moves them out of the economy, which reduces the money available to pay wages. He also argued that it gave an incentive for laziness, discouraged people from saving for old age or illness, and encouraged irresponsibly large families.[2]

Chadwick, Bentham and Utilitarianism

The Utilitarian views of Jeremy Bentham underpinned the New Poor Law of 1834 which replaced existing legislation.

Edwin Chadwick was a Benthamite who criticized the Old Poor Law because of the lack of centralization involved in the system. Jeremy Bentham was one of the earliest proponents of Utilitarianism, the theory that society should be organised in order to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Chadwick was a supporter of the views of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that wages would find their true levels in a free-market system where there was state control to maintain common agreed standards. One major criticism of the Old Poor Law was the variation between different areas of the country.

Chadwick developed Bentham's views by suggesting that the able-bodied poor should be put to work in workhouses which met the condition of less eligibility: they could not claim outdoor relief as they did under the existing Poor Law. Conditions had to be worse than those for the poorest labourer outside the workhouse, so that people would not want to claim relief. This would decrease the poor rate. Chadwick believed that wages would then find their true levels.

He was able to influence the New Poor Law legislation by contributing to the 1832 Royal Commission investigation into the Poor Law and by working as a Secretary to the Poor Law Commission set up after the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Chadwick was critical of the excessive cost of the Poor Law on rate payers.

"Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice." -1832 Royal Commission[3]

It has been suggested that the effects of the French Wars and the Corn Laws explain part of this increase in cost.[4]

Charles Dickens

The writings of Charles Dickens were critical of the workhouse system. Dickens himself had been a pauper. Oliver Twist, a social novel, criticises the workhouse system.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen was a socialist entrepreneur who supported creating full employment by principles of cooperative ownership and against individualism which he thought was one of the causes of poverty. Instead, he used an approach based on macroeconomics that would see the gold standard replaced by a form of paper money and prices based on the amount of labour put into a product.[5] Again, in support of the poor, Thomas Paine supported universal education and a guaranteed minimum income.

Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act


The Times criticised the Poor Law Amendment Act stating that the bill would "disgrace the statute-book".[6] The workhouse master at Abingdon was the subject of a murder attempt which similarly highlights the unpopularity of the law.[6]

John Fielden an industrialist and owner of textile mills at Todmorden, Yorkshire did not support the New Poor Law and attempted to prevent the Act from being implemented in his area. He led a rate revolt against the Act[7]

The radical MP William Cobbett criticised the Act by claiming that the poor had an automatic right to relief and that the Act aimed to "enrich the landowner" at the expense of the poor. However the Bills received little opposition from either the House of Commons or the House of Lords before gaining Royal Ascent.[8]

Richard Oastler addressed anti-Poor Law meetings and wrote letters to newspapers like the Leeds Intelligencer and the Sheffield Iris in which they denounced the Poor Law Amendment Act as being cruel and unchristian.[9]

The anger of the Welsh laborers over the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act spilled over into the Rebecca Riots of 1842-43 over the introduction of tolls. Opposition in Wales was focused on the centralisation that the new Act would involve and the belief that Welsh rate payers could claim exemption because of the differing economic structure and poor relief systems in England and Wales[10 ]

Methodist Joseph Rayner Stephens was a prominent figure in the campaign against the Poor Law Amendment Act. He organised boycotts against shop owners and in Huddersfield he encouraging people to disrupt meetings of the local Poor Law Guardians. Because of this behavior he was eventually imprisoned.[11]

The Poor Law was most unpopular in the North of England where the poor had been used to the previous system of outdoor relief.[12]

Rumour and propaganda

  • Workhouses were built a long way from most industrial centers, which had the effect of giving the impression that they were actually extermination centers designed to kill paupers to keep taxes low.
  • The Book of Murder was widely circulated, and believed to be the work of the Poor Law commission, which recommended infanticide. Chartist newspapers such as Augustus Beaumont's Northern Liberator and Feargus O'Connor’s Northern Star published the allegations which were also widely circulated by the Chartist sympathizer Joseph Rayner Stephens. Another printed attack on the New Poor Law was George R. Wythen Baxter's The Book of the Bastilles which gave details of alleged cruelties against paupers. The book suggested that the workhouse master at Rochester was responsible for assaulting inmates.[13]
  • Rumours were circulated that that all families with more than three children would have 'excess' children killed.
  • Some people argued that the use of cheap labour in workhouses was an attempt to intentionally depress the national wage bill by forcing more and more people into the labour market for no wages.[8]

Genuine fears

  • In the workhouses, men and women were segregated, and taken away from their children. There was much ferocious opposition to the idea of separating husband wife and children.
  • Some people felt that the Poor Law Amendment Act was too centralised, and indeed it was a huge change from the parochial, paternalistic Elizabethan Poor Law. The commissioners were seen as not understanding life in rural areas and being too focused on London and other industrial centers.
  • Some rich landowners felt that it violated the old social contract between the rich and the poor, by making it less paternalistic.
  • Rural ratepayers feared an increase in taxes to pay for workhouses when in rural areas handouts were, per head, cheaper. Many Tory gentry and farmers opposed the Act but there were also pro-Poor Law landowners including Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington.[10 ]
  • In northern areas reliant on the annual cotton trade Poor Law Unions would have to build workhouses that would be huge to cover almost the entire population one half of the year and stand empty the next half when jobs were available.[8]
  • The Anti-Poor Law League was a group set up to voice opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Protests in the South

Most of the research and evidence done by the poor Law Commission of Enquiry had taken place in the South East of England and when the Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced it was in a phase of economic growth. Most of the opposition here came from local magistrates who were unhappy because their power to enforce the Poor Law had been removed and disliked the removal of the traditional master-servant relationship.

There were riots in Buckinghamshire when paupers were transported 3 miles from Chalfont St. Giles to Amersham and the police had to use the Riot Act to calm riots down. In East Anglia new workhouses were attacked.[8]

Protests in the North

There was opposition from the north to interference from Londoners who wanted to prevent cheaper outdoor relief during a period of cyclical unemployment. This along with the Ten Hours Movement caused many anti-poor law associations to spring up. While there were protests in areas such as Oldham and Huddersfield in other areas the Poor Law Amendment Act was implemented relatively easily. The Poor Law Commissioners had disagreed on how the New Act should be implemented in the North of England[10 ] with Edwin Chadwick arguing that it should have been implemented there first as there were new economic problems in 1834. When the Act was implemented in the North in 1837 there were severe economic problems making it appear that paupers were being punished for economic problems they had no control over.[10 ]

In Bradford the Poor Law Guardians had to be protected by troops after riots against the Act; the Huddersfield Guardians defied the law for over a year.

Groups that were against the PLAA - radicals and paternalistic Tories were so different that the movement quickly failed.[8] Often opposition to the Poor Law was an extension of support for the Ten Hours Movement.[10 ] Opposition to the New Poor Law was great in the West Riding of Yorkshire and Lancashire where there were also movements supporting factory reform, parliamentary reform and the beginnings of trade union activity.[10 ]


Tactics employed by those who opposed the Poor Law Amendment Act included:

  • Attempting to prevent the election of Boards of Guardians and intimidating such groups.
  • Electing as Guardians, men who opposed the Poor Law Amendment Act
  • Physical harassment of Poor Law officials
  • Fighting with police and troops who were sent to assist with the implementation of the law.[10 ]

End of opposition

Most opposition to the Poor Law was not organised and therefore had little chance of succeeding against the will of the government. Furthermore, the deportation of the Tolpuddle martyrs had the effect of halting organised opposition to the poor law. However, an unlikely association of wealthy, paternalistic, Tories and working class radicals was formed, and although it failed quickly, it would again find itself rebuilt to a degree in the governments of Benjamin Disraeli years later. Until then, many working-class men turned to Chartism as a result.[8]

External links


  1. ^ Andrew Roberts, "Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law: The Theories that Smith, Bentham, Malthus and Owen made", Social science history for budding theorists. Middlesex University.
  2. ^ Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law: The Theories that Smith, Bentham, Malthus and Owen made Law
  3. ^ George R. Boyer, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850, Cambridge University Press (1990) ISBN 0521364795 Quoting Parliamentary Papers 1834, p. 228.
  4. ^ Why, and with what justification, had the Old Poor Law attracted so much criticism by 1834?
  5. ^ Andrew Roberts, "Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law: The Theories that Smith, Bentham, Malthus and Owen made", Social science history for budding theorists. Middlesex University.
  6. ^ a b - The Workhouse Web Site
  7. ^ Joseph Fielden's opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1836-8
  8. ^ a b c d e f Rees, R. Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948, Heinemann, 2001. ISBN 0435327151
  9. ^ Marjie Bloy, "The anti-Poor Law campaign", Victorian Web
  10. ^ a b c d e f g The anti-Poor Law campaign
  11. ^ Joseph Rayner Stephens
  12. ^ Unpopularity of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
  13. ^ Printed attacks on the Poor Law Amendment Act


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