Poor Law Amendment Act 1837
There had been a system in place in England to deal with the problem
of poverty for centuries. Elizabeth I had introduced poor relief throughout
the county. The Industrial Revolution changed the demographics of the
country enormously though and the poor relief system was put under incredible
strain as a result. In 1834 an amendment to the poor Law was passed. It
mirrored the views of many politicians of the day that poverty was the
fault of the individual, that it was the result of laziness rather than
something that people couldn't escape. The new laws were met with a great
deal of debate. In some authorities they were welcomed, in others they
were vehemently opposed.
The following evidence looks at the way that the authorities in Huddersfield
viewed the amendments.
Things to consider:
- What were the main reasons for the changes to the law?
- Why did some people oppose the amendments?
- What were the consequences of the Poor Law Amendment Act for poor
This is part of the evidence of Joseph Ellison to the Committee on
the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1837
Q Notwithstanding that scarcity of work, your poor rates
have been so low as 1/- upon the rack rent, for buildings, and 2/- for
A Yes, in the last year.
Q That being the case, you think you would have good
reason to believe that you could not have the law more satisfactorily
conducted, both for the ratepayers and the rate receivers, than it has
been during the last year under the operation of the old Poor Law?
A We do think so, and at a late meeting of our select
vestry every one concurred in the answer I have just now given to you,
that under no system of management could things be carried on more satisfactorily,
both to the ratepayers and to the paupers and this is the opinion of nineteen-twentieths
of the ratepayers of that township where I reside.The general feeling
is this, "What a pity that a system that has worked so well, and
has produced so much good, should be now broken up!" That is the
universal exclamation. I am not speaking of the working classes, for they
do not understand these things; but amongst the most respectable portion
of the ratepayers, the clergymen and such gentry as we have, and the principal
ratepayers, that is the universal feeling. Indeed, you need not be surprised
at that, when the rates have been reduced, within the last twenty years,
to the amount that I have stated. The clergy are, I believe, to a man,
opposed to the new law; they have seen the good effects of the old system,
and are satisfied that it cannot be improved upon; but I am speaking always
of the Select Vestry Act; that was the greatest improvement that ever
took place in the Poor Law, so far as regards manufacturing districts.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. This was harsh legislation
which said, in effect, that if people were poor, it was entirely their
The only cure was for them to be put in workhouses and treated badly.
It was the only form of social security known at the time.
The law also provided for workhouses to be built in every parish, or under
the aegis of a union of smaller parishes.
This did not go down very well, particularly with the poor. So they protested.
They gathered outside the new court and made their feelings known to the
Among these were the newly-appointed Poor Law Guardians, and at least
one magistrate, a Mr Paley.
As the protest turned ugly, it became necessary to read the Riot Act.
This was a legal effort to strengthen the power of civil authorities and
in effect it said that if more than a dozen people gathered together,
and a magistrate didn’t like it, then he could read the Riot Act
to the assembled mob, which would then have an hour to disperse - or suffer
The consequences could be severe. Mounted troops charged unarmed civilians
at a reformers’ rally on St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in
August 1819, trampling, hacking or shooting to death 11 men and women
and a child, and injuring about 400 others
In the Huddersfield Union in the West Riding of Yorkshire, many members
of the Board of Guardians were active members of the anti-Poor Law movement.
They obstructed the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act by refusing
to elect a Union Clerk, without whom no business could be transacted.
Some of the guardians were favourable to the new system and felt that
the local magistrates (as ex officio members of the board) were too sympathetic
towards the anti-Poor Law faction and were failing to use their influence
to control them or to protect the board from the threat of mob violence.
One of the pro-Poor Law men was George Tinker, who wrote this letter to
the Poor Law Commission.
I take the liberty of addressing you for the purpose of calling your attention
to the peculiar circumstances in which I together with several others
of the Guardians of the Poor in Huddersfield Union are situated. You are
probably aware of the excitement prevailing in this district respecting
the Poor Law Amendment Act, and of some of the means which have been taken
to provoke and continue that excitement - such as the recent West Riding
meeting. But I believe you cannot be aware of the perfect state of organisation
into which the district has been put and the violent and unprincipled
measures which are in operation to defeat your intentions.
The peoples' feelings have been worked up to a state of madness by gross
misstatements. An Association is formed having for its avowed object direct
opposition to the law. Delegates are appointed and contributions levied
for the purpose of paying the wages of itinerant agitators and for securing
the return of Guardians pledged to oppose your orders. It has so far succeeded
as to secure the return of a majority of the Guardians who communicate
with and act according to its instructions. In the present alarming state
of the district it will be dangerous to put the Law into operation.
At a meeting held on Monday the 5th inst. the proceedings of which I suppose
will be communicated to you, the mob amounting to 6 or 8 thousand persons,
led on by the notorious Oastler, broke open the gates of the workhouse
and threatened to pull down the building if the Guardians did not immediately
break up their meeting. It was with difficulty and by a very small majority
that the meeting was adjourned to another place in the town, a motion
having been made and strongly supported that it would be adjourned to
the 1st Monday in April 1838. On the way to our second place of meeting,
the guardians who were known to be favourable to the Law were repeatedly
surrounded by the mob, and their lives threatened if they attempted to
carry it into effect. The magistrate present, R, Battye, Esq. placed us
under the merciful protection of Rchd. Oastler, and refused to read the
Riot Act, notwithstanding that the heads of several of the constables
had been broken and the windows of the room demolished with stones thrown
by the mob. The opposition guardians during the meeting, regularly communicated
its proceedings to the mob outside by haranguing them out at the windows
and by writing. Only eleven out of thirty nine guardians present voted
for electing a Clerk, and those who had the manliness to do so were individualised
and the mob was promised that they should be afterwards acquainted with