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Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (PLAA), known widely as the New Poor Law, was an John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. The Act has been described as "the classic example of the fundamental Whig-Benthamite reforming legislation of the period",[1] and was based on Malthus's principle that population increased faster than resources unless checked, Ricardo's "iron law of wages" and Bentham's doctrine that people did what was pleasant and would tend to claim relief rather than working.[2]

The Amendment Act was passed two years after the 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to the middle-classes. Some historians have argued that this was a major factor in the PLAA being passed. Parliament radicals such as Cobbett defended the right of the poor to relief, and the legislation was widely opposed by press (notably The Times). Chadwick was unsatisfied by the law that resulted from his report.

The importance of the Poor Law declined with the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century. In 1948, the PLAA was repealed by the National Assistance Act 1948, which created the National Assistance Board to act as a residual relief agency.[3]


  • 1832 Royal Commission's findings 1
  • Doctrines 2
    • Malthusianism 2.1
    • Iron law of wages 2.2
    • Utilitarianism 2.3
  • Terms of the Poor Law Amendment Act 3
  • Implementation 4
    • Poor Law Commission 4.1
    • Powers of the Poor Law Commission 4.2
    • Putting Parishes into Unions 4.3
    • Gilbert's Act 4.4
    • Select vestries 4.5
    • Workhouses 4.6
  • Problems with the Poor Law Amendment Act 5
  • Opposition to the Poor Law 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

1832 Royal Commission's findings

The Royal Commission's findings, which had probably been predetermined, were that the old system was badly and expensively run. The Commission's recommendations were based on two principles. The first was less eligibility – conditions within workhouses should be made worse than the worst conditions outside of the workhouse so that workhouses served as a deterrent: only the most needy would consider entering them. The other was the "workhouse test", that relief should only be available in the workhouse. Migration of rural poor to the city to find work was a problem for urban ratepayers under this system, since it raised their poor rates.

When the Act was introduced, however, it had been partly watered down. The workhouse test and the idea of "less eligibility" were never mentioned, and the recommendation of the Royal Commission – that 'outdoor relief' (relief given outside of a workhouse) should be abolished – was never implemented. Policy officially changed after the passing of the Outdoor Labour Test Order which "allowed" outdoor relief.



An Essay on the Principle of Population by Malthus set out the influential doctrine that population growth was geometric, and unless checked, increased faster than the ability of a country to feed its population. This pressure explained the existence of poverty, which he justified theologically as a force for self-improvement and abstention. As a political moralist he opposed the old poor laws as self-defeating, removing the pressure of want from the poor while leaving them free to increase their families, thus leading to an unsustainable increase in population. His views were influential and hotly debated without always being understood, and opposition to the old Poor Law which peaked between 1815 and 1820 was described by both sides as "Malthusian".[4]

Of those serving on the Commission, the economist Senior identified his ideas with Malthus while adding more variables, and Bishop John Bird Sumner as a leading Evangelical was more persuasive than Malthus himself in incorporating the Malthusian principle of population into the Divine Plan, taking a less pessimistic view and describing it as producing benefits such as the division of property, industry, trade and European civilisation.

Iron law of wages

David Ricardo's "iron law of wages" held that aid given to poor workers under the old Poor Law had the effect of undermining the wages of other workers, so that the Roundsman System and Speenhamland system led employers to reduce wages, and needed reform to help workers who were not getting such aid.[2]


Edwin Chadwick, a major contributor to the Commission's report, developed Jeremy Bentham's theory of utilitarianism, the idea that the success of something could be measured by whether it secured the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This idea of utilitarianism underpinned the Poor Law Amendment Act. Chadwick believed that a central authority was needed to maintain standards and that the poor rate would reach its 'correct' level when the workhouse was seen as a deterrent and fewer people claimed relief. Bentham believed that "the greatest good for the greatest number" could only be achieved when wages found their true levels in a free-market system. Ironically the Poor Law Amendment Act meant greater state intervention.

Bentham's argument that people chose pleasant options and would not do what was unpleasant provided a rationale for making relief unpleasant so that people would not claim it, "stigmatising" relief so that it became "an object of wholesome horror".[2]

Terms of the Poor Law Amendment Act

  • The Bill established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system.
  • The Act called for parishes to be put into Poor Law Unions so that relief could be provided more easily. Each union was to establish a workhouse which met the principle of less eligibility.
  • The Amendment Act did not ban all forms of outdoor relief. Not until the 1840s would the only method of relief be for the poor to enter a workhouse. The workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entry. Outdoor relief was "discouraged" but not abolished.
  • There were a number of provisions that aimed at stopping previous discrimination against non-conformists and Roman Catholics.[5]


The programme of reform was not laid down by Parliament. Commissioners were to interpret and implement the law. When the new Amendment was applied to the industrial North of England (an area the law had never considered during reviews), the system failed catastrophically as many found themselves temporarily unemployed, due to recessions or a fall in stock demands, so called 'cyclical unemployment' and were reluctant to enter a Workhouse, despite it being the only method of gaining aid.

Poor Law Commission

The central body set up to administer the new system was the Poor Law Commission. The Commission worked in Somerset House and was initially made up of:

  • Thomas Frankland Lewis – former Tory MP
  • George Nicholls – Overseer of the old system
  • John George Shaw Lefevre – A lawyer
  • Edwin Chadwick, a writer of the Commission's Poor Law report was only made a Secretary – a decision which made him The Barshaws of Somerset House.[6]

Powers of the Poor Law Commission

The Poor Law Commission was independent of Parliament, which made it powerless against criticisms from Parliament. Although the Poor Law Commission could issue directives, it had no powers to make reluctant parishes implement its directives. [7] Faversham Union Workhouse Home / History / More History / Faversham Union Workhousethe Commission did have powers to veto workhouse appointments, set dietaries , and centralise accounting procedures.

Putting Parishes into Unions

The Poor Law Commission had to put parishes into unions as these were to be the administrative unit for the registration of births, marriages and deaths which was to be introduced in 1837. The Assistant Commissioners were in charge of persuading parishes across the country to join up into these unions, because the Commission had no power to force parishes to comply.

Gilbert's Act

One problem with the Poor Law Commission encountered was that many parishes had already grouped together under the Relief of the Poor Act 1782 (Gilbert's Act). Many parishes refused to break up these amalgamations.

Select vestries

Another issue was that some parishes had set up their own select vestries under the Sturges-Bourne Act (Poor Relief Act 1819). These were committees which were responsible for Poor Law administration which could employ assistant commissioners. The Act was passed in an attempt to rid the Poor Law relief system of corruption. Some parishes were still using the terms of older Acts rather than the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.


The Poor Law Commission had no powers to insist that unions built new workhouses, but they could force improvements to be made to existing ones. A Board of Guardians could delay the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act through negotiation. Although the Act was passed in 1834, most workhouses were built in the 1850s and 1860s, and until then the "workhouse test" did not operate.

In the West Riding, where there had been opposition to the Act, a workhouse was built to discourage the "mobile poor" from claiming relief: especially the Irish, who had come to Britain in huge numbers during the Irish Potato Famine.

Problems with the Poor Law Amendment Act

After 1834 Poor Law policy aimed to:

  • transfer unemployed rural workers to urban areas where there was work
  • protect urban ratepayers from paying too much.

It was impossible to achieve both these aims as the principle of less eligibility made people search for work in towns and cities. Workhouses were built and paupers transferred to these urban areas. However, the Settlement Laws were used to protect ratepayers from paying too much. Workhouse construction and the amalgamation of unions was slow. Outdoor relief did continue after the PLAA was introduced.

The board issued further edicts on outdoor relief:

The implementation of the Act proved impossible, particularly in the industrial north which suffered from cyclical unemployment. The cost of implementing the Settlement Laws in operation since the 17th century was also costly and so these were not implemented fully: it often proved too costly to enforce the removal of paupers. The Commission could issue directives, however these were often not implemented fully and in some cases ignored; this was to save on expenses (Darwin Leadbitter 1782–1840 was in charge of the commission's finances).

The PLAA was implemented differently and unevenly across England and Wales. One of the criticisms of the 1601 Poor Law was its varied implementation. The law was also interpreted differently in different parishes, as each parish had different levels of poverty and some parishes had developed more than others leading to an uneven system. Local Boards of Guardians also interpreted the law to suit the interests of their own parishes, resulting in an even greater degree of local variation.

Opposition to the Poor Law

Fierce hostility and organised opposition from workers, politicians and religious leaders eventually led to the Amendment Act being amended, removing the very harsh measures of the workhouses to a certain degree. The Andover workhouse scandal, in which conditions in the Andover Union Workhouse were found to be inhumane and dangerous, prompted a government review.

Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens, was written in retaliation against the Poor Law.

In the North of England particularly, there was fierce resistance; the local people considered that the existing system there was running smoothly. They argued that the nature of cyclical unemployment meant that any new workhouse built would be empty for most of the year and thus a waste of money. However, the unlikely union between property owners and paupers did not last; and opposition, though fierce, eventually petered out. In some cases, this was further accelerated as the protests very successfully undermined parts of the Amendment Act and became obsolete.


  1. ^ The Poor Law Amendment Act: 14 August 1834
  2. ^ a b c Spicker, Paul, British social policy 1601–1948,  
  3. ^  
  4. ^  
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Workhouse
  7. ^ However

External links

  • Text of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
  • Spartacus article on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
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