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The Poor Law Amendment Act

The result of the Royal Commission was a serious overhaul of the old Poor Law system. The greatest change was that there was to be a Central Poor Law Commission that would oversee the running of the poor relief system. The chairman of this new Commission was Thomas Frankland Lewis, a former Tory MP. He was assisted by two other Commissioners: John Shaw Lefever, a barrister, and George Nicholls, who had been an overseer of the poor in Nottinghamshire.

Under the new Poor Law, parishes were to group themselves into Unions and each Union then had to elect a "Board of Guardians" made up of representatives of each of the parishes. This Board of Guardians was then responsible for the building and administration of a workhouse. All paupers who could not support themselves and were unable to take part in outdoor relief (subsistence of food and money, given to those who worked for low wages) were to be admitted to the workhouse.

The workhouse was split into four separate sections - one for each of the recognised classes of pauper:

  • The aged and sick.
  • The children.
  • The able-bodied females.
  • The able-bodied males.

If a man was forced by his circumstances to join the workhouse he had to take his family in with him. Upon entry he, his wife and their children would be split up and sent to the separate areas of the workhouse. The family would only be reunited when they chose to leave.

The Commissioners believed that this system would act as a deterrent to anybody who was not truly in need of help, by making the workhouse an unappetising solution and an option only as a last resort. If a person feared the workhouse they were more likely to find work themselves and to save for their future.

In 1907, the Association of Poor Law Unions produced a synopsis of the care of the poor in England and Wales for the period covering 1906-7. According to the records, 743,131 paupers were receiving permanent relief and 966,305 were receiving occasional relief. Of the occasional paupers 760,935 had received help on only one occasion and 205,370 had received it on two or more occasions. These numbers are equal to 20.8 people in every 100 in the UK being a permanent pauper (Hereford Record Office, T75/1).

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]