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The Royal Commission

The Royal Commission and the Poor Law Amendment Act

The Royal Commission of 1832 was a group of three Commissioners, eight Investigators, and 26 Assistant Investigators, set up to reform the Poor Laws that were no longer relevant to nineteenth century society. The Commissioners found that whereas before the Poor Law had been concerned with vagrants, it was now being used to make up low wages, which had failed to keep up with the rising food prices.

The Commissioners arranged the country into nine regions, each one attended to by an Assistant Commissioner. The nine regions were then grouped into three provinces, with each province being overseen by one of the Chief Commissioners. The first task of the Commission was to send out over 16,000 circular letters to the Churchwardens, Overseers, Vestrymen, Rate Collectors and Justices of the Peace, stating that the new Act of Parliament had relieved no parish and no official of their responsibilities and duties to the poor.

The Commissioners argued that the old relief system handed out aid regardless of the merit of the applicant and that larger families received more relief and so it encouraged larger families that could not support themselves. Women with illegitimate children could also obtain relief, which the Commissioners believed encouraged immorality and babies born out of wedlock. Employers could also keep wages artificially low, knowing that they would be subsidised by the Poor Law.

The Commission suggested that the administration of the Poor Law scheme be reformed into a more unified system with a central administration board. At the centre of this new system was to be the Union Workhouse. This institution was to be supervised by the Central Board and run by a staff of professional officers. The Union was to be a grouping of parishes, sometimes as many as two or three dozen within a 10 mile area and usually centring around a market town.

Parliament at this time was largely made up of large landowners who supported the reform as it was they who had to contribute most to the poor relief system. The old system also laid a heavy burden on the more impoverished parishes. These parishes were more likely to have a poor economy and therefore greater numbers of unemployed and needy. By creating "Unions" between several parishes the burden could be spread more evenly.

The Union Workhouses were to be run by a Board of Guardians, which would include all the Justices of the Peace in the area as well as members elected from the local rate-paying community, regardless of sex.

Segregation of the workhouses

The Report recommended the segregation of paupers into four different classes:

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

Where possible, the Commissioners suggested the different groups were to be held in separate buildings. The Commissioners had hoped to use the existing poorhouse buildings but often these were too small, and so new, purpose-built buildings were constructed, with the different classes of paupers living in separate sections of the same building.

The Union Workhouse was to be not just a place where the able-bodied man and his family could go in times of hardship, but also a refuge for the sick, the aged, the bed-ridden, the orphaned, the vagrant and the mentally ill. It was an institution for all those who could not exist in society on their own, people who required constant and careful supervision.

By separating the paupers into different classes the Commissioners believed that the needs of each group could be properly catered for: the elderly and sick could be cared for in safety and comfort, the children educated, and the adult males and females taught skills, discipline and hard work.

The separation of the different classes was a very basic classification. No special provisions were made for the infectious, lunatics or infants still at the breast (they were to be separated from their mothers according to the general segregation rules).

There was also no provision made for the vagrant who stayed for one night, nor segregation of the quiet inmates from the prostitute or the small time criminal who might find themselves sent to the workhouse.

The workhouse was not considered a permanent residence for anyone, but merely a deterrent to the acceptance of their situation by the poor. It was, in simple terms, designed to be a wake-up call for all those claiming relief, a reason to get themselves out of their current predicament.

The segregation of inmates was not a concrete rule. Sometimes one class of inmates would supervise the other, such as the elderly overseeing the children and the able-bodied adults helping the sick. The main segregation was between the sexes.

The only places in the workhouse that were not segregated were the dining room and the chapel, but these were areas where a strict code of silence was followed and so interaction was limited.

The Royal Commission's report was published in 1834, and the main point that it made was that too many able-bodied labourers were claiming relief.

Outdoor and medical relief

The Commission ruled that admission to the workhouse was to be open to all applicants without exception. This was hoped to eventually cause the abolition of outdoor relief. Outdoor relief was paid to labourers whose wages were too low for them to support either themselves or their families. It was usually paid as a wage subsistence, with a man's wage packet being made up to a certain amount depending on the current bread prices and the size of his family. It might also be paid as a bread allowance.

The Commission wished to prevent this type of aid as they believed that it encouraged employers to keep wages artificially low and for farmers to keep corn prices high.

The way medical relief was given was also to be changed as a result of the Commissioners' report. Up until this point parishes had had an agreement with the local doctor whereby, for an annual lump sum, he would attend to any sick pauper notified to him.

The Union Workhouses were to put up for public tender the "contract" to supply medical aid to the sick poor in the workhouse. Under this system of finding the cheapest doctor for the job there was terrible neglect of the sick, and in 1839 regulations were introduced that put Poor Law doctors on the same footing as public officers. They were paid a fixed salary, had no competition for their job and were given rates to cover all the sick poor on their registers.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]