The Poor Law as a Political Institution

Part of the Problems in Focus Series book series (PFS)


Historical studies of the nineteenth century have committed the Poor Law to a non-political limbo. Political historians have assumed that politics was primarily concerned with parliamentary elections and have shown little interest in Poor Law affairs, except perhaps when they impinged on the wider political stage. Social historians interested in poor relief have concentrated heavily upon social administration and have ignored political dimensions. Yet the Poor Law was a vital political institution, granting to those who directed affairs in their own community great powers and much patronage. The office of guardian was an elective one and it was therefore a potential source of political conflict. Poor Law policy was frequently controversial and was therefore a potential source of political contention. To fail to appreciate the political aspect of poor relief is to misunderstand the role of the Poor Law in Victorian society.


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Bibliographical Notes

  1. Very little attention has been devoted by historians to the political aspects of the Poor Law. The only exception is the Anti-Poor Law Movement which is well covered by N. C. Edsall, The Anti-Poor Law Movement (Manchester, 1971), J. T. Ward, The Factory Movement (1962), M. E. Rose, ‘The Anti-Poor Law Movement in the North of England’, Northern History, I (1966), and ‘The Anti-Poor Law Movement’ in Popular Movements, ed. J. T. Ward (1970). In passing, some glimpses of political aspects are provided in the older surveys of the Webbs and Nicholls and Mackay. Those interested in examining the political role of the Poor Law must look to local newspapers and local Poor Law records, supplemented by the national records held in the Public Record Office. For an example of a study based on such sources see D. Fraser, ‘Poor Law Politics in Leeds, 1833–1855’, Thoresby Society Publications, LIII (1970) pp. 23–49. Some of the theses listed in the appendix have something to say on politics, but not very much. One scholar who does place the Poor Law in the context of the exercise of power isGoogle Scholar
  2. Dr A. Brundage: see his ‘The Landed Interest and the New Poor Law’, E.H.R., LXXXVII (1972) pp. 27–48; ‘The English Poor Law of 1834 and the Cohesion of Agricultural Society’, Agricultural History, XLVIII (1974) pp. 405–17; and ‘Reform of the Poor Law Electoral System 1834–94’ (forthcoming). A different interpretation is offered in reply by P. Dunkley, ‘The Landed Interest and the New Poor Law; A Critical Note’, E.H.R., LXXXVIII (1973).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© David Ashforth, Anne Digby, Francis Duke, M. W. Flinn, Derek Fraser, Norman McCord, Audrey Paterson, Michael E. Rose 1976

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