The Rural Poor Law
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Only five years after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Poor Law Commission announced proudly that the allowance system was ‘almost totally extinguished’ in the rural areas of southern England and Wales.1 Historians have tended to accept this judgement and have concentrated on the more obvious and continued difficulties experienced by the administrators of the New Poor Law in urban, industrial areas. The Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1832–4, by focusing on the abuse of outdoor allowances to the able-bodied poor in the countryside, seemed to have provided remedies for the problems of rural poverty and these were adopted in the 1834 Act. That the New Poor Law in rural areas was apparently successful was shown by the swift formation of new unions, the erection of workhouses and the implementation of reformed relief policies to which there was no concerted local opposition. The central Poor Law authority found it easy to make effective propaganda based on these early achievements, but gave minimal publicity to the later failures of the 1834 Act in rural England and Wales. By 1840 the provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act had been implemented effectively in many rural areas, but in the ensuing decade local administrators discovered that in practice they had substantial autonomy over relief policies. For the rest of the century many rural boards of guardians adopted a system of poor relief which they considered to be more appropriate for the socio-economic conditions of the countryside.
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- The rural Poor Law has received relatively little attention from historians and there is no short introduction to the topic available. On the general administrative development of the New Poor Law the standard account is still S. and B. Webb, English Poor Law History, Part II, The Last Hundred Years, 1 (reprinted 1963) which can be supplemented usefully by an analysis of the weaknesses of the central administration in its early years in D. Roberts, Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State (New Haven, 1960), and by an illuminating collection of documents in M. E. Rose, The English Poor Law, 1780–1930 (Newton Abbot, 1971).Google Scholar
- The formation and initial operation of Poor Law unions in rural areas has been analysed provocatively by A. Brundage, ‘The Landed Interest and the New Poor Law: A reappraisal of the Revolution in Government’, E.H.R., LXXXVII (1972). His conclusion that the 1834 Act led to an enlargement of the powers of the landed gentry has been challenged by P. Dunkley, ‘The Landed Interest and the New Poor Law: A Critical Note’ E.H.R., LXXXVIII (1973).Google Scholar
- There is an interesting, if brief, description of protests by the poor against the imposition of the New Poor Law in the countryside in N. C. Edsall, The Anti-Poor Law Movement, 1833–44 (Manchester, 1971). A meticulous analysis of the role which grievances about the New Poor Law could continue to play in a rural area is that of D. Williams, The Rebecca Riots: A Study in Agrarian Discontent (Cardiff, 1955).Google Scholar
- The contrasting arguments of D. Roberts, ‘How Cruel was the Victorian Poor Law?’ H.J., IV (1963) and U. Henriques, ‘How Cruel was the Victorian Poor Law?’, H.J., XI (1968) give some insight into rural relief practices. The ‘bastilles’, symbols of the oppressive nature of the 1834 Act, receive a full-length treatment including a dispassionate account of the infamous rural workhouse at Andover in N. Longmate, The Workhouse (1974). A more sensationalised treatment is accorded the same topic in I. Anstruther, The Scandal of the Andover Workhouse (1973).Google Scholar
- The Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1832–4 is essential reading for an understanding of the over-optimism of the Poor Law Commission towards rural relief administration and it has been reprinted together with a perceptive introduction by S. G. and E. O. A. Checkland (eds), The Poor Law Report of 1834 (Harmondsworth, 1974). The response by the Poor Law Commission to the continued problem of surplus labour through migration and emigration schemes is described succinctly in A. Redford, Labour Migration in England, 1800–1850, 2nd edn (Manchester, 1964), and the regional relief practices which were adopted by guardians to deal with rural underemployment are analysed in A. Digby, ‘The Labour Market and the Continuity of Social Policy after 1834: The Case of the Eastern Countries’, Ec.H.R., 2nd series, XXVIII (1975).Google Scholar
- J. Caird, English Agriculture in 1850–1, 2nd edn (1968) gives a masterly, contemporary account of the socio-economic problems of the countryside while a modern discussion is that of E. L. Jones, ‘The Agricultural Latour Market in England, 1793–1872’, Ec.H.R. 2nd series, XVII (1964). A comprehensive survey of agrarian change is given in J. D. Chambers and G. E. Mingay, The Agricultural Revolution, 1750–1880 (1966). D. R. Mills (ed.), English Rural Communities: The Impact of a Specialised Economy (1973), contains a lucid summary by R. Lawton on rural depopulation, and also an analysis by the editor of the impact of the settlement laws on Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. An important article on the settlement laws is that by B. A. Holderness, ‘“Open” and “Close” Parishes in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Agricultural History Review, xx (1972).Google Scholar
- The operation of the New Poor Law at the local level can be found in helpful articles in local historical journals which include: J. A. H. Brocklebank, ‘The New Poor Law in Lincolnshire’, Lincolnshire Historian, II (1962) and M. Caplan, ‘The Poor Law in Nottinghamshire, 1836–71’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Notts, LXXIV (1970).Google Scholar