Living in the shadow of the workhouse

The Poor Law was created over 400 years ago but its core principles still pervade today, as Pat Thane explains

The inmates' dining hall at the Poplar Poor Law Union workhouse in London, 1903. Though it was widely reviled, the Poor Law would survive another 45 years. (Mary Evans)

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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A national Poor Law, providing publicly funded poor relief, was introduced in England and Wales in 1601. As it evolved in practice, it soon came to include sanctions against what are now called ‘benefit tourists’; administrators insisted that no one should receive benefits larger than the income of the poorest worker and on measures to drive everyone deemed fit enough into work. It also enforced a perception of benefits as stigmatising, a view still prevalent four centuries on.

Those unable to work due to age or disability were allowed relief, only if no close family member could support them. This relief was minimal to deter the dreaded scroungers, and was claimable only by those born, married (if female), living and (crucially) working in the parish for some time. In-migrants, generally seeking work, could be ejected.

With a few variations, these remained the basic Poor Law principles until 1834. As industrialisation expanded they were tightened up, further prioritising the  deterrence of fit workers from claiming and the ‘less eligibility’ principle that paupers should not live more comfortably than the poorest worker. The 1834 reform was designed to eliminate state-funded ‘generosity’. Instead, forbidding workhouses were constructed throughout the country to incarcerate ‘able-bodied’ people unable to support themselves.

The system was highly effective in making pauperism a shameful deterrent. Then, in the later 19th century, intellectuals began to understand how economies created periodic unemployment, which was not the fault of feckless shirkers. A growing labour movement challenged the system, organised marches of unemployed men to workhouses and demanded admission. In doing so, it exposed the system’s inability to cope if every person impoverished through no fault of their own claimed relief.

In the early 20th century, such pressures led to the introduction of less-stigmatising forms of state welfare, such as free school meals for the poorest children (1906), National Health and Unemployment Insurance (1911) and minimal pensions for the poorest over-70s (1908). These enabled manual workers to contribute to benefits that were a right, not a hand-out.

Between the wars these and other benefits gradually expanded. The Poor Law survived as a residual, vastly unpopular fall-back until its abolition in 1948.

The Second World War inspired plans for a better postwar world. William Beveridge’s report of 1942 proposed extending National Insurance to cover all classes, providing a range of benefits sufficient to live on.

After the war, the Labour government broadly adopted Beveridge’s proposals and achieved sustained full employment for the first time when the country was at peace.

Benefits improved until the mid-1970s, when the global economic crisis, followed by the Thatcher governments, resulted in cuts in welfare and a widening wealth gap. This led us back to something very like the principles of the old Poor Law – though not to workhouses yet.

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Pat Thane is professor of contemporary history at King’s College London. She is co-author of Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? (OUP, 2013)