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The New Poor Law

The New Poor Law

Bedford Union Workhouse
Bedford Union Workhouse

The pressure to reform the poor law was sufficiently strong for the government to appoint a Royal Commission to report on the old laws, with a result that a new poor law was introduced in 1834.
The new law, like the old, accepted that everybody had a right to claim relief, but it was now under stricter conditions. The old system of outdoor relief was discontinued and all those able bodied people claiming relief would now have to enter the workhouse.

A more stringent means test was made, with the intention of deterring all but the desperate. Old parish workhouses were abolished in favour of larger, new, central union workhouses, generally situated in a market town and covering a radius of 10 miles.

The legislation was very unpopular. Many criticized the harshness of its measures. Others resented paying anything to support the poor. They felt their poverty was their own fault.

The new laws were met with bitter opposition by the labourers, who watched with fear as the austere prison like workhouses were built. The workhouse filled most people with dread.

Conditions in the workhouse were made even less tolerable than before, so that they would now be worse than the conditions, under which the lowest paid worker outside lived. This was to discourage people from seeking relief and to give the poor an incentive to work and save.

A board considered whether a person was deserving of admittance. If a whole family were admitted, they were often separated. Married couples were not allowed to live together. Any goods could be confiscated.

Everyone, except young children or the very weak or ill, worked long hours and ate the same basic meals based on gruel, watery soup, bread, cheese, suet and potatoes. Inmates broke rock, ground corn by hand and picked oakum (fibres of old ropes).

Until 1842, all meals were taken in silence. Many elderly people dreaded the workhouse because, once admitted, they rarely left it, except for a pauper's burial.

From 1836, the country plunged into depression which lasted until 1842. Unemployment was high, food prices rose and many families had no alternative but to enter the workhouse.

As the twentieth century approached, the workhouse became a more humane place. Most of the harsh measures, suffered by inmates before 1850, had been remedied. In later years, more enlightened Victorians tried to alleviate conditions for the poor, through education and moral guidance.