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English Poor Law Policy and the Crusade Against Outrelief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2009

Mary MacKinnon
Assistant Professor at Queen's University and a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Economic History, RSSS, Australian National University, P.O. Box 4, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia.


This article examines the Crusade against outrelief to determine why poor law unions endorsed it. Although initiated by the central government, the Crusade could reduce union costs because very few of those denied outrelief would enter the workhouse. As the tax burden on wealthier and more influential ratepayers rose, guardians had more interest in cutting expenditure. An increase in effective rateable value permitted improvement of workhouse facilities and the restriction of outrelief, even to the deserving poor.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 1987

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1 The Webbs gave considerable attention to the Crusade, but subsequently the topic very largely vanished from studies of the new poor law. Sidney, and Webb, Beatrice, English Poor Law History, Part II: The Last Hundred Years (1st edn. 1929; reprinted London, 1963),Google Scholar and English Poor Law Policy (London, 1910).Google Scholar This may partly be explained by the fact that many recent researchers have been chiefly concerned with the two decades after 1834—the transition from the old to the new poor law—rather than with developments in the new poor law itself. For example, Fraser, Derek, The Evolution of the British Welfare State (London, 1973);CrossRefGoogle ScholarFraser, Derek, ed., The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1976);CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Rose, Michael E., The Relief of Poverty 1834/1914 (London, 1972) almost completely ignore the Crusade.Google Scholar More recently, the omission has begun to be corrected. See, for example, Williams, Karel, From Pauperism to Poverty (London, 1981);Google ScholarThomson, David, “Workhouse to Nursing Home: Residential Care of Elderly People in England since 1840,” Aging and Society, 3 (03 1983), pp. 4369;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Rose, Michael E., ed., The Poor and the City: The English Poor Law in its Urban Context, 1834–1914 (Leicester, 1985).Google Scholar

2 Able-bodied men were younger and fitter than the not able-bodied, but were in poor physical condition compared with the population as a whole, and were often relieved on account of sickness. Some, especially those relieved in the winter, were unemployed unskilled laborers. By the 1860s only the very poorest unemployed men would be likely to apply for relief. By contrast, pauper widows, their children, orphans, and the elderly formed a much larger proportion of the total of these groups in the population.Google Scholar

3 The basic unit of poor law administration was the poor law union, of which there were approximately 600 in England. Poor law guardians were elected by ratepayers. Unions had considerable autonomy. Their activities were overseen by a central authority, responsible to Parliament. Up to 1847 this was the Poor Law Commission, then the Poor Law Board, and from 1871, the Local Government Board. The central authority had some powers of compulsion, in particular with respect to the relief of the able-bodied, and it audited and could disallow union expenditure, but its ability to force policies on individual unions was limited.

4 Webb and Webb, English Poor Law History, pp. 435–40. Although outdoor relief to elderly men was not discouraged in the 1850s and 1860s, as high or higher a proportion of not able-bodied as able-bodied men were relieved in workhouses in this period.Google Scholar

5 On a county basis, workhouses were typically 50 to 70 percent full. Parliamentary Papers, 46 (1854/5), p. 27. Thomson, “Workhouse to Nursing Home,” p. 48, reaches similar conclusions.Google Scholar

6 Webb and Webb, English Poor Law History, pp. 319–39;Google Scholar and Abel-Smith, Brian, The Hospitals, 1800–1948 (London, 1964), chap. 6.Google Scholar

7 Williams, From Pauperism to Poverty, pp. 218–19.Google Scholar

8 For a statement of COS views on poor relief, see for example, Mackay, Thomas, Methods of Social Reform: Essays Critical and Constructive (London, 1896).Google Scholar General histories of the COS are given in Mowat, Charles Loch, The Charity Organisation Society, 1869–1913: Its Ideas and Work (London, 1961);Google Scholar and Rooff, Madeline, A Hundred Years of Family Welfare: A Study of the Family Welfare Association (Formerly Charity Organisation Society) 1869–1969 (London, 1972).Google Scholar The origins and activities of the COS in London are examined in Jones, Gareth Stedman, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society (Oxford, 1971).Google Scholar For a discussion of the importance of the evangelical movement, see Heasman, Kathleen, Evangelicals in Action: An Appraisal of their Social Work in the Victorian Era (London, 1962).Google Scholar

9 Church, R. A., The Great Victorian Boom 1850–1873 (London, 1975), pp. 7175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 See Johnson, Paul, Saving and Spending: The Working Class Economy in Britain 1870–1939 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 178–83.Google Scholar Optimism about rising living standards, such as that expressed by Robert Giffen in the early 1880s, is not apparent in statements supporting the Crusade. Giffen, Robert, “The Progress of the Working Classes” (1883), reprinted in Abrams, Philip, The Origins of British Sociology: 1834–1914 (Chicago, 1968), pp. 157–76.Google Scholar

11 Edsall, Nicholas C., The Anti-Poor Law Movement, 1834–44 (Manchester, 1971)Google Scholar and Ashforth, David, “The Urban Poor Law,” in Fraser, , ed., The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 128–48.Google Scholar

12 Chance, William, The Better Administration of the Poor Law (London, 1895), pp. 7990.Google Scholar

13 The first reference to a 10 percent acceptance of an offer of indoor relief comes from a survey by Wodehouse, Edmond H. of seventy unions in southern England in the First Annual Report of the Local Government Board, Parliamentary Papers, 28 (1872), p. 95.Google Scholar More than thirty years later William Chance made the same claim. Chance, , “Outdoor Relief,” in Strachey, J. St. Loe, ed., The Manufacture of Paupers: A Protest and a Policy (London, 1907), pp. 3745. His argument in statement 2, quoted above, that restricting outdoor relief often decreases the number of indoor paupers refers to long-run changes.Google Scholar

14 Evidence of lack of destitution, such as a job offer, meant no relief need be forthcoming. If relatives legally liable for support (parents, grandparents, sons, and unmarried daughters) were able to pay but refused to provide for indigent family members, relief could be given, either in or out of the workhouse, and the negligent relative compelled to repay the union the cost of part or all of the relief.Google Scholar

15 Salaries (mostly of workhouse staff) continued to rise after 1870. These must be considered fixed rather than variable costs, at least within broad ranges of pauperism. The main items of expenditure included under the category of indoor relief were food, fuel, clothing, and cleaning supplies.Google Scholar

16 For a discussion of the Crusade in East London, see Ryan, Pat, “Politics and Relief: East London Unions in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Rose, , ed., The Poor and the City, pp. 134–72.Google Scholar

17 Until very late in the century the poor law was almost entirely financed by local tax revenues. Therefore the impact of central government grants can be ignored.Google Scholar

18 Rose, The Relief of Poverty, p. 41.Google Scholar

19 Especially in urban areas, many paupers could not be removed back to their parish of settlement because they had been living in the city for several years. When they became paupers, it was the responsibility of the union in which they lived to relieve them, but they were not considered to belong to any parish. A helpful explanation of the intricacies of the settlement laws under the new poor law is given in Ashforth, David, “Settlement and Removal in Urban Areas: Bradford, 1834–71,” in Rose, , ed., The Poor and the City, pp. 5891.Google Scholar

20 Ashforth, David, “The Urban Poor Law,” p. 143.Google Scholar

21 Two-thirds of guardians represented parishes where total expenditure rose more than 80 percent. Wood, Peter, “Finance and the Urban Poor Law: Sunderland Union, 1836–1914,” in Rose, , ed., The Poor and the City, pp. 2056.Google Scholar

22 The rate of trade union unemployment more than trebled between 1865 and 1868, peaking at 7.9 percent. London was very hard hit by the depression, but this is probably not reflected in the trade union unemployment series, as very few workers in London belonged to trade unions which reported unemployment. See Webb and Webb, English Poor Law History, p. 436; and Jones, Outcast London, pp. 241–42 for discussions of economic conditions in London.Google Scholar

23 Caplan, Maurice, “The New Poor Law and the Struggle for Union Chargeability,” International Review of Social History, 23 (2, 1978), pp. 267300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Wood, “Finance and the Urban Poor Law,” pp. 34–39.Google Scholar

25 One member claimed, “When all became common charge cases, there would be no scrutiny⃜ heavy expenses would arise ⃜ discontent would generally prevail… new guardians, elected for a special purpose, would cut down the expenses suddenly…” Kendall, Mr., Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series, 179 (15 05 1865), pp. 345–46.Google Scholar But this observation is unusual. More typically, the bill's opponents emphasized the gain to borough seats at the expenses of county seats. MrKnight, , for example, pointed out there were 330 borough members to 160 county members. Hansard, 179 (25 05 1865), p. 799.Google Scholar

26 23rd Annual Report of the Poor Law Board, Parliamentary Papers, 27 (1871), p. 100.Google Scholar

27 I have also used three-year averages of data for the period 1866 to 1869 and obtained virtually identical results. The year 1868/69 was a fairly prosperous year for agriculture, but commerce and industry were depressed.Google Scholar

28 See fn. 18.Google Scholar

29 Very similar results are found whichever dependent variable is used, and this is also the case for rates of pauperism disaggregated by sex. Results reported below are for total pauperism, excluding lunatics relieved outside of the workhouse.Google Scholar

30 There is some multicollinearity in the socioeconomic variables. Typically, almost all of the reduction in the sum of squared residuals comes from CHNG10—I usually cannot reject the hypothesis that the coefficients on the other variables are not jointly different than 0, and the other coefficient values are much more sensitive to changes in functional form. Because CHNG10 is in levels, its effect on pauperism increases with its value. At the regional means of CHNG10, the elasticity is from −.02 to −.2. When CHNG10 is one standard deviation above the mean, elasticities range up to −.6, and at the maximum values of CHNG10, elasticities are approximately −1.Google Scholar

31 Since the equations in Table 2 are in double-log from, the coeffcient on INFRAC is the elasticity.Google Scholar

32 After 1870 outrelief was restricted in all divisions of England, including the north west, and Preston, Liverpool, Manchester, and Salford were noted for being anti-outrelief unions. Is there a contradiction, therefore, between the cross-section estimates and the subsequent experience of the north west? To check the possibility that the strict unions after 1870 were markedly different in the 1860s, I reestimated equations for the north west omitting these observations, but the estimates of E were unaffected. Unless the number-relieved schedule changed sharply after 1870, it appears that guardians were not minimizing costs by being active participants in the Crusade.Google Scholar

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