The fear of the Workhouse – New Poor Law of 1834


Poor Law

I wanted to share with you today a little about the Poor Law of England and Wales before I incorporate this into an expanded new module in my English/Welsh family history tutorials.

For years the ecclesiastic houses up and down the country were responsible for looking after the poor and so as consequence of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the problem passed to the government.

The old Elizabethan Poor Law was devolved to the Parish Vestry to administer. This was a council of officials from the parish and an arm of local government with responsibilities that covered more than just the church whose vestry they may have used in which to meet.

While the funds used to support the poor of England and Wales were collected in a standard manner, by charging rates to land holders, the individual parishes had discretion in how to deal with their paupers. This is explained in more detail at the beginning of a fascinating webinar by Paul Carter, from the National Archives, in his online seminar:

The expense of looking after the poor had been growing year by year up to 1834 and as it was being funded by the middle and upper classes in each town there was a real suspicion amongst this section of society that they were paying the poor to be lazy and avoid work.

After some years of annoyance to the rate payers, a new Poor Law was introduced by the government in 1834 and this new Poor Law was meant to reduce the cost of looking after the poor and also bring in a universal system across all the country.

Under the new Poor Law, parishes were grouped into unions and, if they hadn’t already got one, then each union was required to build a workhouse to serve its area. Except in special circumstances, poor people could now only get help if they were prepared to leave their homes and ask to go into a workhouse.

Conditions inside the workhouse were made to be unpleasant and deliberately harsh, so that only those who were so desperate for help would ask to be admitted. Families were split up and housed in different parts of the workhouse, males and females in different wings. The inmates were made to wear a uniform and the diet was monotonous, while breaking the rules could deprive a person of the normal rations as a punishment.

Southwell Workhouse

Inmates, male and female, young and old were made to work hard, often doing unpleasant jobs such as picking oakum or breaking stones. To get an impression of what it was like you can visit the National Trust’s Southwell Workhouse as I did. The damage that unpicking old ropes, to recycle the oakum, did to the hands of people who may once have worked in Nottinghamshire’s silk and lace industry meant that they would not be able to get work again and seems rather harsh. You can see what picking oakum looked like from my picture in the post I wrote after my visit to Southwell.

Children or the poor may have been hired out to work in factories or mines by the Board of Guardians of the workhouse, something that we find hard to understand today.

As many of our ancestors would have been poor, it is a sobering thought that this feared institution was a huge threat hanging over a worker should they became unemployed, sick or old. Not surprisingly the new Poor Law was hated by the poor as it seemed to punish people for falling on hard times even when it was through no fault of their own.


A well recommended website for doing more research is Peter Higginbotham’s


If you would like to learn more about English and Welsh ancestor research then you may be interested in taking a look at my family history course.

English/Welsh family history course on tablet computer

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