[1834] - Poor Law Reform Act

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 radically overhauled the system of outdoor relief from poverty that had been in place since the Old Poor Law, enacted under Elizabeth I in 1601. In offering care for the elderly and infirm, and providing apprenticeships and employment for able-bodied adults, the old system had been based on the right of the poor to receive financial relief from the parish. Although some modifications had been introduced in the 1790s (most notably the Speenhamland system, which established a means-tested sliding scale for relief), it was not until 1834 that the Whig government of Lord Melbourne introduced the Amendment Act following the 1832 Royal Commission inquiry into the poor law system. By then T. R. Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, had gone through six editions. Based on a thesis that population growth inevitably outstrips levels of subsistence, Malthus argued that poverty was a necessary part of human life: in his opinion, financial relief only worked to exacerbate the problem of pauperism.

The 1834 Amendment Act established a Poor Law Commission to administer a national poor relief system through the institution of the workhouse. To receive poor relief, the impoverished would now have to be admitted to workhouses where they were expected to work in return for subsistence. According to the historian E. J. Hobsbawm, the Poor Law Amendment Act ‘created more embittered unhappiness than any other statute of modern British history’ (Industry and Empire, 194). According to others, the Act represented the birth of industrial capitalism as a social system in Britain.

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