English Poor Law, 1388 – 1929
The earliest Poor Law act of government, in 1388, was an attempt to control vagrancy. As time went on, a variety of acts were passed and in 1535, parishes were made responsible for the care of those who were described as the impotent poor, people who were unable to help themselves.
In 1601 the Poor Law Act was passed that was to become the basis of poor law administration for the next two hundred years. This system relied on there being a number of wealthy rate payers who were willing to support it and a number of poor people who needed help. Unfortunately, there were sometimes more people to support the system and few people needing help. At other times there were few people to support the system and many people needing help.
Various acts were passed during the next two hundred years, including the Law of Settlement Act in 1662 which was intended to ensure that a person could only claim relief in the place in which he had legal settlement.
Eventually, in 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed creating what became known as ‘the new poor law’. This act created the Poor Law Unions and the Union Workhouses. It minimised the provision of outdoor relief and anyone needing relief would now have to go the workhouse. The administrators of Union Workhouses were encouraged to make them as uncomfortable as possible to deter people from seeking relief. This meant that although they were adequately fed and clothed, married couples were separated from each other and from their children.
The Union Workhouses were run by Boards of Guardians made up of local worthies but they had very strict guidelines within which to act. Many of the workhouses were similar in appearance, often quite grand and imposing buildings but they carried with them a stigma which survived their transformation into hospitals. In 1929 the Local Government Act abolished the boards of guardians and the term pauper, transferring authority to county councils and borough councils. Local boroughs were encouraged to convert the old workhouses into infirmaries and many did. Many others simply demolished them. However it is still possible to find a hospital that was once a workhouse. It is also quite likely that there will be older people around who still refer to it as ‘the workhouse’.