English Poor Laws - Opposition


Opposition to the Poor Law grew at the beginning of the 19th century. The 1601 system was felt to be too costly and was considered in academic circles as encouraging the underlying problems. Jeremy Bentham argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems, whilst the writings of Thomas Malthus focused attention on overpopulation, and the growth of illegitimacy. David Ricardo argued that there was an "iron law of wages". The effect of poor relief, in the view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the "independent labourer".

In the period following the Napoleonic Wars, several reformers altered the function of the "poorhouse" into the model for a deterrent workhouse. The first of the deterrent workhouses in this period was at Bingham, Nottinghamshire. The second was Becher's workhouse in Southwell, now maintained by the National Trust. George Nicholls, the overseer at Southwell, was to become a Poor Law Commissioner in the reformed system. The 1817 Report of the Select Committee on the Poor Laws condemned the Poor Law as causing poverty itself.

The introduction of the New Poor Law also resulted in opposition. Some who gave evidence to the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws suggested that the existing system had proved adequate and was more adaptable to local needs. This argument was strongest in the industrial North of England and in the textile industries where outdoor relief was a more effective method of dealing with cyclical unemployment as well as being a more cost effective method. Poor Law commissioners faced greatest opposition in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire where in 1837 there was high unemployment during an economic depression. The New Poor Law was seen as interference from Londoners with little understanding of local affairs. Opposition was unusually strong because committees had already been formed in opposition to the Ten Hours Movement, leaders of the Ten Hours campaign such as Richard Oastler, Joseph Rayner Stephens and John Fielden became the leaders of the Anti-Poor Law campaign. The Book of Murder was published and was aimed at creating opposition to the workhouse system. and pamphlets were published spreading rumour and propaganda about Poor Law Commissioners and alleged infanticide inside of workhouses. Opposition to the Poor Law yielded some successes in delaying the development of workhouses, and one workhouse in Stockport was attacked by a crowd of rioters. As many Boards of Guardians were determined to continue under the old system, the Poor Law Commission granted some boards the right to continue providing relief under the Old Poor Law. However, the movement against the New Poor Law was short-lived, leading many to instead turn towards Chartism.

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