On the Poor Laws: With Results of Union Rating in Devon

Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1861, Vol. 1, Part IV, pp. 60-65


E. Vivian, J.P.

Prepared by Michael Steer


An Act of Parliament in the year 1834 took the responsibility of administering to the poor from the local parish church to the doorstep of civil government. The government grouped each civil parish into a union of parishes. ... These groupings or unions were known as poor-law unions. The harsh measures introduced by the Poor Law Amendment Act made confinement to the workhouse the central mechanism of poor relief. Furthermore, it directed administrators to discourage paupers from seeking relief by making workhouses as unpleasant as possible. From now on, married couples entering the workhouse were separated and children taken away from their parents. The Act also completed the work of Gilbert’s Act in the formation of Poor Law Unions. All parishes were now made part of larger unions, each union supervising a workhouse. The unions themselves were administered by Board of Guardians, though parish vestries remained responsible for levying poor rates for the upkeep of workhouses. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers. 


The brightest page in English legislation is that in which it is declared to be illegal for man, woman, or child to starve. Organized relief for destitution dates back to the apostolic age. The first relieving officers were the deacons of the Primitive Church. When ecclesiastical endowments had become consolidated, a portion of the revenues, generally one-fourth, was set apart for the poor. On the dissolution of the monasteries, pauperism, which the lax administration of the ecclesiastical orders had greatly tended to promote, was made chargeable upon the hundreds and corporate towns. By 17 Henry VIIL, c. 25, funds for this purpose were to be raised by voluntary contributions ; but in subsequent statutes we have a graphic picture of the gradations of moral suasion. By 5 and 6 Edward VI., c. 2 et seq., if any should be obstinate and refuse to give, the minister was gently to exhort him ; if he still refused, the bishop was to send for him, and endeavour to persuade him, by charitable ways and means, for his soul's health, and at his discretion to take order for his reformation. By Elizabeth V., c. 23, if he stood out against episcopal exhortation, the bishop was to certify the same to the Justices in sessions, and the Justices were gently to move and persuade him ; and, finally, to assess him what they thought reasonable, and in case of refusal to commit him to the common gaol until paid !

By the 43rd of Elizabeth, all preceding statutes were repealed, and a general assessment of property was made for the relief of the sick, aged, and impotent, and the employment of the able-bodied. With various modifications, and accumulating abuses, this was in force until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1832. The principal abuse against which this was directed was the payment of wages out of the rates. So far as the amendment was designed to prevent the employer of labour, then principally agricultural, from unfairly burdening those who did not employ their quota, the new law was unquestionably just ; but as it also had the effect of curtailing the charge imposed upon land and real property for the benefit of the poor, it was a violation of statutory rights, and the confiscation of a claim which took precedence of the landlord's rent, and the incumbent's tithes; but by the just and beneficial legislation which at the same time repealed the Com Laws, and, by removing protection, opened new fields for industry, all injustice was removed, and both the owners of property and the poor were made to share in a general readjustment, which has proved eminently beneficial to all.

The Law of Settlement and Removal was also greatly modified by subsequent acts, and an approximation to a Union rating effected by the Common Fund, to which the poor were chargeable when they had become irremovable by residence for five years. This term was subsequently reduced to three years, and the Common Fund charge was apportioned to the rateable value of property in a parish, instead of the sum actually expended in rates. By this arrangement much of the last traces of serfdom (adscriptus glebœ) was removed, the free circulation of labour was promoted, and the great principle recognized, that those who had benefitted by a man's labour, not those amongst whom he was born or where he slept, should maintain him in sickness and old age.

Still this was but partially effected, until by an Act which came into operation during the present year, Union Rating was substituted for Parochial, and the entire charge of pauperism was thrown upon the Common Fund. Sufficient time has not yet elapsed to enable me to lay before the Association the results from any extended averages, but a few facts, from my own observation in the Newton Abbott Union, in this county, of which I have been either an elected or ex-officio guardian continuously, since the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834, will illustrate its probable effects: 

The population of the 39 parishes contained in the Newton Abbott Union was, in 1851, 52,306 ; and in 1861, 59,063.

The total amount raised by poor rates was, in 1860, £18,366; and in 1865, £23,004.

The total amount expended for relief of the poor was, in 1860, £13,575; and in 1865, £15,515.

The highest rated parish was Ashburton, at 3s. 4d. in the pound; the lowest, Haccombe, 3d. in the pound. The former is an ancient borough, with a decaying woollen manufacture; the latter an agricultural parish, in the possession of a single proprietor, in a very rising neighbourhood, between Newton and Torquay.

The action of the Common Fund had alone raised the rates in Haccombe more than 400 per cent, and in Cockington and Ogwell, similar close parishes, to nearly the same extent. When Union rating is fully introduced, it is estimated that the rates in the entire Union will be on a uniform scale of about is. 4:1. or 1s. 6d. in the pound.

In the St. Thomas Union, which may be taken as a fair specimen of the urban population of this county, similar advantages have resulted from the change. Dutton, which never had any pauperism, has by the action of the Common Fund been required to contribute its fair quota to the irremovable poor in other parishes of the Union, and will now be charged in full proportion to its rateable value. Topsham will be reduced from £427 per annum to £300, and other heavily burdened parishes in similar proportion ; whilst Heavitree will be raised from £424 to £568, and St Leonards from £120 to £264, or more than 100 per cent.

In the close parishes, the worst effects had been produced upon the condition of the labouring poor. Notwithstanding that the proprietors were resident, and very liberally disposed, and have greatly modified its effects, the traditionary policy had always been to discourage the erection of cottages, and the few that remain are valuable only for the picturesque, their mud walls and mouldering thatched roofs forming a favourite study for the artist and the antiquary. The bulk of the labourers reside far from their work, in the neighbouring towns to which, until the introduction of the recent Act, they were almost exclusively chargeable.

The only evil consequence which was apprehended from the change was, that the Unions being so extensive, and the proportional charge of each individual pauper upon the joint fund so small, the guardians would relax in their vigilance. I am authorized by the inspector of this district to state that this has not been the result, but that, on the contrary, the attention of the whole board is aroused by all the charges falling upon their constituents; whereas, under the former system, any guardian who felt a special interest in a pauper chargeable only to his own parish, could always obtain extra relief without exciting opposition from others. It may fairly be questioned whether this would be the case under a national rating; but there are many purposes for which a wider area might be advantageously adopted.

Amongst these are the workhouse infirmaries, to which so much attention has recently been directed, especially in the metropolis; the extension of pauper lunatic asylums, so as to admit idiots; reformatories and refuges for neglected children.

Whether it would be desirable to open workhouses as an asylum for children, towards whose maintenance a payment might be required from their parents, is also worthy of consideration. There is one class for whom some such provision is imperatively required, from the lamentable prevalence of infanticide. I refer to illegitimate children. At the last meeting of the British Association, I read a paper advocating that course, which was very favourably received, and was strongly supported in leading articles by the Daily News, the Morning Post, the Telegraph, and other influential journals.

The importance of preventing pauperism is so great, that I may, in conclusion, advert to the beneficial influence of Friendly Societies and Savings Banks, now rendered so easily accessible through the medium of the post offices. For those who are dependant upon weekly wages, the Friendly Society is as far superior to a Savings Bank as an insurance against fire is preferable to accumulating the premiums in the Three per Cents. An admirable review of their comparative advantages will be found in the Encyclopedia Brittannica, under the head of Benefit Clubs, which is mainly founded upon a work by my father, one of the earliest and most successful promoters of these institutions. During the twenty-five years that he was the incumbent of a parish in Hertfordshire, he reduced the rates from 6s. to 2s. in the pound, mainly through the establishment of a friendly society, to the members of which he had the gratification of paying £800 a year, from their own funds, to the sick and aging of both sexes. In his evidence before Committees of both Houses of Parliament will also be found suggestions of all the beneficial changes that were introduced by the Poor Law Amendment Act. "Giving to the poor," said Aristotle, "is pouring water into a sieve; he is their best friend who can aid them to support themselves."

In the higher civilization of the future, we may, I hope, anticipate results such as those which are already realized in the United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Association, in which one department is confined to total abstainers from strong drink, and the other is open to the general public. The teetotallers, as by a law of nature, invariably receive a bonus one-third greater than the moderate drinkers, showing a corresponding mortality of two to three deaths. As we have now more than 26,800 members, and have been in operation 25 years, the data are afforded for a thoroughly trustworthy average. In the Rechabite sick clubs it appears, from a parliamentary return by the Health of Towns' Commission, that the sickness experienced is not more than one-third of the general averages.

The history of the English Poor Law may be elucidated, in all its stages, by the systems now in operation on the continent of Europe.

The Villainage of the feudal age was, until quite recently, represented by the serfdom of Russia.

The Monastic system is still in full force in Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands.

The official distribution of alms, more or less voluntary, of the transition period, is fully represented in Prussia, Belgium, and France, with its Bureaux de Bienfaissance. And in Italy by the Monti de Pieta.

In Norway, employment is provided for the poor by a compulsory system of rounds-men, shifting them from farm to farm, with, as in Sweden, grants from the general revenue - in fact, paying wages out of the rates.

The means taken to prevent abuse in many of these states, also, closely resemble the old English laws. In Russia the nobles were bound by law to support the serfs, but they possessed power almost of life and death, as under our feudal system, when a sturdy beggar, who would not work, had his right ear cropped, and for the second offence was convicted as a felon. The same pressure, chiefly ecclesiastical, is brought to bear upon refractory voluntaryism, and Malthusian restrictions upon undue increase of population are rigidly enforced ; amongst these, in Bavaria, any priest who marries a couple who are unable to provide for their children is made liable for their maintenance.

The English Poor Law is founded upon the true spirit of Christian charity, which "seeketh not its own," but denies itself the gratification of personal alms-giving, in order to secure the welfare of its recipients. Notwithstanding the protest of O'Connell and Chalmers against the introduction of a Poor Law into Ireland and Scotland, and the objections of foreigners, experience has shown, that private charity inevitably serves to promote demoralization and pauperism. The objections, on the other hand, are thus expressed by a Danish nobleman (Count Holstein) to the Home Secretary, in reply to an enquiry relative to the Poor Laws in Denmark. "The rich man, and the poor man," he says, "both suffer; the former, in that there is no place left for the exercise of his benevolence, being obliged to give, as the poor man, on his part, is obliged to work. He performs the obligation with reluctance, and thus is the highest principle of charitable action - Christian love - exposed to danger of destruction."

True Christian charity is, I believe, most legitimately exercised by securing the supply of actual necessaries to all, with the apostolical proviso, "He that will not work, neither shall he eat;" and rare, indeed, must be the circumstances in which an ample field cannot be found for the exercise of personal beneficence towards providing special comforts to those for whom no Poor Law can afford adequate relief.

The position of Poor Law Guardian affords an opening to the truly benevolent of benefitting the poor upon the widest scale ; whilst the general superintendence of the Poor Law Board secures uniformity of action, and prevents abuses which would be injurious alike to both giver and receiver.