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What were the principles underlying the Poor Law Amendment Act and how far did they reflect contemporary attitudes towards poverty in 1830? Did those responsible for the Act achieve their goals by 1847?

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Introduction

What were the principles underlying the Poor Law Amendment Act and how far did they reflect contemporary attitudes towards poverty in 1830? Did those responsible for the Act achieve their goals by 1847? In 1834, Britain was about to enter the Victorian Era. A Whig government, which had been in power for three years, made promises of great reform. 1832 had seen the passing of the Reform Bill. Its terms meant that the landowners had to share their monopoly of political power with the middle classes, who were given the right to vote. The immediate result of this was to stimulate a series of reforms within the next twenty years, one of which was the Poor Law Amendment Act. Nineteenth century society was poor by modern standards. Most members of the working class were more than likely to be in poverty at some point in their lives due to many natural reasons, and would have to rely on the support of their families for aid. Contemporary attitudes thought that this was right and proper because it meant that the poor would have to work in order to survive. Typical outlooks were of unconcern, complacency or patronising charity epitomised by Samuel Smiles' pamphlet "Self Help", where he stated that "the common life of everyday provides the workers with scope for effort and self-improvement...even if a man fails in his efforts it will be a great satisfaction to him to enjoy the consciousness of having done his best." Self-help and independence were valued as virtues but help had been being given to the poor since the Poor Laws were created in Elizabethan times. ...read more.

Middle

The report provided the basis of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Its terms were few but radical and designed to save money and improve efficiency. The principles on which the commissioners were to act were that there was to be no "outdoor relief" except for the old and sick. Instead the relief for the poor was to be provided in the workhouse. The conditions were to be "less-eligible" than those of the lowest paid worker outside so that only if someone was truly desperate would they chose to go to the workhouse. Parishes were to be grouped into unions, each of which was to maintain, and if necessary build a workhouse. These workhouses were to be managed locally by a Board of Guardians, elected by the ratepayers. To supervise this whole scheme a central body of three commissions and a secretary was to be set up in Somerset House. The commissioners were Thomas Frankland Lewis, George Nicholls and John Shaw Lefevre. Chadwick was made secretary. They had very wide powers but the main aim was to stop the enormous expenditure from the Poor Rate and to make clear that men should look after themselves for aid, thus enforcing their own beliefs of "Laissez-faire". They wanted to make it clear that "the situation of the person receiving relief should not, on the whole be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the labourer of the lowest classes". The main focus, therefore, of the Act was the able-bodied poor who would make it impossible for them to survive without work, therefore reduce the cost of poor relief. ...read more.

Conclusion

Parliament decided to intervene once it saw that the Commissioners had served their purpose and replaced them with the Poor Law Board, intending to rid the administration of the Poor Law arrogance but also to link it with the government, creating a president and two secretaries, with the president as an MP, to be responsive to public opinion. This Board did have clear links with the Poor Law Amendment Act, the essentials of which lasted long into the twentieth century. The aims of those responsible for the Act had been partially reached. In the majority of the country parishes had been joined to form unions and these had built workhouses to employ, house and feed the poor. They specifically were made to be "less-eligible" so that only those in desperate need of a job would be employed, and the others would find themselves jobs or be faced with starvation as all "outdoor relief" was to be abolished, except for the infirm or elderly. To an extent this worked. The cost of poor relief went down considerably but the overall cost was still more than that of the workhouses. Boards of Guardians gave out relief on its own judgement, and there was little the Commissioners could do about this, given their limited powers. Also the Poor Laws had little place in the very industrial North, whose system of employment would be destroyed with the implementation of the laws. It is to this extent that the aims of those responsible for the Poor Laws were achieved by 1847. ...read more.

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