The poor law.

Union Workhouses and Poor Law: an introduction

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Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914 ] The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Unions ] Workhouse conditions ] The end of workhouses ] Swansea Union Workhouse (later Mount Pleasant Hospital) ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A block plan from the 1880s ] Evidence: Signs of the workhouse ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A nurse's duties in 1904 (1) ] A Swansea Workhouse Christmas poem 1870 ]
Reading List
Across England and Wales  the union workhouse came into existence as a result of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The 1834 Act was a radical piece of legislation. It swept away the ‘Old Poor Law’ which was inherited from the reign of Elizabeth I, and which had come under increasing pressure as a result of the economic and social changes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Act established both a new administrative framework and a new approach to the relief of poverty. Before 1834, responsibility for the relief of the poor lay at the local level, with parish overseers of the poor (township overseers in the north of England) and county justices of the peace.


The following pages form a guide to the Act and some specific sources relating to Swansea's poor law union workhouse.

Swansea Union Workhouse in the 1870s.

Top: Mount Pleasant Union Workhouse shortly after being built and an early photograph of the same area from the 1890s. (Click on the photo for a larger version)

The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834 (4&5 William IV, cap.76), created a central body, the Poor Law Commission for England and Wales. The three commissioners were responsible for forming unions of parishes for the purposes of poor relief. The Swansea Union was far larger than the administrative borough of Swansea, and included the parishes of Clase, Llandeilo Talybont, Llansamlet, Penderry, St John-juxta-Swansea, and Swansea St Mary’s. The poor law unions were administered by boards of guardians elected by the open ballot of the ratepayers and property owners in each parish. There was a graded property qualification: guardians normally had to occupy property rated at £40 per year. Justices of the peace became ex-officio guardians. 

The activities of the boards of guardians were subject to the supervision of the Poor Law Commission; in practice, however, they retained considerable autonomy. One of the first tasks of each board of guardians was to provide workhouse accommodation for the reception of those requiring poor relief. In some cases, it was possible to take over and adapt one or more of the workhouses which the union had inherited from a previous body. Before 1834 some groups of parishes had obtained private Acts of Parliament or had used the provisions of Gilbert’s Act of 1782 to form themselves into larger groupings capable of supporting the expense of building and maintaining a large workhouse. These were, however, a minority; in most cases it was necessary for the new poor law union to build a workhouse from scratch. In southern England, the formation of the unions and the building of workhouses took place in 1835-6, and proceeded relatively smoothly, with only sporadic resistance. 

However, when the commissioners turned their attention to northern England in 1837, there was much stronger opposition. In parts of the north it was not possible to build union work­houses until the 1850s or 1860s. Those provisions of the Act of 1834 which related to the nature of the relief to be provided for the poor reflected, in diluted form, the recommendations of the Poor Law Report which had been published earlier in the same year. These had been greatly influenced by the Benthamite ideas of Edwin Chadwick and Nassau Senior. Their central principle was that the provision of poor relief should be concentrated in large workhouses. Conditions for the workhouse inmates should be ‘less eligible’ than those of the lowest paid independent labourer, so that the workhouse would serve as a ‘self acting test’ of the applicant for relief. Only the destitute would wish to seek admission; the idle would be deterred. The harshness of the workhouse would, it was thought, act as a spur to the industry and enterprise of the able-bodied poor. The improvidence of the labouring classes would be replaced by self-reliance. Thus the moral climate of society in general would be reformed and no less welcome, there would be a substantial reduction in the poor rates.


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Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914 ] The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Unions ] Workhouse conditions ] The end of workhouses ] Swansea Union Workhouse (later Mount Pleasant Hospital) ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A block plan from the 1880s ] Evidence: Signs of the workhouse ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A nurse's duties in 1904 (1) ] A Swansea Workhouse Christmas poem 1870 ]

Recommended Reading:

The Parish Chest by W. E. Tate

You can obtain a copy of this book by using our association with  In Association with

Just click on the book title or cover picture!

This is the essential tool you must have sight of if you want to understand the workings of a parish community in England and Wales before the twentieth century. The author explains the background to the records you will find in most if not all record offices. A good understanding of the Poor Law is essential for any local historian and this book is undoubtedly the place to start. You will also find superbly detailed accounts of the records of highway maintenance and enclosure. Widely acknowledged as a classic, it is both very readable and scholarly with superb referencing and some extremely useful appendices including a wonderful glossary of the terms andd phrases you will come across in parish records and a very useful list of the pricipal acts and statutes used to govern the parishes of England and Wales.

If you want to be a local historian you must understand the parish, and to understand the parish you must have this book. (Nigel Robins)

SHW Microhistory: 6. The royal visit, 1941.

Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Swansea on 19 March 1941. The visit was intended as a morale booster for the town which had suffered heavily in German air raids in February of that year.

In the darkest days of the Second World War, (between June 1940 and December 1941), Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany and wasn't expected to last much longer. In the face of murderous German air raids at home and military reverses abroad, the King and Queen became a pillar of strength in maintaining the morale of the nation.

King George VI had been literally thrown in at the deep end when he acceded to the throne in December 1936. However, with the unfailing support of Elizabeth he quickly built up a close bond with the British people which seemed to grow stronger with each year of his reign. Although the government wanted to evacuate the Princesses to Canada in June 1940, it was Elizabeth who decided the matter...' The Princesses cannot go without me. I cannot go without the King. The King will never go.' Throughout the terrible winter of 1940-41, the royal couple toured the country visiting blitzed towns and exhausted factory workers. The impact of these visits was inestimable. The fact that Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times, once with the couple in the building cemented the bond between King and people even further.

In another timeless quote, the Queen said 'I'm almost comforted that the Palace has been hit. I feel I can look the East End in the face.' The Queen was often the star of the visits. Years later, Lord Harlech recalled that the Queen would often jump out of the car and straight into the nearest crowd. 'She had that quality of making everybody feel that they and they alone were being spoken to...she has very large eyes which she opens very wide and turns straight upon one'.

The royal visit did much to undo the considerable local upset that had been caused by a tactless and arrogant broadcast by the BBC intent on creating propaganda out of the Swansea raids. The couple talked to the local emergency services, and visited victims of the bombing. The Queen was taken up onto North Hill to see the extent of the bombing. In the photo above, Alderman Tom James is seen pointing out the damage. Although there have been many other royal visits over the years, they have never been so significant as this one. The site of the visit is largely unchanged today, even the phone box is still there!

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