The end of workhouses

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 ] A Poor Law Timeline 1349 to 1948 ]

Before the First World War the board of guardians of Poplar Union in the East End of London (of which George Lansbury had been a member from 1892) had begun to provide outdoor relief to the able-bodied unemployed, according to need and on a generous scale. With the onset of mass unemployment in 1921, the demands on the poor law authorities increased rapidly and several unions embraced ‘Poplarism’.

Above: Poplar's women councillors being driven to Holloway Prison  through crowded streets in 1921 after refusing to implement harsh poor law rules.

The government recognised the pressures on guardians to the extent of allowing them to borrow funds to meet their current expenses. The Poplar guardians, however, were jailed because they failed to make their contribution to the common fund for the relief of the poor in London as a whole. 

In 1926 Neville Chamberlain, minister of health in the Conservative government, secured the passage of the Board of Guardians (Default) Act. This allowed him to assume direct control of the administration of poor relief in unions where it was considered that the guardians were defaulting on their duties by distributing outdoor relief too liberally. It also had the effect of enabling the government to restrict the provision of relief to the families of striking coal miners.

The administrative structure of the Victorian poor law was finally dismantled by the Local Government Act of 1929, which took effect on 31 March 1930. The boards of guardians were dissolved and their responsibilities were transferred to the county and county borough councils. The poor law institutions were now known as ‘public assistance institutions’. Some were converted for more specialised purposes, but most remained in use, with essentially the same functions and the same groups of inmates, until after the Second World War. The last Poor Law (Amendment) Act was passed in 1938; one of its provisions was that old people in poor law institutions should receive pocket money of 2s. per week.

 The poor law was finally brought to an end by the National Assistance Act of 1948, one of the measures which inaugurated the welfare state. Since then, many workhouse buildings have been demolished. Some have been allowed to fall into dereliction. Others have been converted to serve other purposes, most commonly as hospitals or old people’s homes, though other uses-for example as a school or a hotel-are known.



The View for Sunday 7 January 2001

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