Union Workhouses; an introduction

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The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Unions ] Workhouse conditions ] Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914 ] The end of workhouses ] Swansea Union Workhouse (later Mount Pleasant Hospital) ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A nurse's duties in 1904 (1) ]

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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 workhouse.

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.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Unions ] Workhouse conditions ] Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914 ] The end of workhouses ] Swansea Union Workhouse (later Mount Pleasant Hospital) ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A nurse's duties in 1904 (1) ]



The View for Sunday October 15 2000

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