Front Page Titles (by Subject) [Part II, Section 2] PRINCIPLE OF LEGISLATION - Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834
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[Part II, Section 2] PRINCIPLE OF LEGISLATION - Nassau William Senior, Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834 
Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834. Copy of the Report made in 1834 by the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty (London: Printed for H.M. Stationery Off. by Darling and Son, 1905).
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[Part II, Section 2]
|57.  "The casual list for 1829 is enormous, owing to a cargo of distressed German emigrants who remained for several months, their vessel being unseaworthy. The extraordinary charge thus incurred, included a rate of 122l. 7s. raised expressly for contributing to the hire of a vessel to carry them to their destination."|
|"Last year before the use of the new workhouse—|
|Year ending 1820||£2,321||13||0½|
|"Select vestry and workhouse, but without discipline—|
|"Introduction of moderate regularity into the house with increased strictness in ordering paupers—|
|"Introduction of efficient domestic discipline; no relief given out of the house except in casual or peculiar cases—|
"Profit is not to be expected from workhouse labour. If it were practicable to convert workhouses into manufactories, which it is not, the measure would be most impolitic; for every shilling thus earned in the house would be at the expense of a labourer out of doors.
"The true profit of parish labour is to form industrious habits in the young, and to deter the indolent; and the perfection of a parish establishment is for its inmates to be scarcely equal to its own work. Into such a house none will enter voluntarily; work, confinement, and discipline, will deter the indolent and vicious; and nothing but extreme necessity will induce any to accept the comfort which must be obtained by the surrender of their free agency, and the sacrifice of their accustomed habits and gratifications. Thus the parish officer, being furnished with an unerring test of the necessity of applicants, is relieved from his painful and difficult responsibility; while all have the gratification of knowing that while the necessitous are abundantly relieved, the funds of charity are not wasted upon idleness and fraud58 ."
Under the present system it is found, that wherever relief is permitted to remain eligible to any except those who are absolutely destitute, the cumbrous and expensive barriers of investigations and appeals erected to protect the rates serve only as partial impediments, and every day offer a more feeble resistance to the strong interests set against them. To permit this system to continue, to retain the existing permanent officers, and yearly to subject a larger and larger proportion of those who are pressed into the public service as annual officers, to a painful and inefficient struggle, in which they must suffer much personal inconvenience and loss, a loss which is not the less a public loss, because borne by only a few individuals, must excite great animosity against themselves, and ultimately be borne down in a conflict in which the ingenuity and pressing interests of a multitude of paupers, each having his peculiar case or his peculiar means of fraud, are pitted against the limited means of detection, and the feeble interests in the prevention of fraud of one of a few public officers.
In the absence of fixed rules and tests that can be depended upon, the officers in large towns have often no alternative between indiscriminately granting or indiscriminately refusing relief. The means of distinguishing the really destitute from the crowd of indolent imposters being practically wanting, they are driven to admit or reject the able-bodied in classes. Now, however true it may be that the real proportion of cases which are found to have the semblance of being well founded may not exceed three or four per cent. of the whole amount of claims, yet since each individual thus rejected may possibly be one of that apparently deserving minority, such a rejection, accompanied by such a possibility, is at variance with the popular sentiment; and it is found that the great body of the distributors of relief do prefer, and may be expected to continue to prefer, the admission of any number of undeserving claims, to encountering a remote chance of the rejection of what may be considered a deserving case.
On the other hand, the belief which prevails that under the existing system some claims to relief are absolutely rejected, operates extensively and mischievously. It appears that this belief, which alone renders plausible the plea of every mendicant (that he applied for parochial relief, and was refused), is the chief cause of the prevalence of mendicity and vagrancy, notwithstanding the existence of a system of compulsory relief; a system which, if well administered, must immediately reduce and enable a police ultimately to extirpate all mendicity. If merit is to be the condition on which relief is to be given; if such a duty as that of rejecting the claims of the undeserving is to be performed, we see no possibility of finding an adequate number of officers whose character and decisions would obtain sufficient popular confidence to remove the impression of the possible rejection of some deserving cases; we believe, indeed, that a closer investigation of the claims of the able-bodied paupers, and a more extensive rejection of the claims of the undeserving, would, for a considerable time, be accompanied by an increase of the popular opinion to which we have alluded, and consequently by an increase of the disposition to give to mendicants.
We see no remedy against this, in common with other existing evils, except the general application of the principle of relief which has been so extensively tried and found so efficient in the dispauperized parishes. When that principle has been introduced, the able-bodied claimant should be entitled to immediate relief on the terms prescribed, wherever he might happen to be; and should be received without objection or inquiry; the fact of his compliance with the prescribed discipline constituting his title to a sufficient, though simple diet. The question as to the locality or place of settlement, which should be charged with the expense of his maintenance, might be left for subsequent determination.
On this point, as on many others, the independent labourers may be our best teachers. We have seen, that in the administration of the funds of their friendly societies, they have long acted on the principle of rendering the condition of a person receiving their relief less eligible than that of an independent labourer. We have now to add, that they also adopt and enforce most unrelentingly the principle, that under no circumstances, and with no exceptions, shall any member of their societies receive relief while earning anything for himself. Mr. Tidd Pratt was asked whether, in the rules for the management of friendly societies, framed by the labouring classes themselves, he had ever found any for the allowance of partial relief; such as relief in aid of wages, or relief on account of the number of a family?—He answers—
"No, I never met with an instance.
"Then do the labouring classes themselves, in the rules submitted to you, reject all partial relief or relief on any other ground than the utter inability to work?—Invariably.
"By what penalties do they usually endeavour to secure themselves from fraud, on the part of persons continuing on the sick list after they have become able to work?—In all cases by utter expulsion and enforcement of the repayment of the money from the period at which it was proved the party was able to work.
"Does that utter expulsion take place whatever may have been the period at which the party had contributed towards the society?—Yes; and all his contributions are forfeited to the society; and so strict are they in the enforcement of these regulations, that I have known them expel a party for stirring the fire, or putting up the shutters of his window, these acts being considered by them evidence of the party being capable of going to work. A small shopkeeper has been expelled for going into his shop; and the only exception I have found in favour of such a rule is, that of a party being allowed to sign a receipt, or to give orders to his servant. They are perfectly well aware, from experience, that to give relief in an apparently hard case, would open the door to a whole class of cases which would ruin them. The other day the steward of a friendly society came to consult me as to the reinstatement of a member who had been expelled for having neglected to pay his quarter's subscription on the regular quarter night half an hour after the books were closed. The party had been a member 32 years, and during that time had received little or no relief. The case struck me as an extremely hard one, and I endeavoured to prevail on the steward to reinstate the member, but the steward stated to me so many facts, showing that if they yielded to this one case, that it would determine a whole class of cases, and let in so much abuse, that I was ultimately forced to agree in the necessity of the decision of the society. These rules may appear to be capricious and arbitrary, but my observation leads me to believe that they are necessary to protect the society. Although there is an extremely severe enforcement of them, societies are seriously injured, and frequently ruined, by the frauds committed under this mode of relief, notwithstanding the incessant vigilance exercised against them.
"What description of vigilance is that?—It is generally provided by the rules that a domiciliary visit shall be paid by the stewards, or by a member, generally every day; these visits are to be paid at uncertain times, that they may increase the chances of detection. It is also usually provided that a sick member shall not leave his house before or after such an hour, and that on his leaving home at other times he shall leave word in writing where he has gone, by what line of road he has gone, and by what line he intends to return, in order that the stewards or members may track him. In some instances the members follow up these precautions by requiring a member, when he 'declares off' the box, to swear that he was unable to work during the whole time that he has been receiving relief of the society.
"Are these precautions effectual?—No; notwithstanding the utmost vigilance, serious frauds are committed, especially by the members of those trades who can work at piece-work within doors; such, for example, as tailors, shoemakers, watchmakers, and weavers. An operative of these trades keeps his door shut and works, and when the visitor comes, the work is put under the bed clothes or otherwise concealed, and he is found in bed apparently sick. I find that in those societies where the members' work is of a nature to render fraud liable to detection, such as painters, plumbers, glaziers, stonemasons, carpenters, and any other occupation that takes a man out of his own room, the money paid for sickness in the course of a year is less than in societies composed of equal numbers of the class of members before mentioned. From the opportunities of fraud, I always judge of the certainty of fraud, and from those opportunities the certainty of the ruin of societies may be predicted."
This vigilance in the administration of out-door relief to the sick, a vigilance to which we have never found any parallel in the administration of the poor's rates, would, à fortiori, be requisite in the case of the administration of out-door relief to the able-bodied. But this is obviously impossible. No salaried officer could have the zeal or the knowledge of an inspector of a friendly society, who is always of the same class, and usually of the same trade as the claimant. And if it were possible, we believe that it would not be effectual. The labouring classes themselves find these daily visits and strict regulations inadequate substitutes for the means of supervision and prevention, which well-regulated workhouses afford, and which those classes, if their circumstances permitted, would doubtless adopt. In fact, the experiment has long and often been tried, and always with the same ill-success. Visits are made to the claimants, their residences are inspected, and it appears that at these visits and inspections, false and fraudulent scenes are prepared with little more difficulty and much more effect than fraudulent stories, and that those who disregard all statements and trust only to what they call the evidence of their senses, are often the most completely deceived. The testimony of the most experienced and intelligent of our witnesses shows the extensive opportunities for fraud which the most rigid inspection leaves; and in the case of paupers, much more than in the case of the sick members of friendly societies, from the extent of the opportunities, may the extent of fraud be predicted. Mr. Pratt is asked—
"Have you as a barrister had much poor-law practice?—Yes, I have practised 10 years at sessions, I have also edited Bott's Poor Laws, and other works connected with the subject.
"Would you apply to the progress of out-door relief by parishes the same rules as are founded on the experience of the labouring classes in benefit societies?—Certainly; and considering a parish as a large friendly society (the members being mostly honorary, or persons who contribute without the intention of partaking of the benefits of the contribution, as the majority in most parishes are), I should look to them much more rigidly.
"If the regulations of a parish, or of a friendly society consisting of a parish, were brought to you to authorize under the statute of Elizabeth, would you certify them if you found in them rules for granting partial relief of any sort, or relief in aid of wages, or relief according to a bread-money scale, or relief in proportion to the number of a family, or out-door relief of any description?—As a lawyer I should undoubtedly consider all such allowances entirely at variance with the spirit and intention of the statute of Elizabeth, and I should without hesitation reject them. My experience, also derived from the observation of less dangerous regulations in friendly societies, would enable me to pronounce them to be mischievous and ruinous to whatever community adopted them. I am sure that no members of any benefit society, incomplete as their knowledge is, would ever frame rules upon such ruinous principles. The only definite ground of relief, as it appears to me, is utter inability to work, and so it appears to the labouring classes themselves, for whose benefit, and with whom I act, for their allowances are always made upon that ground.
"In what way do the members generally regard parochial assistance? As discreditable?—'In their rules it is generally provided, that in the case of the death of a member, notice be given to the treasurer, who summonses two of the stewards;' and, says the rule, 'They both shall attend such funeral, and see that the corpse is decently interred, and free from parish grants;' or it is expressed, as in the following rule: 'That the president and vice-president shall attend funerals of members and their wives, see they be decent, and free from parochial assistance; and if either of them neglect so to do, he shall be fined 5s.; but for such attendance each of them shall receive 2s. 6d. from the fund.' "
We believe that the following evidence expresses the sentiments of a large proportion of the most respectable mechanics:—
Launcelot Snowdon examined,—
"Are you acquainted with the operative classes?—Yes, having been a journeyman printer 20 years, and one-half of the time foreman, and having been in different situations in our own societies, as well as connected with various other societies of operatives, I believe I am well acquainted with them.
"In what way do they regard the fact of any one of their body receiving parochial relief?—I know that none but the worst characters would ever think of applying for parish relief; and that the respectable workmen consider it disgraceful. The other day, a list of those who received out-door parish relief was brought to a printing-office to be printed. One of the men saw on the list the name and address of one of the journeymen in the same office. This man was challenged with the fact which he did not attempt to deny. He had been receiving as much as 6s. or 8s. a week out-door relief, during two years, for four children, although he had been in receipt of 36s. a week steady wages during the same time. The men stated the circumstance to the employer, and he was discharged.
"Did they request that he might be discharged?—The proceeding was tantamount to that, and of course the master acceded.
"Suppose the whole of the relief were regulated by an independent, or, say a Government authority, on a fixed rule, that of not rendering the condition of the pauper within the workhouse so good as that of the lowest class of workmen living by his labour out of the house?—That of course. No reasonable man would, I should conceive, expect to have his condition in the workhouse bettered. I think a Government authority would be much the best, as the parish officers are now in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, interested parties."
2. Little need be said on the next effect of the abolition of partial relief (even independently of workhouse regulations) in drawing a broad line of distinction between the paupers and the independent labourers. Experience has shown, that it will induce many of those whose wants arise from their idleness, to earn the means of subsistence; repress the fraudulent claims of those who have now adequate means of independent support, and obtain for others assistance from their friends, who are willing to see their relations pensioners, but would exert themselves to prevent their being inmates of a workhouse.
3. It will also remove much of the evil arising from the situation of the distributors of relief.
It has been shown that destitution, not merit, is the only safe ground of relief. In order to enable the distributors to ascertain the indigence of the applicant, it has been proposed to subdivide parishes, and appoint to the subdivisions officers who, it is supposed, might ascertain the circumstances of those under their care. But when instances are now of frequent occurrence where a pauper is found to have saved large sums of money, without the fact having been known or suspected by the members of the same family, living under the same roof, how should a neighbour, much less a parish officer, be expected to have a better knowledge of the real means of the individual? We are not aware that our communications display one instance of outdoor pauperism having been permanently repressed by the mere exercise of individual knowledge acting on a limited area. What our evidence does show is, that where the administration of relief is brought nearer to the door of the pauper, little advantage arises from increased knowledge on the part of the distributors, and great evil from their increased liability to every sort of pernicious influence. It brings tradesmen within the influence of their customers, small farmers within that of their relations and connexions, and not unfrequently of those who have been their fellow workmen, and exposes the wealthier classes to solicitations from their own dependants for extra allowances, which might be meritoriously and usefully given as private charity, but are abuses when forced from the public. Under such circumstances, to continue out-door relief is to continue a relief which will generally be given ignorantly or corruptly, frequently procured by fraud, and in a large and rapidly increasing proportion of cases extorted by intimidation—an intimidation which is not more powerful as a source of profusion than as an obstacle to improvement. We shall recur to this subject when we submit the grounds for withdrawing all local discretionary power, and appointing a new agency to superintend the administration of relief.
Many apparent difficulties in the proposed plan will be considered, and we hope removed, in a subsequent part of this Report. One objection, however, we will answer immediately; and that is, that it implies that the whole, or a large proportion, of the present paupers must become inmates of the workhouse. One of the most encouraging of the results of our inquiry is the degree in which the existing pauperism arises, from fraud, indolence, or improvidence. If it had been principally the result of unavoidable distress, we must have inferred the existence of an organic disease, which, without rendering the remedy less necessary, would have fearfully augmented its difficulty. But when we consider how strong are the motives to claim public assistance, and how ready are the means of obtaining it, independently of real necessity, we are surprised, not at the number of paupers, but at the number of those who have escaped the contagion. A person who attributes pauperism to the inability to procure employment, will doubt the efficiency of the means by which we propose to remove it, tried as they have been, and successful as they have always proved. If such a person had been present when the 900 able-bodied paupers applied to the Maryle-bone officers, on the ground that they could find no work, he would have treated lightly the proposal of getting rid of them by the offer of wages and the stone-yard. He would have supposed that work must have been provided for the 900, not for the 85, who actually accepted it. If a workhouse had been offered, he would have anticipated the reception of the 900, not the 85, or rather, according to the opinion of the officer, the 10, who would probably have entered it. He would have come to the same conclusion respecting the 20 shoemakers, to whom relief was offered by Mr. Hickson. We have seen that the test showed that among the 20 there was one deserving person: if the test had not been applied, and to meet the chance of there being one such person, the whole 20 had received out-door relief, even that person would have received relief instead of wages, and 19 persons, really capable of earning their support, would have been converted into permanent paupers, besides those whom the example would have attracted. Before the experiment had been tried, the 63 heads of pauper families at Cookham might have been confidently pronounced to be a surplus population, and emigration have been urged as the only remedy. "The low rate of wages," it might have been said, "proves the redundancy, and the certain effect of throwing upon the depreciated labour-market nearly one-third more of competitors (rendered desperate by their privations) will be to increase the prevalent misery; the proposal to take them into the workhouse, which will require expensive preparations for the whole of them, is impolitic, and indeed impracticable." Such, in fact, were the anticipations of persons deemed competent judges, as to the number of the pauperized labourers who would remain permanently chargeable. It is stated in the Report from Cookham, that "The work provided was trenching; an acre of hard gravelly ground was hired for the purpose. Some of the vestry, at the outset, considered that this quantity of land would be utterly inadequate. Many of the farmers thought the parish officers would have to trench the whole parish; but it turned out that not more than a quarter of an acre was wanted for the purpose." In several others of the dispauperized parishes, the erection of workhouses, and other remedial measures, were strongly and sincerely opposed on similar grounds. In answer to all objections founded on the supposition that the present number of able-bodied paupers will remain permanently chargeable, we refer to the evidence which shows the general causes of pauperism, and to the effects produced by administration on a correct principle, as guaranteeing the effects to be anticipated from the general application of measures which have been tried by so many experiments. But we cannot expect that such evidence will satisfy the minds of those who sincerely disbelieve the possibility of a class of labourers subsisting without rates in aid of wages; and we have found numbers who have sincerely disbelieved that possibility, notwithstanding they have had daily presented to their observation the fact, that labourers of the same class, and otherwise no better circumstanced, do live well without such allowances; still less can we expect that such evidence will abate the clamours of those who have a direct interest in the abuses which they defend under the mask of benevolence.
Such persons will, no doubt, avail themselves of the mischievous ambiguity of the word poor, and treat all diminution of the expenditure for the relief of the poor as so much taken from the labouring classes, as if those classes were naturally pensioners on the charity of their superiors, and relief, not wages, were the proper fund for their support: as if the independent labourers themselves were not, directly or indirectly, losers by all expenditure on paupers; as if those who would be raised from pauperism to independence would not be the greatest gainers by the change; as if, to use the expression of one of the witnesses whom we have quoted, the meat of industry were worse than the bread of idleness.
We have dwelt at so much length on the necessity of abolishing out-door relief to the able-bodied, because we are convinced that it is the master evil of the present system. The heads of settlement may be reduced and simplified; the expense of litigation may be diminished; the procedure before the magistrates may be improved; uniformity in parochial accounts may be introduced; less vexatious and irregular modes of rating may be established; systematic peculation and jobbing on the parts of the parish officers may be prevented: the fraudulent impositions of undue burthens by one class upon another class—the tampering with the labour-market by the employers of labour—the abuse of the public trust for private or factious purposes, may be corrected; all the other collateral and incidental evils may be remedied;—but, if the vital evil of the system, relief to the able-bodied, on terms more eligible than regular industry, be allowed to continue, we are convinced that pauperism, with its train of evils, must steadily advance; as we find it advancing in parishes where all or most of its collateral and incidental evils are, by incessant vigilance and exertion, avoided or mitigated.
It has been strongly, and we think conclusively, urged, that all local discretionary power as to relief should be withdrawn. Mr. Mott, when he was examined on the subject of workhouse management, was asked, whether, under a well-regulated system, he thought that the local officers might be entrusted with the power of modifying the dietaries? He answers,—
"I am decidedly of opinion that no such authority can be beneficially exercised, even by the local manager and superintendent of any place; whatever deviation there is in the way of extra indulgence has a tendency to extend and perpetuate itself which cannot be resisted. If you give to particular people an extra allowance on special grounds, all the rest will exclaim, 'Why should not we have it as well as they?' and too often they get it. That which was only intended to be the comfort of the few, and as an exception, at last, one by one being added to the list, becomes the general rule; and, when once established, there are few annual officers who will interfere to abridge the accustomed allowance."
Thus uniformity of excess is produced; and then again it is often deemed necessary to make distinctions is the way of increase, which increase is again diffused, and the whole is again equalized to the profuse standard. Uniformity in the administration of relief we deem essential as a means, first of reducing the perpetual shifting from parish to parish, and fraudulent removals to parishes where profuse management prevails, from parishes where the management is less profuse; secondly, of preventing the discontents which arise among the paupers maintained under the less profuse management, from comparing it with the more profuse management of adjacent districts; and, thirdly, of bringing the management, which consists in details, more closely within the public control. The importance of the last object will appear more clearly in our subsequent statement. The importance of uniformity in reducing removals appears throughout our evidence. We have found that the confirmed paupers usually have a close knowledge of the detailed management of various parishes (although the managers rarely have), and act upon that knowledge in their choice of workhouses. Many of the out-door paupers, when they have the means, avoid those parishes in which there are workhouses. The Rev. Rowland Williams, Vicar of Myfod, Montgomery, states in his communication,—
"It is notorious, that when paupers come to swear their settlements, they show a strong inclination to be removed to parishes where there are no workhouses. Those magistrates who are experienced in such removals exercise great caution in believing testimony given under such influence."
[44.] See post 298.
[45.] See pp. 44, 45.
[46.] App. (A.) Part II.
[47.] App. (A.) Part II.
[48.] App. (A.) Part II.
[49.] App. (A.) Part II.
[50.] App. (A.) Part II. p.11.
[51.] App. (B.) Question 30, p.38.
[52.] App. (A.) Part II.
[53.] App. (A.) Part II.
[54.] App. (A.) Part II.
[55.] App. (C.)
[56.] App. (A.) Part II.
[58.] App. (C.) pp. 164 and 173-4