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Thomas Wakley's Alternative Poor Law

See Wakley and Lunacy for an introduction to Wakley and also Social Science and the 1834 Poor Law paragraphs 39 and 42

Hansard 28.9.1841

Thomas Wakley argued that it was not specific abuses but the principle of the 1834 Poor Law and its tendency to produce the evils complained of that should be dwelt on. The principle of the law, as he understood it, was that it removed the authority for its administration from local ratepayers to an irresponsible national body, the commissioners, and that it deprived the poor of the right to relief.

By this law, Wakley argued

"the poor had been literally outlawed - they had been placed beyond the pale of the law. The law of the present day was not the law which existed for the poor in the time of Queen Elizabeth. By the statute of Elizabeth, the poor had a right to demand relief - the law authorised them to demand it".

" ... he would ask ... if the Poor-law commissioners, possessing the limited information which they could obtain, considered it their duty to apply the law less rigorously, whether the Poor-law guardians, having better opportunities of being made acquainted with the local condition of the poor, could not also be empowered to relax, under certain circumstances, the operation of the law?"

Wakley proceeded to criticise the system imposed by the centralised board in concrete detail.





[Hansard 28.9.1841 col.975]

"the object of the commissioners was ... that all the poor should be compelled to resort to the workhouse. Now, what was the opinion of Blackstone upon this point? His words were these, when speaking of the statute of Elizabeth, with respect to the poor:

"The two great objects of this statute seem to have been, - 1. To relieve the impotent poor, and them only. 2. To find employment for such as are able to work. And this principally by providing stocks of raw materials to be worked up at their separate homes, instead of accumulating all the poor in one common workhouse, a practice which puts the sober and diligent upon a level, in point of their earnings, with those who are dissolute and idle, depresses the laudable emulation of domestic industry and neatness, and destroys all endearing family connections, the only felicity of the indigent."

Hansard 28.9.1841 cols 974 to 976


The commissioners had sold small old workhouses and "parish tenements" to pay for the new workhouses. Parish tenements were houses owned by the parish and tenented by the poor. These Wakley said

" belonged to the poor ... though he could not say that they were possessed of it by any written trust, they were entitled to by tenure, and by that right it belonged to them ... was it the intention of the House, that the poor law commissioners should sell all the dwellings of the poor ... and ... leave the poor no habitation at all but the union house? ... Now, if the tenements thus destroyed had been retained, they might have been converted to useful purposes. It would be a highly desirable object to endeavour by law to force the labouring population to practice virtue. Might not other influences than those of coercion be resorted to for that purpose? Did hon. Gentlemen imagine that their properties were more secure from plunder, or their persons more safe from violence, because no regard was shown for the wants of the poor, and no efforts made to train them to virtue? ... Much of the immorality and of the vice which was to be found amongst the labouring classes could clearly be traced to the fact that no reward or inducement was held out for good conduct. In the whole of the Poor Law ... there was no contrivance for the reward of good conduct, and no provision by which some slight honour or distinction might mark the last days of those who in their lives had set examples of humble virtue. Now, the tenements to which he had alluded would have answered well for such purpose, by granting them to well-behaved paupers of a certain age, as places in which they might repose in peace and quiet during the remainder of their lives. Such a course would be far better than the present practice of sending them to prisons, in many instances miles away from all the scenes of their former associations ... if the prospect of reward was held out to deserving paupers at certain periods of their lives, the labouring population would soon become a new race of men, working in tranquillity and contentment, and happy in the position in which circumstances had placed them"

Hansard 28.9.1841 col.978

"Difficulties could be overcome if the House agreed to legislate in the spirit of the law of Elizabeth The 1834 law originated with a set of Utilitarians ... they would have gone on and ground the bones of the poor, and used them for manure if they thought it would enrich the soil. ["Oh, Oh"] ... Some hon. Gentlemen might not be aware of the opinions entertained by that body. They believed it was an affliction to a country that there should be any poor persons in it. He trusted the House would legislate in a spirit that should cause the working men of this country to teach their sons that the gentry were their friends and benefactors. ... If this were done there would be no fear of midnight conspiracy or crime, nor would any tremble through the night, in apprehension of the scenes which they might be doomed to witness in the morning."

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