Mike Royden's Local History Pages


Lyn James


This essay will outline the causes of and attempts to relieve poverty in England, and particularly in Liverpool, from the seventeenth century to the coming of the New Poor Law in 1834. It will examine the reasons for the change in legislation at that time and its effects on the poor of Liverpool.

The Causes of Poverty in England pre-1834

There were a number of factors which contributed to the spread of poverty in England during the hundred or so years prior to the introduction of the New Poor Law. Probably the most significant was the succession of wars culminating in the Napoleonic wars which ended in 1815. The war effort was a constant drain on the country's resources and contributed to inflation and an increase in the cost of living.

Another significant factor, felt most harshly by the poor, was the failure of the harvests during a ten-year period in the eighteenth century resulting in hugely inflated food prices. Bread was the staple diet for the poor but between 1785 and 1800 the price of wheat tripled.

Relief of Poverty in England pre-1834

The first poor law of the late 1590s provided relief to the sick, old people, and orphaned children. It also allowed for the provision of workhouses for those who were able to work. Workhouses did not however become mandatory until the New Poor Law of 1834. Although seemingly philanthropic, this and subsequent early Acts had their basis in a desire to remove vagrants and paupers from the streets. Poor laws continued with many changes and various degrees of opposition until the 1940s. In 1795, a new system was devised by magistrates in Berkshire which provided an allowance for workers whose wage was below a subsistence level. This system, which became known as the Speenhamland System, was adopted by many other counties across England. Under the Speenhamland system the Parish subsidised workers to bring their wages up to 3/- a week for a single man plus 1/6 for each dependant. Exploitation of the system became rife as employers began to lower wages knowing that Parish would pay the balance. In many cases this 'outdoor' relief was beneficial to the worker as it kept him from the ignominy of the workhouse.

The Causes of Poverty in Liverpool pre-1834

Until the building of the dock system, which started in the early eighteenth century, Liverpool was a comparatively small town. Prior to this, there were small commercial activities such as fishing, potteries, milling, watch-making and small-scale agriculture. Significantly, there was very little of what could be described as poverty. The conditions which gave rise to, what was to become, the very real problem of chronic pauperism originated in the rapid expansion of the port. Although the rate of commercial growth was startling during the eighteenth century, the growth in population was much more significant. Unfortunately, the growth in population was not matched by the appropriate regulatory and administrative provisions. The quality of housing, healthcare and sanitation was left to chance, the will of the people and the property developers. As the population exploded, the supply of labour outstripped demand and so began a trend that continued long into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the years after the Napoleonic wars, during a time of comparative national optimism, Liverpool saw a new influx of those seeking their fortune. These would-be nouveaux riches treated the town as a stepping-stone and had little interest in its social problems. This attitude spread to the middle class and they too refused to acknowledge any relationship between themselves and the lower classes.

Poverty at the time was something of a problem and although significant enough to see the building of the first workhouse, was insignificant compared to what was to come in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Relief of Poverty in Liverpool pre-1834

Until the building of the first workhouse in 1733, relief was of the 'outdoor' kind in Liverpool. The Special Vestry Committee would pay a few regular recipients an amount from the Poor's Levy. It was apparently left to the discretion of the overseers to settle the amount each owner of land or house was to pay(1). The levy was supplemented by donation. Payments of 6d or 1/- were made weekly, usually to women. The total paid in 1681 was just £40. After the constitution of the parish, relief was controlled by salaried officials. The master of the workhouse managed indoor relief, overseers and collectors looked after rates and external administration and the treasurer was superintendent of finances. The committee was elected by ratepayers at the Annual Vestry.

During the building of the workhouse in 1733, it was clear that the Vestry wanted to clear the streets of paupers and administer all relief indoors for it ordered…... to set the poor of therein as soon as finished and see that all the poor be employed therein such proper work they shall be found capable of, and will tend mostly for the advantage of the undertaking, and that no rents or relief be allowed to any person whatsoever out of the workhouse(2).

However, administration of this indoor relief was always going to be difficult and in 1752 an amendment was made that exceptions could be made by order of the Mayor or a Justice of the Peace. In 1757 and 1762 the workhouse was enlarged and in 1762 a second was built. The quality of administration fluctuated according to the person appointed as warden, his commitment and the level of remuneration. During the years 1799 to 1804 there was a period of particular ill-discipline with inmates drinking, causing riots and pawning workhouse clothes and furniture.

There were constant struggles between the parish and the corporation. In order to meet rising costs, the parish tried to tax previously untaxed properties. In 1786, the Vestry ordered several docks to be rated but the corporation refused to pay and stated there was money still due on the land on which the workhouse had been built.

The system of indoor relief had all but broken down and by 1820 there were 1,500 in the workhouse, the most extensive of its kind in the kingdom(3) , and 8,000 on the streets. One in ten inhabitants of the town were in receipt of some sort of relief. Radical changes were necessary and the Select Vestry was formed in 1821. It quickly set about investigating the abuses of the system and to lower the poor rate. Excess expenditure on food and wine was cut, owners of properties previously assessed but not paying were made to pay and the labour test was vigorously applied. Outdoor relief was paid to the fit only in return for road-making, stone-cutting and other menial tasks. Children were 'apprenticed'. The workhouses were made intolerable. Despite a rise in the population, the total amount spent on relief dropped from £36,013 in 1821 to £19,395 in 1827.(4)

The cold-blooded administration drew protest from some but the Vestry replied the relief is to be granted by Rule and according to Law and not capriciously or from the irregular impulses of compassion.(5) Inside the workhouses, life was dreadful. Dignity was stripped as family members were classified and segregated. However the administration of the relief of the poor in Liverpool received rare praise by the Commissioners in their report of 1834.

The New Poor Law of 1934

In 1832 a Royal Commission was appointed to report on ways in which poor relief could be improved. The Commission in its report emphasised two principles:

i. The Workhouse Test - 'outdoor relief' was generally to be abolished for the able-bodied. No assistance was to be offered unless the whole family entered the workhouse.

ii. The Less Eligiblity Test - the condition of workhouse inmates was to be 'less eligible' (agreeable) than that of the lowest-paid worker outside the workhouse.

The new law was enacted in 1834. It withdrew all relief from the able-bodied poor and their families except for that given in the workhouse in the hope that papers would seek gainful employment. Workhouses were purposely made into extremely unpleasant places so that people would not seek help unless they were absolutely destitute.

The 1834 Poor Law established a central Poor Law Commission based at Somerset House, with three Commissioners. Parishes were to be combined into Unions, with workhouses run by Guardians under the authority of regional rather than local administration. Conditions varied but were generally harsh and punitive. On entering the workhouse an individual lost all rights, was segregated from family members and was subject to a regime of meager food and irksome work such as stone-breaking. Women were set to work at oakhum-picking, a particularly odious task involving stripping the fibres from old rope and mixing it with tar, the finished product to be used in waterproofing ships' decks.

The Effects of the Poor Law in Liverpool

The New Poor Law was enacted at a time when Liverpool was expanding like no other area in the country. The number of ships entering the port rose from 2,946 in 1816 to 9,338 in 1850(6). The natural progression of any such expansion is for an influx of people seeking employment. This was certainly the case in Liverpool. However, the resulting rise in population cannot be easily established for another factor contrived to add to the expansion. Between 1845 and 1851, the potato crops in Ireland failed. The Great Famine was devastating to the Irish whose main food was the potato. Irish immigrants flooded into Liverpool. Census returns show a population of 223,003 in 1841 rising to 376,065 in 1851(7). In 1847 nearly one third of the £67,000 spent on poor relief went to the Irish . The Medical Officer's Annual Report of 1847 reported that by the end of June not less than 300,000 Irish had landed in Liverpool. Of these it was estimated that 60,000 to 80,000 had located themselves amongst us, occupying every nook and cranny of the already overcrowded lodging houses and forcing themselves into the cellars that had been closed under the provision of the Health Act, 1942(9).

The poor of Liverpool at that time were living in the dense mass of poorly constructed court dwellings. Now this existing housing stock was to be further stretched to accommodate Irish immigrants. The problem was exacerbated further between 1847 and 1850 when extensions to the railway system caused the demolition of hundreds of dwellings.

Probably the most significant cause of poverty throughout the nineteenth century and one which could not be accommodated by the provisions of the New Poor Law was the problem of intermittent employment. With nothing to stop them, the great shipping magnates like the Brocklebanks and Cunard exploited the oversupply of unskilled labour. Men were made to queue each morning at the dockside in the hope of a day or half day's work. Casualism favoured the young and the fit. Grisewood writes, I can conceive of nothing more injurious in its moral effects than a system which gives a man abundance for his family this week and starvation next(10). A similar problem was faced, although on a longer term, by those engaged in the building trade who suffered lay-offs during bad weather. There is little doubt that wages paid to the unskilled did not allow for any contingency savings.

The prospect of a lifetime of this type of employment, always with the workhouse casting an insidious shadow, shaped the lives and attitudes of those families affected by it. Who amongst them would not have turned to drink, gambling or crime for some kind of short-term relief? Often though it was the wives and children who suffered most. With husbands who had become indifferent to the family plight, wives could only be classed as 'undeserving' under the provisions of the New Poor Law. There is no doubt that drink was indeed a major problem in Liverpool. Men who were able to get a few days' work often proceeded to drink away their wages. But the question must be asked, what was the cause of the drinking? Does a man drink to alleviate the conditions in which he finds himself, or are those very conditions caused by the drink itself? The problem was not helped by the profiteers who saw their opportunity. There were no fewer than sixty-five breweries in the city. The extent to which the condition of the poor was the result of the poverty itself rather than of their inability to so anything about it was recognised before the Commissioners' report, but ignored by them. Liverpool's Dr Duncan, in his report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of England, 1842, saw that the wretchedness of the poor was the inevitable consequence of their circumstances and not necessarily their own fault(11).

In a communal dread of the relief offered by the New Poor Law, there appeared in Liverpool a system of neighbourhood care, one in which neighbours and friends banded together to help out during times of crisis. No-one wanted to see anyone having to knock on the workhouse door. The penultimate resort in bad times was that of the pawnbroker. In 1855 there were 129 pawnbrokers taking an average of 50,000 pledges a week.(12)

The plight of the poor was often not helped by the variety if do-gooders whose altruism and misunderstanding of the problems was almost as bad as the prospect of indoor relief. There were certainly in Liverpool many genuine philanthropists, generally men and women from the 'old families' like the Rathbones and the Roscoes. However, there were many more of the new, middle-rich with their social aspirations. On this matter, Simey cites an article in Porcupine, 1 June 1861. No small number of these benevolent persons are philanthropic because it is the fashion to be so; because it brings them into contact with this Bishop or that Earl, or even with Mr Cropper or Mr Rathbone(13). By 1863, so many societies had been formed to minister to this or that class of poor that some sort of consistency became necessary. The works of organisations such as the Unitarians, the Benevolent Society and the District Provident Society were an important part of the relief of the poor. However, poor communication between them led to duplication or lack of provision for some classes of needy. The Central Relief Committee was formed in 1863 with the objective of centralising the giving of relief to the poor. It was not long however before the CRS gained the reputation for being as bad as the workhouse in its interrogation of applicants.

Liverpool's expansion during the nineteenth century was due to the development of her world-class dock system. Simey suggests that the facilities it offered as a port, and on this one means of livelihood hinged its whole fortune. It was to this fact that Liverpool owed its individual character and the peculiar difficulty of its social problem(14). If the wealth of Liverpool lay in and around the dockland, this wealth was hardly the source of the alleviation of the poverty. Owners of businesses, instead of living at the site of their business chose to live out of town and were therefore exempt from the poor levy. William Rathbone in his House of Commons speech of 1869 concluded that the poorer class contributes to the poor rate a larger proportion of its income than the rich, and the poorer in each class contribute a larger proportion of their income than the richer(15) . He calculated this to be between twice and seven times as much. Once again it was a case of the poor looking after the poor.

The people of the Parish rightly opposed adopting the provisions of the New Poor Law and continued to curse its intervention long after it had been adopted in Liverpool. With so vast a population as that which Liverpool now contains, and with a great variety of causes of temporary want and suffering arsing from its shipping and commerce, it will be obvious to anyone conversant with parochial affairs that the honorary officers of this Parish ought to have vested in them large discretionary powers… (16). On 11 March 1841 it had been resolved that an… application be made to the Poor Law Commissioners respectfully requesting them to suspend the application of the Act to this Parish(17). The appeal to the Commissioners was unsuccessful and on 20 March 1841 notice was given that a Board of Governers was to be elected. The elections were swift, taking place just five days later, bringing to an end the administration of the long-suffering Select Vestry Committee. To comply with the provisions of the Act, The West Derby Union was formed, one of the largest in the country, bringing together under a central administration 23 parishes from Liverpool and the surrounding area.


The New Poor was not so much based on a misconception of the causes of poverty but an abject failure on the part of those commissioning the 1832 report to set a brief for the Commissioners to investigate those causes. It was a purely and simply a report for the inquiring into the administration and operation of the Poor Laws.

From the outset, the Royal Commission had one hand tied. It saw only one problem and that was the administration problem. It did not investigate the complexity of issues that were the causes of poverty, that is to say the social problems. It is clear that the one and only objective of the new system was to minimise pauperism by intimidation and degradation. The Commissioners clearly believed that a work ethic could be restored by making any sort of relief, especially that indoors, less pleasant than work.

The New Poor Laws failed miserably in Liverpool. Apart from the factors contributing nationally to the state of the underclasses such as the effects of wars and inflation, Liverpool was victim to two other major factors. Firstly, her unique position as a rapidly expanding port resulted in an influx of people of all classes into an area whose social infrastructure was unable to cope. The addition to the population by the Irish immigrants during the late 1840s exacerbated the situation. Secondly, as a port based on commercial rather that industrial enterprise, Liverpool workers were plagued by employment that was casual, seasonal or cyclical. These insurmountable problems could not possibly have been provided for by the system of indoor relief on which the New Poor Law had been so confidently based.

Central administration of the welfare of the poor with its rigid belief in the ability of indoor relief as a deterrent to poverty was totally inappropriate for the town of Liverpool and indeed for many other large cities and towns throughout the land with their individual and complex problems. The New Poor Law of 1834 would have served Liverpool better if had conferred discretionary powers to the people who were better equipped to deal with local issues.


1. Blease (1908) p 101
2. Blease (1908) p121
3. Blease (1908) p128
4. Rodgers (1971) p71
5. Blease (1809) p163
6. Miller (1988) p 9
7. cited by Aughton (1999) p 154
8. Aughton (1999) p155
9. cited by Simey (1992) p 41
10. Grisewood (1899) p8
11. cited in Simey (1992) p 46
12. Miller (1999) p25
13. Simey (1951) p 56
14. Simey (1992) p 7
15. cited in Rose (1971) p 221
16. Peet (1915) p 366. Report of the Churchwardens and Overseers for the year ending 25 March 1842
17. Peet (1915) p 360. Special Vestry Meeting 11 March 1841


AUGHTON, Peter (1999). Liverpool A People's History. Carnegie Publishing. 2nd edition reprinted.
BLEASE, W Lyon (1908). The Poor Law in Liverpool 1681-1834.
EDSALL, Nicholas (1971). The Anti-Poor Law Movement. Manchester University Press.
GRISEWOOD, William (1899). The Poor of Liverpool and What is Done for Them.
KEELING, Dorothy (1961). The Crowded Stairs. National Council of Social Service.
MILLER, Anthony (1988). Poverty Derserved? Liver Press.
MUIR, Ramsay (1907). A History of Liverpool. The University Press of Liverpool.
RODGERS, Brian (1968). The Battle Against Poverty: Volume 1. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
ROSE, Michael (1971). The English Poor Law. David & Charles.
SHIMMIN, Hugh (1985). Liverpool Life, The Courts and Alleys of Liverpool. Garland Publishing.
SIMEY, Margaret (1951). Charitable Effort in Liverpool in the Nineteenth Century. The University Press Liverpool.
SIMEY, Margaret (1992). Charity Rediscovered. Liverpool University Press.
PEET, Henry (1915). Liverpool Vestry Books, Vol 11, 1800-1834 with supplementary extracts 1835-1842. The University Press and Constable & Company Ltd.
POOR LAW COMMISSIONERS (1894). The First Report of the Commissioners for the Inquiring into the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws in 1834. Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Lyn James (February 2003)

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