…..the able-bodied recipient of poor relief “on the whole shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.”1
There’s nothing worse than paying tax and being taken for a ride. The genius of the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834, was deleting judgement from the provision of relief. Receiving relief was an entitlement where people presented themselves to the workhouse and entered. The Poor Law ‘less eligibility’ clause meant their ‘choice’ was between the workhouse and dying: they were destitute. Although workhouses shared many features with prisons – gruelling work, family separation, oppressive in-house rules and loss of freedom [see addendum] – they were a vital safety net, a welfare system.
The New Poor Law, 18341
The New Poor Law was predicated on workhouses and the principle of ‘less eligibility’. Less eligibility meant physical discomfort and psychological pain. Families were broken up, creating a hostile psychological environment replicating imprisonment. Only the context of the work was different to that undertaken in prison. This was seized on by critics who condemned criminalisation of poverty, giving the nickname Bastilles2 to workhouses.
Despite the atrocious reputation of workhouses, they fulfilled their principal role. British people didn’t starve in ditches. Welfare was uniform across the country, which prevented wide disparity of provision from area to area. Relief was precisely targeted at those needing it most because everyone in a workhouse was self-selected. Taxpayers got a good deal. There was no possibility of fraud or gaming the system as workhouses were uniform across the country.3 Freedom of action for the Boards of Guardians was severely limited.
Despite the uniform system across the country, there were variations. Some workhouses were brutal whilst others were subject to corruption and there was unease about the criminalisation of the poor. Unfortunately, handing the most vulnerable people in society over to people who’d been told, but probably hadn’t understood ‘less eligibility’, meant that there was a great deal of gratuitous authoritarianism.
A poor diet, harsh living conditions and heavy physical work done in silence ground down the spirit of inmates in the workhouse. When an inmate was obviously a victim of circumstance this aroused a lot of public sympathy. Brilliant novelists like Charles Dickens and investigatory journalists worked hard to discover and publicise scandals.4
Regardless of the obvious and glaring faults, the Poor Law Amendment Act wasn’t fully replaced until 1949. Long before then most of the worst features had disappeared in the reconfiguring of society in the cauldron of the First World War, which created a new concept of citizenship. The Great Depression of the 1930s destroyed what was left of the administration of the Poor Law. ‘Less eligibility’ was an elegant solution to the perennial challenge of combatting fraud in the welfare system. Like all such ‘solutions’ it only partially worked and the question remains: is it possible to get a good deal for taxpayers and the poor?
2 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1834/may/09/amendment-of-the-poor-laws-england#s3v0023p0_18340509_hoc_36 This is the parliamentary debate much of which is hostile.
3 This excellent blog gives a short but very good insight in to the actuality of the administration of local workhouses. https://trimdon.com/trimdon-history/sedgefield-board-of-guardians-the-workhouse/ NB This was Tony Blair’s seat for 20+ years from the 1980s
4 Andover scandal is the best documented see https://oedeboyz.com/2017/04/07/thomas-malthus-and-the-andover-workhouse-scandal-1845-6/
You might want to read this poem about Christmas Day in the workhouse it’s very readable and worthwhile. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poem.html