Charles Dickens and the Law: (3) Oliver Twist and the New Poor Law


Oliver Twist was Dickens’s second novel. He was 25 when he wrote it. It was quite different from The Pickwick Papers because it showed him to have no qualms at all about deploying his skills as a novelist in a frontal attack on contemporary legislation which he disliked. In his introduction to the 1907 J.M.Dent edition of the novel G.K.Chesterton wrote:

“Dickens attacks the modern workhouse with a sort of inspired simplicity as of a boy in a fairy tale who had wandered about, sword in hand, looking for ogres and who had found an indisputable ogre. All the other people of his time were attacking things because they are bad economics or because they are bad politics or because they are bad science; he alone is attacking things because they are bad.”

Every reader of Oliver Twist will remember how he asked for more gruel in the workhouse and got landed in very serious trouble for his impertinence.   What is less well known – and I had forgotten it myself when I re-read the book two months ago – was that Dickens was engaged in an assault on a very new piece of social legislation.  The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (“the 1834 Act”) is not a statute that has lasted in the collective memory in the same way that the Great Reform Act of 1832[1] undoubtedly has.

What were the Poor Laws? And why was it thought necessary to amend them?

The expression “the Poor Laws” usually refers to two main laws: the Old Poor Law, as developed in the first Queen Elizabeth’s reign and codified in 1601, and the New Poor Law which was introduced by the 1834 Act as part of a wave of reforming legislation introduced by the Whig Government in the wake of the Great Reform Act.

Their origins go back deep into English social history.   However, although the first traces of Poor Law legislation can be detected in Edward III’s reign, it was the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, removing as it did a major source of voluntary charitable relief[2], that accentuated the need to raise money for the relief of the poor through some form of mandatory local tax.  In London the first compulsory Poor Rate was introduced in 1547 (thereby replacing Sunday collections in Church), and the first House of Correction was initiated in 1553. This institution, housed off Fleet Street in the former royal palace at Bridewell, did double duty as a place where poor children might receive shelter and work opportunities and to which justices could send the disorderly poor for punishment after a fairly summary process.

Further legislation then followed in fits and starts until the Act for the Relief of the Poor Act 1597 represented the first Parliamentary attempt to codify the system.  By this Act every parish had to elect two Overseers of the Poor, whose unpaid labours were under the supervision of a local justice of the peace.  Four years later the Elizabethan Poor Law 1601[3] first introduced the concept of relief being available for the “deserving poor”. It also created the arrangements by which a parish might pay occupiers of property (local farmers, for instance) to employ applicants for relief at a pre-fixed wage that was dependent on the applicant’s needs and not on the value of the work done. The parish would then reimburse the employer out of the poor rate for any wages he advanced in excess of a certain sum. This was known as “the roundsman system”.

At that time the parish was the main unit of local government. It was an ecclesiastical unit, based on the parish church.  There used to be about 15,000 parishes in England and Wales, and each parish was given the power to raise a poor rate. Under the 1601 Act parents and children were responsible for each other if they were deemed capable of accepting this responsibility, and elderly parents were required to live with their children. Those who were too ill or too old to work (the so-called “impotent poor”) were provided with relief in the form of payments of money or items of food or clothing.  Alms houses for old people were for the most part private charitable institutions, although some of them were owned and run by the parishes.  Able-bodied beggars would be placed in a House of Correction if they were offered work and refused to do it: they might even be subjected to beatings in an effort to alter what were perceived to be their work-shy attitudes.

Inevitably there were differences in the way in which poor relief was administered from parish to parish, and some of the Overseers of the Poor abused their powers.   But because they were local people, and the population growth of the eighteenth century had not yet taken place, they were seen to bring with them the benefit of knowing which of the local paupers were deserving and which were undeserving.  This local knowledge tended to make the system more humane, at any rate in its early years.  It was essentially a local system, not the centralised system it was later to become.

The next 200 years saw a number of changes being made.   Some parishes clubbed together to build a local workhouse for the poor, and there was also a growth in the establishment of Houses of Correction after the Bridewell model.  In 1795 local magistrates held a meeting at the Pelican Inn in the Berkshire village of Speenhamland when they decided to supplement low wages out of the poor rate as a way to alleviate some of the distress caused by high grain prices.  Families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table.  This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread.  This practice soon caught on elsewhere, particularly in the southern counties.

By the end of the 18th century nearly 2,000 parish and corporation workhouses had been established, and about a million people were in receipt of some kind of parish poor relief. The cost of implementing the Old Poor Laws fell on the property-owning upper and middle classes, and ways were being sought to mitigate their burden. In 1796 Jeremy Bentham, for instance, published an ambitious scheme for ‘Pauper Management’ whereby a newly formed national charity company would construct a chain of 250 enormous workhouses, financed by a large number of small investors.  Each workhouse would hold about 2,000 inmates who would be put to profitable work and fed on a Spartan diet.  His ideas were revisited, albeit in a different form, nearly 40 years later.

All these changes culminated during the period which followed the Napoleonic wars with mounting dissatisfaction with the operation of the Poor Laws, when able-bodied labourers were finding that they could not find jobs due to the generosity of the Poor Law system. Their problems were exacerbated by the enactment of the Corn Laws in 1814 which artificially maintained the high price of grain.

The Poor Law system was now coming under increasing fire for distorting the operation of the free market. By 1820 more workhouses were being built in an attempt to reduce the spiralling cost of poor relief, and ten years later matters came to a head when widespread rioting by agricultural labourers[4] accelerated the pressure for reform. When political reform was advocated as a means of reducing popular unrest, the Duke of Wellington, who was then Prime Minister, responded to the effect that the existing constitution was so perfect that he could not imagine any possible alternative that would be an improvement. The London mob responded by breaking the windows of his London townhouse.

At all events the Great Reform Act passed into law two years later, and one of the first acts of Lord Grey’s new administration was to set up a Royal Commission on the Poor Law.  The Commission was chaired by the Bishop of London, and its two most influential contributors were Nassau William Senior and Edwin Chadwick (the Secretary of the Commission). The former had been arguing for some time about the need to centralise the Poor Law System.  The latter, a very able civil servant, was later to achieve fame through his insistence that poor sanitation, exacerbated by appalling living conditions, was the principal cause of the cholera epidemics which were causing such havoc among the poorer classes in early Victorian London.[5]

The Commission identified the Speenhamland and roundsman systems as being of particular concern.  The former was playing the role more recently played by family income supplements or tax credits in subsidising low wages.  The latter was seen to be undercutting the market rate for labour.  They concluded that poverty itself was inevitable and that the Old Poor Law was undermining the country’s prosperity by interfering with the natural laws of supply and demand, while the means of poor relief that were being used were permitting employers to force down wages, to the detriment of free labourers who were not dependent on poor relief.

The Commission suggested two principles that should guide the preparation of the laws needed to combat these evils, although neither was carried into legislation in a purist form.  The first was the principle of “less eligibility”[6], whereby a pauper ought to be confined in a workhouse which provided conditions worse that those being endured by the poorest free labourer outside it.  The other was “the workhouse test”. This was founded on a belief that the deserving and the undeserving poor could be distinguished by a simple test: anyone prepared to accept relief in a repellent workhouse must be lacking the moral determination to survive outside it.  The Commissioners’ aim, in short, was to create a system of workhouses that were so uninviting that anyone who was capable of coping with life outside them would never choose to live in one instead.

Another feature of the new legislation, influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus, was the so-called Bastardy Clause, which made it very much more difficult to obtain an affiliation order.  In effect, mothers were to be solely responsible for their illegitimate children until they were 16 years old.   The policy of the Act was to make the consequences sufficiently unattractive to deter women from risking extra-marital pregnancy.  Not surprisingly, the clause ran into heavy and sustained criticism as soon as its effects became clear, and it was replaced within 10 years.

In the event the Poor Law Amendment Bill passed smoothly into law with all-party support.  Lord Melbourne was Home Secretary at the time, and it is interesting to note that in Lord M¸ which is sub-titled The Later Life of Melbourne, Lord David Cecil records how social reform bored him.  He did not think it did any good. He had recently read some economics, which had converted him to the new doctrine of laissez-faire, so that he did not need any further evidence to persuade him that the problems of poverty could only be solved by letting the forces of supply and demand to take their course. But because he was not a hard-hearted man, he was disposed to divert his mind from the topic as much as he possibly could.

In theory, therefore, he was in favour of the New Poor Law, so far as it was grounded on sound economic theory.  But the fact that it put power into the hands of the future Poor Law Commissioners to act without having to seek the permission of the Secretary of State struck him as being a dangerous bureaucratic innovation.  And he was repelled by the idea of dragooning the poor into thrift and industry by stopping the old system of outdoor relief.  He delivered a lukewarm speech in favour of the new legislation, and was then heard to be swearing in an angry undertone at the same time as he cast his vote in its favour.

In short, the few Parliamentarians who opposed the Bill were more exercised by Lord Melbourne’s anxieties about centralisation than by the Benthamite philosophy of utilitarianism that underpinned the Bill.  The self-avowed purpose of the Act was to reduce the burden of poor relief on rate-payers. In his latter day guise as a historian of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill was to comment:

“The Poor Law was reformed on lines that were considered highly advanced in administrative and intellectual circles, though they did not prove popular among those they were supposed to benefit.”

The new Poor Law Commission was based in Somerset House. There were three Commissioners and Edwin Chadwick acted as its Secretary. Their first task was to deploy a team of Assistant Commissioners who helped them to create the new administrative units that were called Poor Law Unions.  Each Union was run by a Board of Poor Law Guardians, elected by the local ratepayers. The Commission then proceeded to issue a lot of orders and regulations which specified every aspect of the operation of a Union and its workhouse.   The scenes depicted by Dickens in the second chapter of Oliver Twist were the intended, not the unintended, consequences of the reforms.

The Times newspaper had been critical of the New Poor Law from the outset.  Indeed, on 30th April 1834 it claimed that “it would disgrace the statute-book” if it were passed, and it continued its opposition to what it referred to as “Benthamite cant” as stories came through of the effect of the new legislation in different parts of the country[7].   By early 1837 Parliament had set up a Select Committee to examine the workings of the Law, and this coincided with the publication of the early chapters of Oliver Twist, which were also republished in serial form in The Times.

This is not the place to try and summarise the later history of this legislation before it was finally replaced by the National Assistance Act 1948.  But I cannot leave this topic without a brief comment on three other features of the novel, together with one final memory of my own.

The first topic is “baby farming”. After the workhouse authorities told the parish authorities that there was no female then domiciled in the workhouse who could look after the infant Oliver

“the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved that Oliver should be ‘farmed’, or, in other words, that he should be despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week.”

Baby-farming was not subject to any statutory regulation until 1872.

Next, pauper apprenticeships.   When the workhouse authorities sought to apprentice the nine-year old Oliver to a very unprepossessing chimney-sweep, he was saved from being “sent away with that dreadful man” by a justice of the peace who saw just how terrified he was. The obligation to secure the assent of two justices for a pauper apprenticeship dated back before the Old Poor Law, which codified the law in this form:

“And be it further enacted, that it shall be lawful for the said Churchwardens and Overseers, or the greater part of them, by the assent of any two Justices of the Peace aforesaid, to bind any such children as aforesaid, to be apprentices, where they shall see convenient, till such man child shall come to the age of four and twenty years, and such woman child to the age of one and twenty years or the time of her marriage: The same to be as effectual as to all purposes, as if such child were of full age, and by Indenture of covenant bound him or her self.”

And finally, the trial at which Fagin was convicted and sentenced to death would have been conducted at the newly renamed Central Criminal Court[8]. He would not have been allowed to give evidence in his defence[9], although a defendant was permitted to make an unsworn statement from the dock, a practice which continued throughout my days at the junior Bar until it was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1982.[10]

Last, but by no means least, I remember visiting the former Oswestry Union Workhouse (then converted into a care home for the elderly) in August 1968, when I acted as an examiner appointed by the High Court of Queensland to receive the sworn evidence of one of its inmates. Her husband had deserted her many years previously, and when he died a claim was being made on her behalf for reasonable provision out of his substantial estate.  She was represented by a local solicitor, while the husband’s legatees were represented by Christopher Bathurst, from my chambers.  He elicited from her the evidence that she was very happy as she was, although a tiny bit more money for the occasional treat would not come amiss.  Nothing could then be done by her solicitor in re-examination to rescue the situation.

The reason I remember that visit was that the workhouse really looked like a workhouse, and although it was burned down in 1982 there is a 1976 photograph of the substantial three-storey building, which used to house 300 inmates, on the worldwide web until this day. I see from that website that the Oswestry Union, who built and ran the workhouse, was incorporated under a private Act of Parliament as an amalgam of a large number of local parishes, and that its Private Act status saved it from having to implement many of the provisions of the new Poor Law of 1834 at any time before it was finally closed as a workhouse in 1930.



[1] As the Representation of the People Act 1832 was popularly known.

[2] In Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (1988) the historian Paul Slack describes how prior to the dissolution “it has been estimated that monasteries alone provided £6,500 a year in alms before 1537; and that sum was not made good by private benefactions until after 1850.”

[3] Its formal title was the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601.

[4] These were known as the Swing Riots.

[5] When typhus swept through London in 1837, Chadwick argued that it would cost less to improve the living conditions of the poor than it cost to provide temporary relief for the sick, the widows and the orphans every time a pestilence struck the big cities.

[6] In this context “less eligible” meant “less desirable”.

[7] Within weeks of its opening, the new workhouse at Abingdon had been in the news when its master was the subject of a murder attempt.

[8] The Central Criminal Court Act 1834 gave the court jurisdiction “to inquire of, hear and determine all treasons, murders, felonies and misdemeanours” committed within the City of London and the County of Middlesex and in those adjoining parts of the Counties of Essex, Kent and Surrey within the parishes listed in the Act and “to deliver Newgate Gaol” of the prisoners therein.

[9] A rule that remained in force until the enactment of the Criminal Evidence Act 1898.

[10] Section 72 (1).

3 thoughts on “Charles Dickens and the Law: (3) Oliver Twist and the New Poor Law

  1. Richard Mosley

    Very interesting Henry. My mother told me of the “Poor House” in her home town of Bandon, Co. Cork, which she recalled from her childhood. The Bandon Union Workhouse was constructed in 1840 and burned down during the troubles in 1921. As with other similar facilities in Ireland, it was incapable of dealing with the great famines of the 1840s. The Bandon Community Hospital is now on the site.


  2. Rachel O'Driscoll

    What a coincidence to find you writing about the Poor Laws – as I am in the midst of writing about the movement from the Old to New Poor Laws for a course on local history. I look back on our work together on Race Relations with great fondness and dip into your, always interesting, blog from time to time. So glad to see that it looks like you are flourishing.


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