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This mode of thought, along with that of Malthus and the economist Ricardo (who was critical of the Speenhamland and roundsman systems), was instrumental in the then Whig Government’s decision to address the problems of the poor and poverty throughout the country: exacerbated by the rising urban poor, riots in the rural counties, and the cost to the Nation on whole. The resultant Royal Commission Report in 1834 outlined: that the Poor Law was extremely expensive to maintain; inefficient to implement; that the old allowance systems did indeed encourage a degree of dependence for some, and undermined the hard work of those that strove to eek out a living for their selves.

According to Watson (p.14), the report contained a section that suggested ‘Remedial Measures’ which constituted two of the most important, social, aspects of the following Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834: they were the notion of less eligibility, and the workhouse test. These ideologies were the result of suggestions from a man by the name of Edwin Chadwick, a Benthamite. The Poor Law Amendment Act, as described by Taylor (1988.p.243), comprised of key elements: the elderly and sick were to still receive relief, but those capable of work, and in need of help had to undergo the aforementioned workhouse test; conditions in the workhouses were to be less favourable than on the outside in the attempt to make the notion of relief a last resort rather than a right. Conditions in the workhouses were extremely harsh, and upon entrance families were split up and housed in separate parts of the establishment.

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This aspect, although not a direct result of the thoughts of Malthus, could have been interpreted as a means of controlling the size of the poor population. The workhouses and the Poor Law Amendment Act soon achieved notoriety and became very unpopular with people. The problems associated with the administrative aspects of the old Poor Law were addressed by the appointment of a Central Board of Poor Law Commissioners. This was to alleviate the disparities that had been problematic with the old system: namely the rising cost and inefficient manner in the way that poor relief had previously been administered. Although central autonomy was not achieved until the latter half of the century, Watson (p.15) comments that it was the ‘…basis of our local government today.’

With the cost of the Poor Laws addressed, it became increasingly apparent to the man who had been responsible for these Remedial Measures, that the scourge of poverty, and its subsequent cost to the nation, was accelerated by the filthy and squalid conditions that the poor lived in. Edwin Chadwick believed that the most important factors in the onset of poverty were illness and disease. With industrialisation well underway by the middle of the 19th Century, the towns and cities were overcrowded: the housing of very poor quality, with little or no fresh water, sewerage or ventilation (Jones.1988.p.303).

Watson (p.47) describes the overcrowding in these dwellings as terrible and uses an example from London, namely Church Lane, where 1,095 people inhabited a mere 27 houses. Disease was rife: cholera, typhus, typhoid and ‘consumption’ were very common and Chadwick, along with like-minded physicians at the time, was convinced that to attend to the sanitary conditions that the poor were subject to would, indirectly, alleviate costs to poor relief and directly improve their health and lives.

This train of thought resulted in Chadwick releasing his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842. This highlighted the desperately inadequate sanitary provision and lack of fresh, running water in the overcrowded towns. Drainage, to cope with sewerage and effluent materials, was almost non-existent: most streets and housing had only open cess pits or gulleys to this effect (Taylor.1988.p.304). Taylor continues to describe that thinkers of the time were beginning to realise that disease had a connection with the dirt and stench of these areas, and attributed it to ‘…the air becoming contaminated by a poisonous gas or miasma…’, (1988.p.306). The apparent need for government intervention is, perhaps, summed up by Dr. William Farr, an acquaintance of Chadwick’s, when he stated in a report

‘This disease mist…from open sewers and cess-pools…it bears smallpox, scarlatina…Like an Angel of Death, it has hovered for centuries over London. But it may be driven away by legislation’ (Jones 1991.p.28). In an attempt to address the problems highlighted in the report, the Public Health Act was passed in 1848. This set up a General Board of Health that was merely permissive of local authorities constructing the necessary sewers to deal with the problems. The Act met opposition, mainly due to the financial implications of such an infrastructure; the Board was abolished in 1853, and the Act was annulled some five years later (Royal Gordon University).

The wheels had, however, been set in motion and the importance of sanitation was acknowledged in 1866 in The Sanitation Act. This, unlike the previous Public Health Act, made local authorities responsible for the creation, maintenance and inspection of suitable sanitary provision in the cities and towns by appointing local boards of health for this purpose. Information gathered thus resulted in The Royal Sanitary Commission in 1869 and the subsequent 1872 Public Health Act.

This, in brief, broke the country up into ‘sanitary areas’, that were the responsibility of Health Officers: this encapsulated housing conditions, provision of fresh water supply, sewerage and public toilets. Furthermore, the legislation made the attention to these areas mandatory and was also instrumental in the appointment of Medical Officers (Jones.1991.p.315/6). The amalgamation of legislation and the increasing medical knowledge of the time was to prove a worthy and beneficial partnership towards the end of the 19th Century, and beyond, for the labouring classes.

As we have seen, towards the end of the 18th, and into the 19th Century, the cost of providing for the poorest members of society had risen to levels that were considered unsustainable. This was attributed, in part, to a culture of dependency on the current means of help that was administered via parish funds met by the wealthy land and house owners at the time. Other systems, based on allowances, were prone to the same problems, compounded by the exploitation of workforces by employers in the knowledge of wage subsidy. It could be argued that human nature was prevalent in both spheres.

The idea of human nature was central to the thinking of men such as Bentham who devised his pleasure/pain theory. This was developed into legislative form in the shape of the unpopular Poor Law Amendment Act, which soon achieved notoriety with the labouring classes. However unpopular this was at the time, it did provide aid and employment to those who needed it and were capable of work. From the initial problem of the cost of maintaining the poor, emerged the reality that poverty was a direct result, in many cases, of the disease ridden and unsanitary conditions that the poor had to endure. Addressing this aspect of 19th Century Britain was to prove instrumental in improving the health and, ultimately wealth, of the nation and creating what we can interpret as the beginning of British social policy.


Jones, K. (1991). The Making of Social Policy in Britain 1830-1990. Athlone Press, London.

Taylor, D. (1988). Mastering Economic and Social History. Macmillan. London.

Watson, R. (Year of publication unknown). Edwin Chadwick, Poor Law and Public Health: Then and There Series. Publisher Unknown.

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