POOR LAW:1834 | Background to Chartism in Stoke-on-Trent

Also see: Poverty and the Workhouses in North Staffordshire


Poor Laws, system of relief for the poor in England, which evolved in the 16th century in the reign of Elizabeth I and continued with various modifications until after World War II.

The original Poor Laws of 1597-1598 provided for the administration of relief to the sick, to old people, and to destitute children through parish overseers, in addition to providing work for the able bodied in local workhouses.

These arrangements were modified by the generous Speenhamland system in the late 18th century, which gave allowances to workers whose wage was below the generally accepted subsistence level. The Speenhamland system was expensive to maintain, but it persisted until 1834, when a revised, much harsher (and infinitely cheaper) Poor Law was voted through parliament. This change withdrew all relief from the able bodied poor except the workhouse, with a view to spurring workers to seek gainful employment instead of falling back on public charity.

The law remained basically the same until the 20th century, though its more ruthless effects were offset by the growth of humanitarian feeling among the general public. Finally, the suffering of unemployed industrial workers during the Great Depression demonstrated conclusively that poverty was far more than a moral problem, and in the 1930s and 1940s the Poor Laws were supplanted by a comprehensive framework of public welfare services.