Rights and removals: a four nations perspective on poor law history

Rights and removals: a four nations perspective on poor law history

Simon Gallaher (University of Cambridge)  looks at how geographically distinctive 19th century Poor Law regimes impacted on those whose lives crossed jurisdictions.

By the mid-nineteenth century a system of poor laws encompassed the whole of the United Kingdom. In England and Wales, the 1834 New Poor Law replaced the Elizabethan parish-based model of relief with one centred upon a new institution, the union workhouse.  In 1838, the workhouse model was extended to Ireland, while the Scottish law was reformed in 1845.  Although these systems shared many prevailing ideological approaches to welfare and poverty, the character and specifics of relief of each diverged significantly.  Therefore, poor law historians have tended to consider each nation in relative isolation. Consequently, poor law studies of England, and more recently Ireland have revealed much of the localism inherent within relief administration, and the existence of distinctive geographical welfare regimes based upon economic and cultural disparities.[1]  Taking a four nations approach, however, may reveal much of how different definitions of the “right” to relief between each poor law impacted upon those whose lives crossed jurisdictions.

Whereas the English poor law recognized a right to relief, access to poor relief in Ireland was at the discretion of local poor law authorities. This was reflected in a persistently high level of outdoor relief in England despite the supposed centrality of the workhouse.  In 1860, 86 per cent of relief recipients in England received outdoor relief whereas in Ireland, outdoor relief comprised only three per cent of recipients.[2] The Irish social reformer William Hancock, commented that this disparity showed that ‘the exclusive workhouse system was introduced to Ireland therefore, not as a plan that had succeeded in England, but as a plan that was on its trial in England.’[3]  Even when outdoor relief was permitted from 1847, it was limited to classes deemed deserving enough such as widows with at least two legitimate children.  Such a limitation reflected, Hancock argued, ‘that the relief is given to her on some other principle than that of her being a widow.’[4]  Outdoor relief in Ireland expanded with the agrarian distress and agitation of the 1880s, but the workhouse remained central unlike in England or Scotland.

A right to relief was also determined by definitions of chargeability.  In England, a person could claim poor relief only from the union in which they were officially ‘settled’ – either through birth, marriage, or a term of residence – to ensure each union supported its own poor.  Anyone who claimed relief outside their settlement could be forcibly removed to their own union.  In Scotland, local authorities could recover the cost of relief from other parishes without the need for removals.  Conversely, neither a law of settlement nor inter-union chargeability applied in Ireland – destitution was to be relieved where it was found.  These differences caused problems with the increase of both seasonal and permanent migration from Ireland to Britain during and after the Famine.

Under the English and Scottish poor laws, an Irish migrant’s settlement was their union of origin in Ireland.  The lack of any legal provision for recouping the cost of relief from an Irish union meant the removal to Ireland of Irish-born paupers was the only means to enforce chargeability. But such removals caused resentment among Irish authorities. The Belfast and Dublin workhouse guardians criticized English authorities for the frequent issue of removal warrants not to any union of residence but simply to ‘Ireland’.  They argued that this action caused an increased burden upon their rates as removals were considered returned once off the boat.  The Irish Poor Law Commissioners were irked by their inability to remove to Britain any English or Scottish paupers on Irish relief.  Although the number was insignificant – in July 1877 there were only 109 people from England in Irish workhouses whereas over thirty thousand Irish poor had applied for relief in England – they considered it a ‘patent injustice as between Great Britain and Ireland.’[5]  Their suggestion for the removal of all inter-union chargeability and the assimilation of the poor laws across the United Kingdom to relieve destitution where found, however, was firmly rejected by parliament.

The practice of removal generated much condemnation in Ireland for imposing great hardship on the poor. Hancock blamed the ‘want of any central machinery for adjusting the inter-kingdom claims of chargeability’ for much of ‘the sufferings poor people are exposed to.’[6]  Of particular concern were the removals of migrants’ wives and children who applied for relief.  According to the Irish commissioners ‘the cases of most ordinary occurrence are of women alleged to have been deserted by their husbands, and thereupon compulsorily removed.’  Instead, ‘the husband left the family to look for work and on returning he found to his surprise and dismay that his wife and children have in his absence been removed against their will.’[7] Poor law authorities labeled such removals as ‘divorce by summary jurisdiction’ which ‘deprive a woman and her children of their personal liberty’ to the extent that ‘it is a matter of consideration, whether the law is itself a humane one.’[8]  The Thurles workhouse guardians even suggested that these ‘cruel and iniquitous’ removals were ‘a breach of the Treaty of Union between Great Britain and Ireland’.[9]

The threat of removal likely deterred many Irish-born families from accessing poor relief in Britain.  Crucially, as the poor law developed into the primary source of medical care for the poor, this had serious consequences for migrant health and welfare.  A four nations perspective on the divergence of rights and chargeability between the British poor laws can therefore highlight the experience of those individuals who became caught in the cracks.

[1] For England and Wales: S. King, Poverty and welfare in England 1700-1850: a regional perspective (Manchester, 2000).  For Ireland: V. Crossman and P. Gray (eds), Poverty and welfare in Ireland, 1838-1948 (Dublin, 2011).

[2]Commissioners for administering laws for relief of poor in Ireland, thirteenth annual report [2654], H.C. 1861, xxxvii, 327.

[3] W.N. Hancock, ‘The difference between the English and Irish poor law as to the treatment of women and unemployed workmen’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, 3 (1862), p. 220.

[4] Ibid, p. 228.

[5] Return of number of persons born in England who received relief in Ireland [58], H.C. 1878-79, lx, 367.

[6] Hancock, ‘A comparison of the law of poor removals and chargeability in England, Scotland, and Ireland’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, 6 (1871), pp 30-2.

[7]Commissioners for administering laws for relief of poor in Ireland, twenty-second annual report [4166], H.C. 1868-69, xxviii, 339.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thurles Board of Guardians Minute Book, Feb-Aug 1861, BG/151/A/33.

Simon Gallaher is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.  His research examines the welfare of children under the Irish Poor Law in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a focus on education, health, and childhood.


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