Wales, Welfare and the Workhouse

Wales, Welfare and the Workhouse

Nicola Blacklaws (University of Leicester) draws attention to the under-studied history of the poor law in Wales, and asks how unique the Welsh experience was

In May 1914, the guardians of Machynlleth poor law union in mid-Wales decided to close the union’s workhouse.[i] It was finally shut down in 1916, after the Local Government Board had sanctioned the closure and arrangements had been made for remaining indoor poor to be housed in a neighbouring union’s institution.[ii] Although the union did purchase and renovate another site to accommodate vagrants in the mid- 1920s, it never again operated a full workhouse of its own.

Prior to 1834, legislation relating to workhouses had been permissive. However, under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, parishes were grouped together into poor law unions and directed to build a workhouse, which was in most cases supposed to be the only form of relief offered to the able-bodied poor, with conditions unpleasant enough to deter all but the most desperate from requesting relief.

This did not apply to Scotland or Ireland, both of which operated under separate welfare legislation. Use of workhouses remained voluntary in Scotland under the 1845 Poor Law (Scotland) Act, although when the poor law was introduced in Ireland in 1838, its regulations closely resembled the 1834 Act. In England and Wales, legislation throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued to emphasise the workhouse as the core of local welfare policy. Given this context, Machynlleth’s decision to close down their institution might seem surprising.

However, it is worth pointing out that in reality there were often discrepancies between central welfare policy and welfare practice ‘on the ground’. In England and Wales overall, in fact, the workhouse test remained a minority experience, with outdoor relief recipients consistently outnumbering those in workhouses between 1840 and 1930.[iii] This continued preference for outdoor relief was particularly pronounced in Wales, where virtually all unions gave over 80 percent of their relief in that form.[iv]

In fact, Welsh unions had a history of highly effective resistance against implementing the workhouse test, or even against building workhouses in the first place. They had this in common with a number of unions in north-west England, but unlike those cases, Welsh avoidance methods were ‘quiet, covert, and at times barely recognisable as resistance at all’, often including ‘apparent, if partial, compliance followed by retraction and recalcitrance’.[v] Unions dragged their feet at every opportunity, from finding a suitable site to approving building plans to appointing staff. They were also more successful than many rebellious English unions, sometimes holding out for several decades before finally complying with poor law directives.[vi]

Machynlleth’s behaviour certainly fit into this portrayal of Welsh opposition strategies. It took around 25 years for the union’s workhouse to be built after its official formation in 1837, and in 1854 the Poor Law Board threatened the union’s dissolution unless building began.[vii] Plans for a workhouse were finally produced and approved in August 1859,[viii] but in April 1860 the Machynlleth guardians had to be reminded again of the commissioners’ ‘determination to divide the Union unless the guardians would at once proceed to the erection of a workhouse’,[ix] and the first PLB annual report to record expenditure on ‘in-maintenance’ by Machynlleth is from 1862-1863.[x] Even when the institution had been built, the guardians still dawdled over the process of getting it up and running.

Why were Welsh unions so resistant to increased workhouse use? Keith Snell points to a social culture, particularly in rural Wales, where many guardians and poor law officials had extensive personal knowledge of their local poor, often maintained through interaction within the same nonconformist religious communities, which made the former less inclined to force poor law applicants out of their homes and into the workhouse.[xi] Megan Evans and Peter Jones reach a similar conclusion, suggesting that Welsh farmers and rate-payers saw the new deterrent workhouse as ‘break[ing] the cherished chain of responsibility between the poor and those who knew them well’.[xii]

This raises the question of whether Machynlleth union’s decision to close their workhouse in 1914 is evidence of continuity with these earlier attitudes. The guardians’ justifications for the closure appear to have been largely pragmatic. Demand for the workhouse had been gradually declining for a number of years, and had been reduced further by boarding out pauper children and the advent of the old age pension, leaving only 24 inmates. It was also more expensive to maintain paupers in the workhouse than it was to relieve them in their own homes.[xiii]

Moreover, the fact that the guardians placed their remaining indoor poor in another institution does not indicate a board itching to reject workhouse use on principle. The example of Machynlleth, then, suggests both continuity and change in Welsh attitudes towards the workhouse: guardians remained reluctant to make extensive use of the institution, but by 1914 the reasons behind this stance may have shifted.

The poor law in Wales has been chronically under-researched, with the result that we know relatively little about how it was administered and experienced there. The small snippet of Welsh welfare history offered here reminds us that Wales should not simply be lumped in with England in conversations about the poor law. Welsh unions had a distinct and complex experience that deserves to be explored.

[i] National Library of Wales, Machynlleth Guardians’ Minute Book, GB0210 EVANSMACH 3a, 27th May 1914.

[ii] National Library of Wales, Machynlleth Guardians’ Minute Book, GB0210 EVANSMACH 3a, 29th March 1916.

[iii] K. D. M. Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, Identify and Welfare in England and Wales 1700-1950 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 217-218.

[iv] Ibid., p. 230.

[v] M. Evans and P. Jones, ‘A stubborn, intractable body: Resistance to the workhouse in Wales 1834-1877’, Family and Community History, 17, no. 2 (2014), p. 115, p. 105.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 106-109.

[vii] Eddowes’ Shrewsbury Journal, 7th June 1854.

[viii] Morning Chronicle, 18th August 1859.

[ix] Eddowes’ Shrewsbury Journal, 18th April 1860.

[x] Poor Law Board: Fifteenth Annual Report 1862-63, p. 152, accessed via UK Parliamentary Papers Online.

[xi] Snell, Parish and Belonging, pp. 259-260.

[xii] Evans and Jones, ‘A stubborn, intractable body’, p. 113.

[xiii] National Library of Wales, Machynlleth Guardians’ Minute Book, GB0210 EVANSMACH 3a, 27th May 1914.

Nicola Blacklaws is a PhD student at the Centre for English Local History within the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her thesis examines the twentieth-century poor law (1900-1930) in the Midlands and Wales, and she is funded by the AHRC, via the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. She can be found via email at, or on twitter @nic_blacklaws.

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