[In Our Time] The Poor Laws

The Poor Laws

20/12/2018 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=60606104
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p06w50y3.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, from 1834, poor people across England and Wales faced new obstacles when they could no longer feed or clothe themselves, or find shelter. Parliament, in line with the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus, feared hand-outs had become so attractive, they stopped people working to support themselves, and encouraged families to have more children than they could afford. To correct this, under the New Poor Laws it became harder to get any relief outside a workhouse, where families would be separated, husbands from wives, parents from children, sisters from brothers. Many found this regime inhumane, while others protested it was too lenient, and it lasted until the twentieth century.

The image above was published in 1897 as New Year’s Day in the Workhouse.


Emma Griffin
Professor of Modern British History at the University of East Anglia

Samantha Shave
Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln


Steven King
Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Leicester

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2019-02-14

  1. I was surprised that the panel didn’t get more into a comparison with the modern welfare state and its various forms; and how it compares to the Poor Laws
  2. One interesting thing to learn was the claim that most workhouses ended up becoming NHS buildings
  3. And also very cool to learn: that the poor laws of 1834 ripped apart local parish autonomy
  4. The point mentioned at the beginning and end of the program – that widespread poverty was driven by the agrarian nature of England and had fallen dramatically by the end of the nineteenth century thanks to industrialisation – echoes Deirdre McCloskey’s Great Betterment.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s