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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Suffolk

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Work and Suffolk Workhouses

The New Poor Law

The dual system of parish workhouses and Houses of Industry ended in 1834. Population increases, rising unemployment in rural areas and economic depression, following the Napoleonic wars, had led to a massive increase in expenditure on the poor.

Edwin Chadwick was appointed, by the Government, to devise a more effective, national system of maintaining the poor. His solution, based on the earlier ideas of Jeremy Bentham and evidence from the Suffolk Houses of Industry, was that the 15,000 parishes of England and Wales should be formed into 600 Union districts, each with a central workhouse. Thus the New Poor Law was partly based on the earlier Suffolk system.

1834 Act Title Page
Title page of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
© Peter Higginbotham
The New Poor Law was the first instance of a nationwide organization, being controlled by central government. The Poor Law Commissioners and Board laid down uniform rules and regulations, which were applied to every pauper in every workhouse in England and Wales.

The never realized aim was to end out-relief and make all paupers go into the workhouse. Daily life was intended to be monotonous; the food to be just below the quality of that available to the poorest family who kept themselves out of the workhouse; the work tedious and repetitive and often pointless.

Even though the new workhouses were often of the same design as prisons and seen as such by the inmates, anyone could leave if they wanted to. But if they had no employment there was little choice between starvation and the workhouse.

Words: Clive Paine

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Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890)
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