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The Poor Laws

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 19th century legislation intended to discourage poor people from seeking relief instead of work, with handouts replaced by the workhouse

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

Available now

50 minutes

Last on

Thu 20 Dec 2018 21:30


Emma Griffin at the University of East Anglia

Samantha Shave at the University of Lincoln

Steven King at the University of Leicester

Poverty and the Poor Laws – The National Archives

In Their Own Write: The Lives and Letters of the Poor 1834 – c.1900

English Poor Laws – Wikipedia



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A. Brundage, The English Poor Laws, 1700–1930 (Palgrave, 2002)

Marc Brodie, The Politics of the Poor: The East End of London 1885-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2004)

S. Fowler, Workhouse: The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors (The National Archives, 2007)

David Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law 1790-1870 (Ashgate, 2010)

Lynn Hollen-Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People 1700-1948 (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Peter Jones and S. King (eds), Obligation, Entitlement and Dispute under the English Poor Laws (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015)

Steve King, Sickness, Medical Welfare and the English Poor 1750-1834 (Manchester University Press, 2018)

Steve King, Poverty and Welfare in England 1700-1850: A Regional Perspective (Manchester University Press, 2000)

Marjorie Levine-Clark, Unemployment, Welfare, and Masculine Citizenship: ‘so much honest poverty’ in Britain, 1870-1930 (Palgrave, 2015)

Peter Lindert, Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

K. Morrison, The Workhouse: A Study of Poor Law Buildings in England (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, English Heritage, 1999)

Larry Patriquin, Agrarian Capitalism and Poor Relief in England 1500-1860: Rethinking the Origins of the Welfare State (Palgrave, 2007)

Samantha Shave, Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England 1780-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2017)

Sandra Sherman, Imagining Poverty: Quantification and the Decline of Paternalism (Ohio University Press, 2001)

Keith Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales 1700-1950 (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Thomas Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters 1731-1837 (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Julie-Marie Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2005)



  • Thu 20 Dec 2018 09:00
  • Thu 20 Dec 2018 21:30

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