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The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930

Author(s):Brundage, Anthony
Reviewer(s):King, Steve

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Anthony Brundage, The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930. Basingstoke and New

York: Palgrave, 2002. vii + 185 pp. $69.95 or ?49.50 (hardcover), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Steve King, Department of History, Oxford Brookes


This book joins those of Lynne Hollen Lees, Alan Kidd and Pat Thane in trying

to provide an accessible overview of the English and Welsh poor law system up

to its final decline in the 1920s. Like Lees, Brundage orders his narrative

chronologically and characterizes the different periods into which he breaks

the book with catchy titles of the sort that my undergraduate students at least

have found attractive. The book opens with a short introduction which in turn

starts with the story of one of the most famous workhouse children, Charlie

Chaplin, and moves very briefly through the variety of different approaches

that historians have taken in the writing of poor law history. To this reviewer

such an opening looked attractive and I was heartened by Brundage’s

determination to confront the problem of conveying “something of the complexity

and significance of the poor laws, without losing sight of the individual human

dimension” (p. 3). This is precisely what undergraduate students need, though I

did not see how such an aspiration was going to be achieved in 185 pages.

Chapter two, undoubtedly the weakest in the book, looks at the

eighteenth-century poor law. It briefly traces the legislative roots of the Old

Poor Law and then rapidly canters through institutional provision, Knatchbull’s

Act, medical care, attempts at poor law reform by Gilbert, the impact of the

Napoleonic war and the development of allowance systems. At the end of the

chapter we have almost seven pages on poor law thinkers, a theme carried on in

chapter three and certainly the territory where the author seems to be most at

home. Of course, a broad survey should not be lambasted for skating over big

issues, but in this chapter I feel that Brundage has neither fulfilled his

desire to give us the human dimension, or to communicate to students some of

the nuances of the eighteenth-century poor law. Thus, it is incorrect to say

that the township was the basis for the administration of relief in the north

from the outset of the Old Poor Law (p. 9); it is arguable whether “relatives

were pressed to assume the obligation” of looking after aged or impotent

relatives (p. 11); it is very arguable indeed whether parishes were “pleased”

with the system of farming the poor given the speed with which most abandoned

experiments (p. 13); it is too simple to say that the first task of the

overseer was to assess settlement and remove where possible (p. 13) given that

removal activity took place in spurts; and it is certainly not the case in

large areas of eighteenth-century England that for married women on relief ‘an

additional child often meant simply an increased allowance’ (p.15). For me,

these caveats detract from some of the strengths of the chapter. It is

excellent, for instance, that Brundage grapples with the concept of open and

closed parishes and with the issue of failed legislation here. These are

concepts that I keep talking about to my students and I am glad to see them


Chapter three deals with the period between 1800 and the decision to undertake

radical investigation of the operation of the Old Poor Law in 1832. Brundage

traces the influences (evangelical, economic, post-war dislocation and

political) shaping debate on the poor law and deals briefly with the

intervening legislation such as that establishing select vestries. Finally, he

identifies the Swing Riots as the factor which cemented the perceived need for

reform. I found the chapter frustrating. It provides a decent review of the

competing agenda’s for reform and my students have found the summary of figures

presented on page 40 very helpful. The chapter also provides some great turns

of phrase that I wish I had thought of. The idea that “the principles of

economics burrowed ever deeper into the culture and social values” of the

middling and political classes (p. 44) is a great example. However, the poor

themselves and the human element are completely missing from this chapter.

There is absolutely no reference to the work of Thomas Sokoll on pauper letters

in Essex and more widely the tendency for recent poor law historians to

repopulate this period with the poor through their narratives does not get a

mention. This is a shame, for such work provides a useful foil to the drier

politico-legislative angle that my students find hard work.

Chapter four deals with the shaping and initial imposition of the New Poor Law,

starting with the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Poor Law Report,

moving through the processes and politics of Union creation and popular and

community resistance against the imposition of the New Poor Law, and ending

with the role of the Andover workhouse scandal in hastening the demise of the

Poor Law Commission. Brundage, as we would expect from his previous books,

clearly feels most comfortable in this territory, and the chapter is well

written and convincing.

Chapter five deals with the period 1847-1870. It shows that a scandal-prone

poor law settled down into relatively anonymous middle age, with attempts to

expand poor law activities in the spheres of education, medical care (albeit

“haltingly and unofficially,” p. 96), treatment and control of the insane,

vagrancy, structural poverty and the complex laws relating to settlement and

Union finance. The chapter ends by showing how a combination of the Lancashire

cotton famine, growing pauperism in London and a series of medical scandals led

to calls once more for poor law reform. My students found this the most useful

of all the chapters, and its style and coverage is very much better than that

of chapter two.

Chapter six deals with the important subject of the crusade against out-relief,

the Charity Organisation Society and the democratization of the poor law Board

through the addition of working class and female Guardians. Brundage correctly

notes that “While most smaller towns and rural districts seem to have gone on

much as before” (p. 116), some places were alive to the chances offered by the

crusade and adopted it with vigor. He also points out, very usefully for

undergraduates, that this period witnessed a tension between those who had an

agenda of attacking the poor and those who had an agenda for extending the

services and scope of the poor law. Once more, it is a pity that the poor and

their strategies and voices are not heard here. Page 124 starts along this road

but more is necessary to humanize the poor law. It is also a pity that some

misinterpretation of the secondary literature confuses the reading. It is not

the case on page 126, for instance, that Hurren argues for Pell and Spencer

being in opposition.

Chapter seven deals with the final decline of the New Poor Law, tracing

experiments in poplarism, the scope, character and findings of the Royal

Commission on the Poor Laws, Liberal Welfare Reforms and the impact of the

Great War. The chapter is competently executed and feeds through into a

conclusion, which is actually a lot better than some of the chapters on which

it is based. Importantly, Brundage argues that “English poor law experience

[was] simultaneously consensual, contested and contingent.” Once I had

explained this sentence to my undergraduates, they were able to grasp more of

the nuances of the poor relief. Their question though was “whose poor law

experience?” This is my question too, for while Brundage gives us a review of

the poor law from the angle of administrators, politicians, charitable donors

and others, the poor and their economic, cultural and social experiences are

almost completely missing. Maybe this does not matter for a general survey, but

I cannot help feeling that a slightly longer book that really did keep sight

“of the individual human dimension” (p. 3), would have made a more valuable

contribution to the undergraduate reading list. This said, my students like the

volume; the copies in our library have rather more stamps than some of their

natural competitors!

Steven King is Head of the Department of History and Director of Research for

the School of Arts and Humanities at Oxford Brookes University, England. He has

recently edited The Poor in England 1700-1900: An Economy of Makeshifts

(Manchester University Press, 2003) and is currently working on a study of

female poor law guardians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII