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The 1834 Poor Law Act and Lunatics

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4.8 The 1834 Poor Law Act and Lunatics
4.8.2 All lunatics or just dangerous ones?
4.8.3 Specialist accommodation
4.8.4 Less eligibility
4.8.5 Poor Law asylums
4.8.6 Peel, Graham and the Poor Law Commission
4.8.7 Controlling the Poor Law Commission
4.8.8 Poor Law Commission directions Spring 1842
4.8.9 1842 Poor Law Continuation and Amendment Act
4.8.10 Statistical Returns
4.8.11 The economy of cure: July 1843
Social Science
and the 1834
Poor Law


England's Poor
Law Commissioners
and the Trade
in Pauper Lunacy

4.8 The 1834 Poor Law Act and Lunatics

4.8.1 Until 1834 the administration of poor relief was a parish responsibility, but under the 1834 Poor Law Act parishes could unite as a "Union" in order to erect a common workhouse. For each union a "Board of Guardians" was elected to administer the Poor Law.

By 1842 most parishes in England and Wales were in unions, an important consequence of which was that local poor relief had become subject to central control because the 1834 Act made unions subject to regulation by a "Poor Law Commission".

As the Commission developed (and especially after Robert Peel became Prime Minister in 1841) the Government made increasing use of it as a source of information on the local administration of poor relief and as a means to enforce a uniform national policy.

A national policy for pauper lunatics was already being developed in the early 1840s, and the Metropolitan Commission's National Inquiry took place in this context.

4.8.2 All lunatics or just dangerous ones?

The 1834 Poor Law Act s.45 stated:

"nothing in this Act contained shall authorise the detention in any workhouse of any dangerous lunatic, insane person, or idiot for any longer period than fourteen days."

The interpretation of this was a matter of dispute. Some, including the Metropolitan Commission in their 1839 Report, believed it prohibited the workhouse detention of any lunatic, insane person or idiot. The Poor Law Commission, however, supported by the Government law offices, maintained that "dangerous" applied to the whole phrase and so the prohibition only applied to lunatics, insane people and idiots who were dangerous. (1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners p. 95)

4.8.3 Specialist accommodation

The general spirit of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (Poor Law Inquiry 1832-1834), whose recommendations led to the 1834 Act, was in favour of centrally regulated institutional treatment of paupers. This was to be in specialist accommodation appropriate to the pauper's needs as perceived by the authorities. They wrote that:

"The principle of separate and appropriate management has been carried into imperfect execution, in the case of lunatics, by means of lunatic asylums; and we have no doubt that, with relation to ... the blind and similar cases, it might be carried into more complete execution under extended incorporations acting with the aid of the Central board" (Poor Law Inquiry Report 1832-1834, pp 306-307 quoted Webb, S + B, 1929, part 2, vol.1, footnote p.66)

The Poor Law Commission upheld the principle of separate accommodation for all lunatics, not just the dangerous. Its "Orders and Regulations to be Observed in the Workhouse" stated that:

"On admission, the pauper is to enter the probationary ward until examined by the medical officer. If labouring under disease of the body or mind, the pauper shall be placed either in the sick ward or the ward for lunatics and idiots not dangerous" (Summary from MacKay p. 169)

4.8.4 Less eligibility

The principle of the new Poor Law were set out succinctly by the Poor Law Commission in a special report in 1839 .

The "fundamental principle ... to legal relief of the poor" was that "the condition of the pauper ought to be on the whole less eligible than that of the independent labourer".

The workhouse was the most favoured means to deter relief applications and to encourage the poor to maintain themselves. An inmate was subjected to

"such a system of labour, discipline and restraint as should be sufficient to outweigh in his estimation, the advantages which he derives from the bodily comfort which he enjoys ... upon this principle the English Union workhouses have been organised."

The principle, the commission thought, should be applied to the aged and infirm, as well as the able bodied. Workhouse arrangements for the aged and infirm should not be so modified

"as to place them on a footing of almshouses":
"If the condition of the inmates of a workhouse were to be so regulated as to invite the aged and infirm of the labouring class to take refuge in it, it would immediately be useless as a test between indigence and indolence or fraud - it would no longer operate as an inducement to the young and healthy to provide support for their later years, or as a stimulus to them, while they have the means, to support their aged parents and relatives."

(Report on the Continuance of the Poor Law Commission, 31.12.1839. Quoted MacKay p. 169)

4.8.5 Poor law asylums

The new Poor Law appears to have resulted in a considerable increase in the numbers of pauper lunatics maintained in workhouses instead of on outdoor relief. The Metropolitan commissioners stated (note that the matter was not strictly their concern) in 1839 that:

"The attention of the Commissioners has lately been directed to a practice which they fear prevails to a considerable extent both in the metropolitan district and the provinces, namely, that of permanently confining pauper lunatics in wards attached to or forming part of the workhouses belonging to the poor law unions. The Commissioners, conceiving that the practice in questions is not only contrary to law, but opens a wide door to abuses of the most dangerous description, have communicated with the" [Home Secretary] "as to the best mode of remedying the evil, and they have reason to hope, that by the means of his interposition, this very objectionable system will be put an end to. (1839 Report)
It seems, therefore, that as early as 1839 the Home Office had indicated to the Metropolitan Commission that it would take steps to have pauper lunatics transferred from workhouse wards to asylums. These would not necessarily be County Asylums, however.

As an ideal it seems the Poor Law Commission were against detaining any lunatics or idiots in workhouses but wanted the creation of special Poor Law asylums by a secondary union of unions, so that the lunatics from a number of workhouses could be aggregated in one building with appropriate facilities. County Asylums were felt to be unnecessarily expensive having involved

"in a great many instances ... very great jobs"
according to assistant commissioner Edward Gulson who suggested to a SCHC that County asylums would be more economically run if transferred from JPs to the
"entire control of the Board of Guardians". (1838 SCHC Poor Law Asylum Act pp 10-11, quoted Jones, K. 1972 pp 127-128).
"The best union workhouses" had cost no more than £440 per pauper accommodated, but County asylums, in some cases, upwards of £200 (1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners p.12)

The 1838 SCHC recommended the Poor Law Commission or Home Secretary should have power to unite unions for the purpose of maintaining a common lunatic asylum, distinct from the County asylum, and this was a provision in an abortive Poor Law Bill in 1839 (Hodgkinson, R. 1966 pp 140-141).

4.8.6 Peel, Graham and the Poor Law Commission

After his 1841 election victory (4.6.1) Peel soon made it clear that he had no intention of abolishing the Poor Law Commission, but intended to strengthen it and to increase control over social policies.

He and his Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, brought the Poor Law Commission more directly under their own control. They used its ability to gather information as a direct instrument in the political battle to control the nation.

The commission, they recognized, was as much a part of the new information technology at their disposal in the early 1840s as were the railways and the telegraph. Bureaucracy, Railroads and Telegraphs had provided Leviathan with sophistication.

The direction that Peel was to take became clear in mid-September of 1841.

In a debate on the continuation of the poor law, Peel told the Commons that he was not going to stand idly by whilst MPs reported cases of atrocious suffering in their constituencies:

"When I hear of any case of individual distress ... I am resolved to institute thereupon an immediate inquiry into all the circumstances ...

I am sure you cannot better show your good will for the Poor Law Commission, or to their subordinate agents, than to make them the instruments of such inquiry" (Hansard 27.9.1841, col. 865)

The next day (28.9.1841) William Busfield Ferrand, MP for Knaresborough and the most determined of the newly elected anti-poor law Tories, copiously illustrated a speech with examples of ill-treatment of the poor.

Home Secretary Graham replied to him that these

"were proofs, if they were accurately stated ... of great local mismanagement. They did not tend to impugn the conduct of the central body, on the contrary, they went far to show the danger of local management being left uncontrolled, and were a strong argument in favour of the superintending authority of some such commission as he ... asked the House to continue."

4.8.7 Controlling the Poor Law Commission

Graham said the House of Commons could have further confidence in the Commission because it was now under the control of the Government. Since 1834 the Poor Law Commission had been using "Special Orders" directed at specific unions to assert its authority because these could be issued without Home Office approval. [The Poor Law Commission, in other words, had been acting as a semi-autonomous government!] Within the past six weeks (on Graham's instructions, I assume) the Commission had withdrawn all these special orders and replaced them with a General Order to all unions - the form of order that required Home Office approval.

Furthermore, Graham continued, the Commission's recent Orders had relaxed the stringencies of the Poor Law and demonstrated that the commission was a flexible body that could respond to circumstances of popular distress. He called on the House of Commons to have:

"confidence in the Commission controlled by the executive."

(Graham Hansard28.9.1841 col.951)

What mattered most to Peel and Graham, the machinery of central control or the poor law policy? Both men, I believe, valued the principles of 1834, but I am inclined to believe that they were most concerned to conserve and develop the instruments of control.

4.8.8 Poor Law Commission directions Spring 1842

From 1841 the general direction of Government policy was to moderate, where necessary, the more extreme applications of the principles of 1834, in order to secure more firmly acceptance of the Poor Law Commission and the poor law policy. These were the circumstances in which the Metropolitan Commission began its Inquiry into the treatment of pauper lunatics (See 4.4)

In February 1842 the Poor Law Commission issued directions to the Guardians stating that s.45 of the 1834 Act was not an adequate guide to which lunatics should be sent to asylums:

"It must ... be remembered that with lunatics, the first object ought to be their cure, by means of proper medical treatment. This can only be obtained in a well-regulated Asylums: and therefore the detention of any curable lunatic in a workhouse is highly objectionable, on the score both of humanity and economy."
The Poor Law Commission believed most paupers of unsound mind in workhouses were "incurable harmless idiots" and although that was neither illegal or objectionable on the ground of "defective medical treatment" the Commission:
"nevertheless think that the practice is often attended with serious inconveniences, and ... are desirous of impressing upon the Guardians the necessity of the utmost caution and vigilance in the management of any persons of this class who may be in workhouses."
(Poor Law Commission. Printed Directions on Lunatics in Workhouses 5.2.1842, quoted 1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners pp 95-96)

4.8.9 1842 Poor Law Continuation and Amendment Act

Between 18## and 1841 the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was renewed annually, but the 1842 Poor Law Continuation and Amendment Act continued it for five years: thus putting the Poor Law Commission on a more stable basis.

The 1842 Poor Law Act also increased central control over the disposal of pauper lunatics. By s.6 Guardians and Relieving Officers were to have "the like powers as overseers with respect to insane persons" under the 1828 County Asylums Act.

This meant that unions, as well as parishes, could now send lunatics to a County Asylum. As Unions, unlike parishes, were regulated by the Poor Law Commission it also meant that central government gained more influence over what happened to pauper lunatics (Nicholls vol.2 p.354).

Hodgkinson (incorrectly) says that the 1842 Inquiry Act required Poor Law Medical Officers to inform the Guardians of any pauper lunatics who might be cured, and that such cases were to be sent to an asylum. (Hodgkinson, R. 1966 p.141). This may have been a provision of the 1842 Poor Law Act.

4.8.10 Statistical Returns

The 1834 Poor Law first categorized people and then it counted them. In this way, unintentionally at first, it helped to create political statistics.

We have seen how in 183# the Commission's regulations required that people entering workhouses should first go into a "probationary ward" where they were sorted by the medical officer into the sick, the lunatic and the able bodied. So the spread of Unions over the country resulted in a national sorting of the destitute into categories that then cried out to be counted! The establishment of the Statistical Society in 1834 was closely (and consciously) related to this and similar processes of government. Section 6 of the 1842 Poor Law Act was passed to enable Unions to have lunatics admitted to an asylum. -- But it had another use. The responsibilities of overseers under the 1828 County Asylums Act (s.36) included sending a list of all lunatic paupers in their parish to the County JPs. Parry Jones notes from his survey of Oxford records that

"numerous parishes defaulted from making proper returns" (Parry-Jones, W.L. 1972 p.294)
and the 1844 Report notes that
"these returns, it is believed, are not very regularly made" (1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners p.181).
Now, however, the Unions had the same responsibility, and they compiled the lists regularly. Copies of the lists had to be sent to the poor Law Commissioners and Home Secretary Graham required that these should be used for statistical purposes (Nicholls vol.2 p.354 and 1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners p.181).

Graham told the Commons in 1844 that he had given instructions to the Poor Law Commission in 1842 and 1843

"to inquire into and report on the lunatic paupers dispersed in the union workhouses throughout the country"
as a means of assisting the Metropolitan Commission's Inquiry. (Hansard23.7.1844 col.1274)

In a chapter on the "Statistics of Insanity" the 1844 Report stated that the returns made to the Poor Law Commission were the most important available as they contained

"the only authentic information upon the subject ... applicable to the whole kingdom" 1844 Report Metropolitan Commissioners p.181).

4.8.11 The economy of cure: July 1843

On 20.7.1843 Ashley drew the Home Secretary's attention to the practice of detaining lunatics in workhouses. The case he highlighted was one alleged in a letter from the Chair of Dorset Guardians who said that an order for a pauper's removal to the County Asylum made in November 1842 was not carried out by the Relieving Officer until April 1843.

Ashley believed that such delays were widespread and "causing great expense".

"the testimony of medical men had been obtained, and ... it appeared ... one half of the pauper lunatics in the country might be cured ... if they were immediately sent to the proper institutions."

In many cases, he asserted, a pauper lunatic might be cured for £4 or £5, but because not sent to an asylum in time cost "£200, £300 or even £400" maintaining him for life.

Home Secretary Graham said he did not think the law was defective. He believed it was "imperative" on Poor Law Officers to remove lunatics to the County asylum "immediately". An unpaid officer failing to do so could be dismissed, a paid officer "might be the subject of an indictment". He offered to enquire into the Dorset case and, if the facts were confirmed,

"there was no doubt that the officer would be immediately discharged" ( Hansard 20.7.1843 col.1284)

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

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