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To what extent were the changes in the size of the electorate the key factor in determining the nature of state provisions for the poor in the period c. 1830 – 1839?
In the years between 1830 and 1939, Britain saw great increase in the rate of legislation and the amount of government intervention in society, particularly concerning the aid of the poor. At the same time, the size of electorate was ever expanding – but does this mean to two factors are necessarily linked?
1832 saw the Great Reform act, an act which extended the vote to all middle class men, putting an increased amount of power in their hands, in reflection of the greater political influence they now boasted. The middle class were distinguished by their values; the promotion of self help, thrift, sobriety and scientific approach – all considered fairly opposite to “qualities” which the working class were believed to possess (self help, thrift and sobriety, in particular). Two years following the reform act, in 1834, the poor law amendment act was introduced. The old poor law had been under much attack, particularly from prominent writers and social commentators of the time, such as Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham. Malthus blamed the poor law for the evident population growth in Britain, in that people were entitled to a greater amount of poor relief when they had a greater number of children.
His solution to the problem was to see the abolition of the poor law, which would allow land owners (those who paid the poor rates) to pay higher wages to their workers, to prevent them having to rely on means of relief in the first place. With any luck, this would also discourage people from having as many children for the sake of money, hence controlling the rate of population growth and consumption of resources. Bentham wanted to see the poor cared for by the National Charity Organisation. He also proposed ‘industry houses’, which would be the only means by which people could access poor relief. The industry houses would be purposely tough, with strict discipline and long hours, in the hope of discouraging people from entering in the first place. Given that there would be no outdoor relief; this was intended to encourage people to apply the middle class principle of self help, and to find a means out income beyond poor relief.
The major problems with the old poor law focused around its increasing cost, corruption within the system, and the demoralising affect of the Speenhamland system (where by the low wages of agricultural works would be subsidised in accordance to their number of children and the price of bread). The problems were approached by the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, which began a few months prior to the 1832 great reform act. It recommended a new means of administration of the poor law (including the grouping of parishes into unions, controlled by a Board of Guardians, overseen by a central Poor Law Commission), the abolition of outdoor relief, and the introduction of the workhouse test.
These ideas very much reflected those of Jeremy Bentham, and generally promoted middle class values; in particular, self help. However, given that the Royal Commission began some months before the middle class were enfranchised, it seems somewhat less likely that the points of the Poor Law Amendment act were a consequence of their influence. Furthermore, the leading commissioners were Nassau Senoir, a Malthusian, and Edwin Chadwick, a Benthamite – given their position in the proceedings, it seems far more likely that their ideas are those which had more impact on the investigation (i.e., the results of the investigation could have easily been picked at to meet with their beliefs).
Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, it could be observed that there was a growing movement of self-help amongst the working class, mainly revolving around Friendly Societies, Co-Operatives and Trade Unions. The Co-op began in 1844, and aimed to keep food prices down without compromising their purity. At the end of the year, profits were shared out amongst members via a dividend, so customers gained something in return for their expenditures. The Co-op was not a great use for the particularly poor however, as full payments were required at the time of purchase – these people generally relied on tabs due to low and irregular income.
Members of friendly societies and trade unions, generally speaking, would pay in a protected sum of money which they could then receive as benefits when ill, to protect then from having to turn to the poor law. Again, this required a regular income, due to the need to pay in money consistently. It seems very likely that these means of self help were a direct influence from the middle class; perhaps members of the working class had seen the influence and status which the middle class had received as a potential consequence of their values? Also, the new poor law and the fact that people would want to avoid the workhouse if at all possible seems a viable reason for the new interest in self help. It seems perfectly possible however that these people could have picked up on such middle class values without the latter being enfranchised anyway.
In reward for their efforts, skilled artisans received the vote in 1867, with the second reform act. This still left the majority of the working class without the vote, and was likely due to the fact that skilled artisans were the only members of the working class with a steady enough income to pay into friendly societies, trade unions or co-operatives. The 1867 wasn’t entirely supported however; some leading figures considered it “power in the hands of the masses”, and that it would “throw the scum of the community to the surface”. However, following the reform act, many changes were made and legislations passed, including the compulsory 1875 public health act and the 1870 education act, amongst others, all bringing about changes which would improve the conditions of working class life, along with the people’s chances for the future.
Links between poverty and external factors were being established, government intervention was increasing, and there was a broader electorate to now appeal to. However, this growing electorate was not the only motive behind these changes. Scientific breakthroughs were occurring, such as the establishment of the germ theory, which gave much of the basis for the 1875 compulsory public health act. The national efficiency debate was sparking concerns to the general condition of the nation, a problem particularly highlighted by the number of volunteers who had to be rejected from aiding in the Boer war due to their poor health. Foreign competition saw rise to concerns over Britain’s economic health and weak workforce with a slump in trade, and the opinion of public figures such as Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew on the difficulty of working class life gave a very human aspect to the problem.
It seems that really, the now larger electorate was not the main force behind these legislations; yet, they were the easiest way to appeal to working men. It may just be considered as a fortunate consequence that these somewhat essential legislations appealed to the working class and their needs. The government also realised that taking these measures would help to break the apparent poverty cycle – when people fell ill due to the poor conditions they lived in, they could not work, dipping them and their families into poverty. Consequently, the workforce became weakened, which by no means aided Britain’s dwindling economy. It was essentially in the government’s interest to pass these legislations, for the sake of the country, not just appeal to the working class voters.
In 1884, the vote was extended further into the working class, resulting in 1/6th of all men having the vote. The 1880’s and 90’s were a period of great economic problems and fairly high unemployment, and issue which was extending to skilled and ‘respectable’ workers, not just the casual workers in society. This was a consequence of Britain’s pattern of trade slumping, and the inadequacy of the poor law in dealing with such a problem led to an overflow in the workhouses, and many people with no means of relief. Still prevalent in society was the national efficiency debate, with Britain’s consistently weak workforce and comparatively weak economy in comparison to nations such as Germany and the USA. Around this time, there was also an ever-growing awareness as to the causes of poverty, highlighted by the works of Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth, who’s work into the extent of poverty in cities (and that for many people, their situation was caused through no fault of their own) very much highlighted the extent of poverty, even beyond what people already expected. 1906 saw the Liberals come into power for the first time in 20 years, and consequently, the passing of many new legislations and reforms.
These included another education act, labour exchanges act, trade boards act and the old age pensions. Given the minimal increase in the size of the electorate in 1884, it seems unlikely that this was the motive at all behind the Liberal reforms, particularly with much larger threats pressuring for change; e.g., the looming threat of socialism in Britain, the mass unemployment Britain was facing, the national efficiency debate and the desire to stay in office. There was also the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1909 to consider, which between its minority and majority reports produced the recommendations which most likely lead to the reforms for change in provisions towards children and the elderly. The Liberal reforms brought about many improvements for these groups, with the old age pension and provision of meals and medical inspections act in education, and the National Insurance act of 1911 provided a means of sick pay and medical cover for workers – much like a national friendly society, of which all workers would have to pay into. For as much controversy as this caused, it was a big step by the Liberals in facing poverty.
Beyond this time, the size of the electorate was not altered by any means of reform, yet quite dramatic changes towards provision for the poor took place; this included alternations to the age at which the OAP could be received, the unemployment act (which extended the national insurance scheme), the effective destruction of the poor law with the Local Government Act, the establishment of Public Assistance Committees to aid the able bodied poor, and the means test. Given that there was no change in the size of the electorate, there is no means by which that could be responsible for these changing provisions for the poor, they were mostly consequence of problems throughout society at the time, such as the inadequacy of the poor law as a welfare system in the 20th century, the mass unemployment throughout Britain and the lack of benefits available for the most vulnerable groups in society (e.g., widows, the elderly and orphans).
It seems fair to say that, although their choices would have influenced who came into office and consequently, the policies that would be passed, the changing size of the electorate had a minimal part to play in changing provisions for the poor. The continuously changing external factors which pressured for change, advances in beliefs and knowledge and the work of prominent figures appear to have had the most profound effect on legislation and reform, and it seems that the changing legislation simply appealed to the needs of the changing electorate by fortunate consequences. It would seem that it was more the governments interest to tackle major issues such as unemployment and threats of socialism, as opposed to appealing to the requirements of the electorate concerning poor relief, yet the tackling of these issues simply led to improvements in this area also. The varying needs and requirements of the electorate themselves had little direct influence over government policies at any point.