Shaking up the system to support the poor together

Dawson Place stands partly on the site of the Poor House.
Dawson Place stands partly on the site of the Poor House.

THE Old Poor Law lasted from 1601 to 1834. Its administrative unit was the parish, but in large parishes like those in Northumberland it was the township. A township was a subdivision of a parish. Most were entirely rural.

The Overseers of the Poor were responsible for managing the Poor Law in their parish, including collecting the rates. They were elected at Easter, served for one year, and were unpaid. Some townships had ‘poor houses’, mere hovels as a rule, but most gave outdoor relief, that is, money or supplies given to people in their own homes.

The inspiration for the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 came from a group of MPs called the Philosophical Radicals. They wanted government to be efficient and this was their chance to show how it ought to be done.

Counties were already divided into wards and divisions, but the Commissioners appointed under the Act created entirely new districts called Poor Law Unions. Parishes were generally kept intact, but not always. The parish of Felton, for example, lay both north and south of the River Coquet. The Commissioners put Felton proper into the Alnwick Union, but Thirston, Eshott and Bockenfield into Morpeth.

Every union had a proper workhouse where different classes of pauper could be kept apart, and was managed by a Board of Guardians, who were not so easily intimidated as parish overseers. Morpeth elected four, Bedlington three, and 70 other townships one each, including Woodhorn Demesne with a population of nine, and Todridge with four. Among the odd jobs remaining to the overseers were putting up notices and filling in forms for these elections.

Guardians brought local knowledge to bear on applications for relief and were expected to manage the union economically. They took the decisions, but paid officials carried them out, and the Poor Law Commission in London regulated them through circulars and letters of instruction. Finally, all unions had their accounts audited by a paid, independent auditor.

There was to be no more outdoor relief for the able-bodied. Instead, anyone applying for relief was offered admission to the workhouse, where conditions were ‘less eligible’ than those of a working family. In the event, it proved difficult to manage without paying outdoor relief, and even more difficult to work within the less-eligibility rule, and yet provide a bare minimum of subsistence.

The workhouse was what working people hated most. It stood for the separation of man and wife, of children from parents, a starvation diet and a hundred humiliating restrictions. Even today, the generation is not quite extinct that knew and feared the workhouse, if only by repute.

However, even allowing for partisanship in the Commissioners’ own reports, the New Poor Law was widely credited with bringing about a needed improvement. It both reduced the poor rates and raised the morale of labourers in the ‘pauperized areas’ of the south. It was also claimed that: ‘The aged, the impotent, and the helpless, are now far better provided for in every way’ than before the passing of the Act.

Significantly, however, one of the respondents, quoted in the Fourth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission, 1838, added: ‘Our workhouse is not finished.’

It was widely held that the new law was not needed in the north of England. We were not ‘pauperized’.

Relief was given in cases of need, and not as an allowance to supplement wages.

William Cobbett, in his northern tour of 1832, attributed this to the fact that the northern counties were simply not agricultural.

Parishes were large, villages and labourers’ cottages few, and grain production negligible compared to the south that he knew so well. To him, Northumberland and Durham were fitted by nature for pasture land, and the less crops grown here, the better.

The Act was implemented in the southern counties first, but in 1836 Sir John Walsham, who had previously held a similar position in Dorset, was appointed Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for District 12, comprising Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland, and the North Riding.

The Newcastle Journal of July 9 says: ‘On Wednesday, the 6th, the Assistant Commissioner attended at the Justice-rooms in Morpeth, and met the Overseers of the eighty townships of which he is preparing to form the Morpeth Union, for the purpose of investigating their accounts of the last three years,’

How this must have alarmed the overseers. Every mistake, every uncollected rate, every payment of dubious propriety, would come under scrutiny.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief when he went on: ‘all of which he found in excellent order, the returns made to him, in compliance with a very short notice, being of unexceptionable correctness.’ A shrewd operator indeed.

Bedlington made a bid for freedom: ‘A memorial was delivered to the Commissioner by Mr Burdon, MP, on behalf of the parish of Bedlington, petitioning to be formed with a few adjacent townships into a separate Union.

‘Sir John Walsham promised to lay it before the Poor Law Commissioners, but could afford no hope that they would deem it expedient to comply with the wishes of the very respectable memorialists to be separated from the proposed Union, having for its centre the borough of Morpeth, to which they were already attached for parliamentary purposes.’

The Morpeth Union was ‘declared to take place’ on September 27, 1836, when the first elections were held.

The Newcastle Chronicle reported that: ‘Guardians of the poor for Morpeth were chosen on Tuesday last, and considerable excitement had been created on the subject for nearly a fortnight before, a keen contest having been carried on between the Liberal and Tory parties. Every exertion was made by both, but victory was at length declared in favour of the Liberals.

‘The result of the poll was as follows: Robert Blakey 346, Arthur Shanks 336, Robert Hopper 320, George Hood 319, who were consequently declared elected.’

Bearing in mind that the parliamentary electorate, including Bedlington, was below 400, it looks odd that nearly 350 votes were cast in Morpeth alone.

The likeliest explanation is that women householders voted equally with men.

Surprisingly, this provoked no particular comment, either from reformers or reactionaries.

Charles William Bigge of Linden was elected Chairman, and the appointment of the clerk followed directly.

The Newcastle Chronicle again: ‘There were two candidates, viz., George Brumell Esq, and Anthony Charlton Esq, Mayor of Morpeth. For the former gentleman there were 37 votes; for the latter 25. Mr Brumell was consequently duly elected.’

And in the edition of October 22: ‘Mr Edward Watson, of Morpeth, and Mr Soulsby of Bedlington, were elected relieving officers for Morpeth Union.’

The Morpeth poor house was a long building just off Cottingwood Lane. But it was a shabby hole, while Bedlington’s was ‘a most comfortable house, where the inmates are treated with the greatest attention and consideration.’

All the other poor houses were closed down, and Bedlington Workhouse became the first official workhouse of the Morpeth Poor Law Union.