Why introduction of Poor Law 
pushed boundaries for townsfolk

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CHOLERA and the Great Reform Act both came to England in 1832. They stood in inverse correlation: The Reform Act benefitted the well-to-do. Cholera mainly affected the poor.

Edwin Chadwick was a solicitor’s clerk. He studied for the bar, supporting himself by writing for newspapers and journals. His articles on health and prison reform brought him to the notice of Jeremy Bentham, the political philosopher. Bentham engaged him as his private secretary, but died – again in 1832 – leaving Chadwick with a handsome legacy, but no job.

The Government of Earl Grey needed able young men to carry out research for its future programme of reform. Edwin commenced working for the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, produced reports on London and Berkshire, and assisted in writing the final report in 1834. Another of his reports, drawn up at the same time, led to the Factory Act of 1833.

The Poor Law Amendment Act became law in 1834, and he was appointed secretary to the new Poor Law Commission. Chadwick was by nature an authoritarian. He had no sympathy for the conservatism of the local squirearchy, none with parish vestries, and little enough with democracy.

The Commission, effectively Edwin Chadwick, divided England up into new areas called Poor Law Unions, each managed by an elected board of guardians.

In July 1836, the Assistant Commissioner for the Northern Counties, Sir John Walsham, summoned a meeting of the overseers of the parishes that were to form the Morpeth Union in the Justice Rooms at Morpeth.

One of the parishes was Bedlington. Nobody in the Shire objected to being joined to Morpeth for parliamentary purposes, but the Poor Law was different. The leading men of Bedlington sought the help of their most distinguished resident, William Wharton Burdon, of Hartford Hall, MP for Weymouth. Weymouth was a notoriously venal borough. Being elected for it was essentially a commercial transaction.

Mr Burdon’s relationship with the inhabitants of Bedlington was altogether different. He attended the meeting in the Justice Rooms on their behalf and presented a petition asking that Bedlington should be ‘formed with a few adjacent townships into a separate Union.’

Sir John ‘promised to lay it before the Poor Law Commissioners, but could afford no hope ... (etc.)’

The Morpeth Union commenced on September 27. As predicted, Bedlington was included. However, when the relieving officers were chosen at the October meeting, one, Mr Edward Watson, was appointed for Morpeth, and the other, Mr Soulsby, for Bedlington.

Mr Soulsby was the assistant overseer in Bedlington under the Old Poor Law. Since assistant overseers were paid officials, this suggests that Bedlington was more advanced than Morpeth in the matter of Poor Law administration, an impression reinforced by the fact that the Board went on to choose Bedlington Poor House as its temporary workhouse, in preference to the one in Morpeth.

I cannot definitely establish Mr Soulsby’s identity. Slater’s Directory for 1855 has an entry under Bedlington for Richard Soulsby, ‘registrar of births, deaths and marriages, relieving officer &c.’ This could be the same man, but could equally be a relation if he had retired or died. The creation of the Poor Law Unions marks the beginning of modern local government. In 1837 they also became registration districts for births, marriages and deaths.

Edwin Chadwick was appointed to a Royal Commission on policing in 1836, leading to the Rural Constabulary Act of 1839. He next got a job on another public inquiry, on sanitation. His Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was a best seller and led to the passing of the Public Health Act, 1848. From being one of the most hated men in England because of the New Poor Law, he now became one of the most respected.

Under the Act, one tenth of the rated inhabitants of an area – any area as long as it had a boundary and at least 30 ratepayers – could call for an inquiry into its sanitary condition. Morpeth was reform-minded in those days, and the leader of the progressive element was William Woodman, the town clerk.

A petition was quickly got up, not just for the town but for the whole of the parliamentary borough, including Bedlington. An inspector came from London to hold an inquiry. His report was published in October 1849.

It gave a detailed account of the administrative history of the area, its geology, streets, water supply, burial grounds and sanitation, or lack of it. Morpeth actually did have street lights. There was a gas works where Riverside Care Home is now and a waterworks at Allery Banks. Bedlington had hardly anything.

The Inspector’s report included estimates of the cost of providing improved facilities at Morpeth, though it seems that he didn’t have time to produce figures for Bedlington, and this despite the fact that its need was greater.

He recommended setting up a Local Board of Health, with six members appointed by Morpeth Borough Council, three to be elected by the ratepayers and owners of property of Bedlingtonshire, which had no council, and three by the owners and ratepayers of the rural townships around Morpeth. Morpeth and these surrounding townships were later known as the District of Morpeth.

A Local Board of Health was set up in 1851. It did well in Morpeth, but for some reason was less successful in Bedlington. Despite this, Bedlington finally gained its independence some ten years later. In 1873 the Morpeth Rural Sanitary Authority came into being, covering the whole of the Morpeth Union not already served. In 1894 all of these boards were abolished. Some were absorbed into the corresponding borough, the rest became Rural and Urban District Councils. In 1974, Castle Morpeth was created out of Morpeth Borough, Morpeth RDC and Castle Ward RDC.

Morpeth workhouse has gone, replaced by the telephone exchange. But others have survived, and the one at Wooler embodies much of the history of modern local government. It was built by the Glendale Guardians, and laid out in a cross-shape so as to make four separate courtyards for different classes of inmates. It became the offices of Glendale RDC in 1894, replacing Glendale Rural Sanitary Authority, and is now the Cheviot Centre, housing community facilities, a TIC and the local County Library.

Sanitary reform has a curious connection with the American game of baseball.

Sir Edwin’s strength, he was knighted in 1889, was his genius for collating facts and statistics, presenting them in hard-hitting reports, and implementing the succeeding legislation.

His younger half-brother, Henry, emigrated to the United States at the age of 12. He played cricket and rounders as a boy in England and grew up to be a keen sportsman. Cricket was still played in New York and Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th Century and Henry used to report these matches in the local newspapers. He only became interested in baseball in 1856, at the age of 32.

The laws of cricket were 100 years old by then, but baseball was utterly unstructured. Henry took it in hand, developed rules, and wrote books, newspaper articles and annual guides. Like his brother he had a passion for statistics, in his case for baseball.

He invented the box-score, based on the cricket score card, so as to present match results in a more concise form.

Henry was never president of the National League or of any comparable organisation, but is known in America as the Father of Baseball. Edwin became President of the Association of Sanitary Inspectors, and in French-speaking countries is known as Le Père Sanitaire.