Garret Giblin writes about the context from which the settlement movement emerged.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the social upheaval caused by industrialisation and war with France placed new pressures on the established system of poor relief. Concerned by the suffering of the poor and worried about the potential for social unrest a new system was devised  – the ‘Speenhamland’ system. Under this system parish officers and magistrates “granted doles of poor relief to ‘make up’ inadequate wages to a subsistence standard.” These measures proved to be entirely insufficient and led to an increase in pauperism and more unrest.

The guiding principle of the New Poor Law was ‘less eligibility’.

Between 1832 and 1834 a Royal Commission of Enquiry investigated the efficacy of the Poor Law and suggested a number of comprehensive reforms. The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 – known as the ‘New Poor Law’ – corralled parishes into Unions under Boards of Guardians, a bigger local administrative body. They also established a central authority, the Poor Law Commission, to govern nationally.

The guiding principle of the New Poor Law was ‘less eligibility’. The able-bodied poor would only benefit from relief in a ‘well-regulated’ workhouse. The conditions of these workhouses would be less appealing than those for the average independent labourer outside with the intention that this would force the poor to provide for themselves rather than rely on the state.⁠1  The goal of the act was not necessarily to tackle poverty but rather to deter pauperism by means of the punitive workhouse test.  It was frequently alleged that the New Poor Law made poverty a crime and starved the poor.  There were a number of workhouse scandals in the early Victorian period. Despite the fact that many were exaggerated and some entirely imaginary the damage was done and workhouses had earned a reputation as inadequate and cruel.⁠2

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, and the act which followed, were inherently ill-equipped to confront poverty, or even pauperism, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They had placed too much emphasis on one group; unemployed, healthy, adult men. There was little attention paid to those who were impoverished due to poor health, old age or loss of parents – most likely the majority of those receiving relief. The New Poor Law was also overly concerned with the issue of rural poverty while urban, industrial poverty was to be the issue which dominated in the latter half of the century.⁠3 The 1860s saw a number of crises which increased the amount of applications for poor relief.  Severe winters in 1860-1, 67-8 and 68-9 contributed to the growing phenomenon of ‘London pauperism.’ The U.S. Civil War led to the Lancashire cotton famine. The Public Works (Manufacturing Districts) Act of 1863 allowed local authorities to access cheap loans and use the funds for employment schemes to create paving, drainage, sewerage systems and other amenities. Public attention on the poor conditions in workhouses for children and the sick was also on the rise in 1860s.

Late Victorian and Edwardian shared issues and anxieties facing society in the twentieth century. These included a greater awareness of poverty, the growing prominence of the labour movement, transformations in family life and the role of women in society, a decrease in religious and moral certainty, and a proclivity for modernism.⁠4 During the last decades of the nineteenth century class solidified and became all-encompassing; any and all cultural and social traits were condensed into class groups. The distinct societal hierarchies that had existed long before industrialisation were gradually subsumed into two dominant and mutually exclusive categories; a ‘working class’ that was largely without property and a propertied ‘ruling class’ made up of old aristocracy, new capitalists, and professionals. According to Jose Harris: “between 1870 and 1914 the organisation of work, schools, housing, welfare, culture, and recreation all conspired to compartmentalise British society on class lines”.⁠5

During this period some middle class women exerted new influence in areas such as education, public health and sanitation, and the Poor Law. This would have previously been unimaginable and was no doubt made possible in part by the reordering of local government.⁠6 Although men still exercised control over the vast majority of wealth and power in Britain gender roles were challenged and became more ambiguous.⁠7

Mandatory education was introduced in 1876 and the school leaving age was gradually extended to 14 years⁠8 representing an enormous change in the lives of most working-class children. In just over 30 years the Church of England built more than six thousand new schools –about a quartet of the current stock- consolidating its formal and informal influence and power. Despite secularisation and modernity Christianity was still a significant force in society.⁠9 During this period religious institutions were not just affected by societal change but were themselves often active participants in that change.⁠10

Crime was one of the areas that saw the most pronounced change in the fifty years leading up to the First World War as recorded rates of crime fell enormously. The first twenty years of Queen Victoria’s reign saw very high levels of violence, robbery, and public disorder. The number of assaults and murders reported to the police decreased by more than fifty percent between 1870 and 1914. The proportion of the population imprisoned was greatly reduced despite the fact that imprisonment remained the only punishment for serious crime. Rates of deportation for penal servitude were one-fifth of what they had been in the 1860s. This great reduction in crime and violence is all the more remarkable as it took place at a time when lawmakers were continually expanding the boundaries of criminality and the police were becoming more active and effective.⁠11

At the same time there was a gradual shift in religious thought. There was less emphasis placed on serving God and more on people serving others.

The crises of this decade did not only lead to government action on the Poor Law system. There was also an important change in the attitudes of the middle classes towards charity. Charity had three main motivations at this time: concern for the hardships of others, fear of social upheaval, and a wish to morally improve the beneficiaries. There was a fear that society could disintegrate under the pressures of poverty and destitution. In order to preserve the basic structure of society many wealthy people were willing to give some of their wealth to the less well off. However, there is no cause to doubt the sincerity of many Victorians’ humanitarian concern for the difficult lives of the poor.⁠12

At the same time there was a gradual shift in religious thought. There was less emphasis placed on serving God and more on people serving others. Religion began to manifest a greater social conscience and there was consequently greater desire to help the downtrodden and social outcasts such as orphans, homeless people, sex workers, and the mentally unwell. Victorian philanthropy was imbued with noblesse oblige – there was a duty to help others which had to be done and be seen to be done. Philanthropy was also a method of social control – a way to instil middle-class values among the poor.

In 1861 there were around 640 charitable institutions in London. Most had been formed in the first half of the century and 144 from 1850 onwards. These charities had an annual income of £2.5 million (circa £300 million at today’s prices). This figure – which does not account for private individual charity – was higher than expenditure by the Poor Law authorities indicating a failure of the state to meet public need.⁠13

A new generation of scientific philanthropists began to argue – in articles and books – that direct involvement in relief distribution was essential.

The ever increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor in London was becoming more widely known due to the work of Edward Denison, J. R. Green, and C. B. Bosanquet and others. Their investigations of poverty in the East End informed the middle classes in that city about the extent of poverty and the effect of the ‘deformation of the gift’ which random acts of giving – be it money, food, or clothing – without any knowledge of the recipients caused.

A new generation of scientific philanthropists began to argue – in articles and books – that direct involvement in relief distribution was essential. There was a sense that indiscriminate giving by individuals and organisations was not addressing the problem of pauperism and may even be contributing to it. The circumstances of specific cases would need to be carefully investigated in order to establish the best way to help the applicant regain independence. This guiding principle of a new scientific philanthropy underpinned new charitable organisations founded or revived in the 1860s. These included the Central Relief Society in Liverpool, the District Provident Society in Manchester.⁠14

However, the sheer number of charitable organisations that existed was also seen as part of the problem.  Competition between charities was wasteful and inefficient and naturally made co-operation more difficult. The Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Suppressing Mendicity also known as the Charity Organisations Societies were founded in England in 1869 as a clearing house for information about the poor. A focus of reform,  The Charity Organisations Societies sought to define “proper areas of competence”, implement scientific practices for casework, and educate beneficiaries so that they might become self-sufficient. There was a noticeable chasm between the new forward-thinking methods of the Charity Organisations Societies and its ideology which was quite traditional.⁠15

Many writers in the early Victorian period had a fatalistic view of poverty believing it was due to the weakness of the individual and as such a constant in any society. Some even believed it was a good thing since it inspired the working classes to work.

The pioneering work of Booth and Rowntree provided the statistical evidence to back up the increasing public concern over poverty and inequality and would be used to make the case for greater state intervention.

Pauperism was seen as the true social evil.⁠16 Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree conducted investigations into urban poverty at the end of the nineteenth century that would prove very influential. In the first volume of his study in 1889 Booth found that 30% of the population of the East End of London lived in poverty: their income was insufficient for their support. In 1899 Rowntree found a similar rate of 28% in York.

These findings were seriously at odds with the statistics offered by the Local Government Board which showed that in 1889 only 2.8% of the population of England and Wales were officially designated as paupers owing to their receipt of relief under the Poor Law. The figure for 1899 was 2.6%. Evidently these statistics could not be trusted as an accurate indicator of poverty.⁠17

The pioneering work of Booth and Rowntree provided the statistical evidence to back up the increasing public concern over poverty and inequality and would be used to make the case for greater state intervention.⁠18 Chief among the causes of this poverty were low wages, irregular work, big families, illness, widowhood and old age.⁠19 At the end of the century the growing awareness of poverty as separate from pauperism and greater desire from the middle classes for something to be done about it meant that the Poor Law was not fit for purpose.⁠20 The Great Depression which began in 1873 was one major reason for this – it shook many people’s faith in unfettered economic growth. Until 1896 there were periods of high unemployment which compounded long term issues of low wages and underemployment. Economic growth had not prevented or even reduced urban poverty and as such individualism in social policy was increasingly being challenged.  ‘New Liberalism’ – which rejected many of the core beliefs of orthodox Gladstonian liberalism – was inspired by the Oxford philosopher T. H. Green.⁠21 The gradual extension of voting rights to more and more of the adult male population meant that education, housing, public health, and working conditions became issues of political significance.⁠22


1 Michael E. Rose, The Crisis of Poor Relief in England, 1860-1890, in W.J. Mommsen (ed.) The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, London, 1981, pp 50-70

2 Derek Fraser, The English Poor Law and the Origins of the British Welfare State, in  W.J. Mommsen (ed.) The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, London, 1981, pp 9-31

3 Michael E. Rose. The Relief of Poverty 1834-1914, London, 1972, p12

4 Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, A Social History of England, 1870-1914, Oxford, 1993, p2

5 Ibid pp6-7

6 Ibid p24

7 Ibid p31

8 Ibid p88

9 Ibid pp161-2

10 Ibid p166

11 Ibid pp209-10

12 Fraser. The Evolution of the British Welfare State, London, 1973, 2nd Edition 1984, p.118

13 Ibid pp115-117

14 Michael E. Rose, The Crisis of Poor Relief in England, 1860-1890, in W.J. Mommsen (ed.) The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, London, 1981, pp 50-70

15 Fraser. The Evolution of the British Welfare State, London, 1973, 2nd Edition 1984, p.127

16 Michael E. Rose, The Crisis of Poor Relief in England, 1860-1890, in W.J. Mommsen (ed.) The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, London, 1981, p. 7

17 Ibid p15-16

18 Fraser. The Evolution of the British Welfare State, London, 1973, 2nd Edition 1984, p.127

19 Michael E. Rose. The Relief of Poverty 1834-1914, London, 1972, p20

20 Ibid p. 41

21 Ibid p 30-1

22 Fraser. The Evolution of the British Welfare State, London, 1973, 2nd Edition 1984, p.130