VCH Explore

Explore England's Past

Welfare and Poor Relief

Belle Orchard House, part of the former Ledbury Union Workhouse, built in 1836.

In medieval England it was regarded as a religious duty to give alms to the poor, and religious houses (monasteries, nunneries etc) provided shelter, accommodation and food for travellers. The collapse of the monastic system by the sixteenth century left a gap in provision, and with the poor flocking to towns in search of accommodation and work, the government found itself forced to play a role in relief. It did so through a series of statutes culminating in the 1601 poor law legislation, amended in 1660, which provided statutory powers for parishes to raise funds to help to relieve the poor. The parish was given powers to raise a ’rate’, a levy across all the holders of land and buildings in the parish, towards upkeep of the poor. Gradually it added new powers, including in the 1720s the right to provide workhouses. Subsequently powers were given to parishes to combine together to build and staff such premises.

Various alterations in the law followed through the course of the eighteenth century, but the real concern came to be the cost of relief, particularly during the war years between 1793 and 1815, and after much debate, the New Poor Law was introduced by legislation passed in 1834. Parishes were now grouped together into Unions, each with a workhouse, and the poor law was made into a draconian instrument of oppression designed to force the poor into work. Unfortunately the system soon broke down, and workhouses were seldom full; indeed, their most regular clientele tended to be the elderly with no where else to go, mothers with illegitimate children, orphans and people with mental and physical disabilities. The Victorians, aware of the problems of the New Poor Law, threw themselves into philanthropy, and raised funds to distribute to the deserving poor (those considered to be poor through no fault of their own) in their own homes. The Poor Law was not abolished until 1930, but before that time children had been separated out into more appropriate accommodation and the introduction of pensions by the Liberals before the First World War, led eventually to the creation in 1944 of the Welfare State.

Theme Items

The 1855 main entrance


Traditional haymaking near Winsford

Original 1837 entrance building in North Road, South Molton

Ledbury Union Workhouse was built in 1836 in response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. For nearly 100 years it served the poor of Ledbury.

The Hook family came to Snodland in 1854 as the new owners of the paper mill.

Apothecaries and surgeons were based in Dunster from at least the early 17th century, serving the area around as well as Dunster itself, so it is n

Basingstoke Poor Law Union was established in May 1835, under the new Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

This is part of ongoing study of Basingstoke Union and Workhouse.

In 1630 merchant Robert Quirk built 11 dwellings for the poor on waste ground east of the cross beside the market place.

Before the New Poor Law and the establishment of Union workhouses parishes had to take care of their poor in their own homes or in communal accommo