An introduction to Social Policy

Paul Spicker

Social Policy: Theory and Practice - 3rd edition

British social policy, 1601-1948

This is a mainly chronological outline of developments in British social policy up to 1948. The Poor Law lasted, in one form or another, for 350 years, and accounts of British social policy tend in consequence to be dominated by the role of government. This was not the experience of other countries, where welfare more typically developed through a combination of voluntary and mutual provision, later supplemented by government action.

Before the Old Poor Law

During the Middle Ages, support for the poor was provided in much of Europe through Christian charity. The main formal organisations were the Church and the monasteries. The operation of charity made it possible for some poor people to survive if they left the land and came to the cities.

Picture: The Seven Works of Charity (Rijksmuseum)
The Seven Works of Charity, by the Master of Alkmaar

Poor vagabonds were often seen as dangerous, beggars and thieves who could spread disease - and that could all have been true. The practice of indiscriminate charity was one of the key issues which the Protestant reformers objected to. Several northern European cities introduced systems of organized poor relief, intended to limit the amount they had to pay for charity, to keep out strangers, and to control the poor. Martin Luther himself wrote ordinances about the organisation of welfare in Leisneck in 1523.[1]

P Spicker (ed) The origins of modern welfare, Peter Lang 2010

This kind of scheme was not confined to Protestant communities. In 1531, to protect themselves from the accusations of heresy, the city of Ypres submitted its scheme for approval by the religious authorities of the Sorbonne. Ypres offered relief for poor people, backed up by a process of inspection and control; they provided education, employment and free medical care.[2] The Ypres scheme was approved by Charles V, whose Spanish empire was responsible for the Low Countries. The historian Geoffrey Elton suggests that William Marshall, who translated a report on the Ypres scheme into English, may also have been the author of the Tudor Act of 1536, one of the first English Poor Laws.[3]

While this was happening, England was also undergoing its Reformation. Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church in 1534, and the dissolution of the monasteries took place between 1536 and 1541.

The Old Poor Law

1572 An Elizabethan Act made provision for the punishment of sturdy beggars and the relief of the impotent poor. The 1574 Act in Scotland duplicated this; in England, the law was superseded in 1598, but the 1574 Act remained in force in Scotland till 1845.

1595 'Buttock mail', a Scottish poor rate, is levied.

1601 The Elizabethan Poor Law was a national Act for England and Wales. (The system became law in 1597/8, but the Act that consolidated the system dates from 1601).  It provided for

The parish was the basic unit of administration. There was, however, no general mechanism through which this could be enforced, and the Poor Law's operation was inconsistent between areas.

Settlement and removal

The principle of a 'settlement' in a particular parish relates to feudal ideas; people were tied to particular locations. If people tried to draw relief outside the parish of their birth, they could be removed. this meant that they could be rejected, or physically transported to another parish. Contemporary examples were given of pregnant women being physically removed so that they did not give birth to a child in the parish. This prevented the child from gaining a settlement in the parish where they would otherwise have been born.

1586 In Scotland, poor people are marked with the town's mark.

1662 A Poor Relief Act introduces the laws of settlement and removal.

1795 Paupers became removable only if they were chargeable to another parish. (In 1846, the period after which a pauper could be removed was limited.)

Workhouses under the Old Poor Law

The development of workhouses under the Old Poor Law was not representative of the system which followed after the 1834 reforms, and this is not how the system is now remembered.

The 1601 Act made provision for "setting the poor on work". This did not generally include accommodation, but in 1631 there was a workhouse was established in Abingdon. In 1697 the Bristol Workhouse was established by private Act of Parliament.

Scotland had "houses of correction" established in the burghs, by an Act of 1672.

1723 Knatchbull's Act allowed English and Welsh parishes to build workhouses without first taking out private Acts of Parliament.

1740 A workhouse is established at Edinburgh. Most Scottish workhouses were closed after a little time.

1782 Gilbert's Act stated that workhouses should become poorhouses, relieving only those who were not able-bodied (a principle increasingly disregarded in later years). It allowed parishes to form Poor Law Unions in order to build poorhouses.

This approach was increasingly criticised in the years that followed. Joseph Townsend wrote in 1788: "the workhouses operate like the figures which we set to scare the birds, till they have learnt first to despise them then to perch upon the objects of their terror."[4]


The rules at the time did not confine relief to people in the workhouse or the poorhouse; this was a later rule. The idea that people could receive out-relief - that is, benefits or cash outside the poorhouse - was a new idea to the Poor Law in the 18th century.

1774 Out-relief is made available in Glasgow.

Gilbert's Act also made provision for 'out-relief'. This was further encouraged by an Act of 1795.

1795 The Speenhamland system. A code for out-relief was drawn up by magistrates in Speenhamland, Berkshire. The Speenhamland system acquired some notoriety in the following years; it was believed to lead employers to pay unduly low wages while workers were forced to claim relief.

The Poor Law of 1834

The changes of the industrial revolution led to the development of the towns, rapid population growth, and the first experience of modern unemployment and the trade cycle. All this caused increasing poor rates. The reform movement centred on three main doctrines:

1832-1834 The Poor Law Commission emphasised two principles:

1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This established a national Commission for England and Wales. The Scottish Poor Law was not introduced till 1845.

The workhouse under the New Poor Law

Photo: Picking oakum in the workhouse.  Pre-1923 image in the public domain.
Picking oakum in the workhouse.

The deterrent workhouse developed - in defiance of the terms of Gilbert's Act - in the period before the introduction of the New Poor Law. The first was set up in 1819, in Bingham in Nottinghamshire; the second in 1824 at Southwell. George Nicholls, the overseer at Southwell, was to become a national Commissioner on the strength of his record there.

The principles of the New Poor Law were never fully enforced. Old people in many areas did continue to receive relief outside the workhouse. Workhouses could be appalling: in 1845, there was a scandal at Andover Workhouse, where starving paupers were found to be chewing the gristle of bones they were supposed to be crushing. However, although it was not for want of trying, there was no way that the conditions of many people inside the workhouses - sometimes called 'pauper palaces' - could be much worse than conditions outside. If paupers were fed a basic diet, they were often in a better position than others outside.

The workhouses came increasingly to rest on a fearsome reputation - the "stigma" of pauperism - rather than bad conditions. When the middle classes began to use the Poor Law hospitals, it was directed that they should be brought into the hospital through the workhouse yard, so that they would know where they were.

The workhouses theoretically came to an end with the transfer of the Poor Law to local authorities in 1929, but in reality they continued under local authority control in the form of 'Public Assistance Institutions' until the final abolition of the Poor Law in 1948.

Public Health

The time-lines in this discussion start to narrow at this point, but that can be deceptive; it took decades to go from political resistance to the idea of public works to general legislation to prevent nuisances. Those who were against the new sewers were referred to by their opponents as "the dirty party".

1839-1840 A Poor Law Commission enquiry identified disease as a major cause of pauperism.

1842 Edwin Chadwick, the secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and one of the main authors of the 1834 report, wrote a Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, identifying sanitation as a principal issue.

1848 Public Health Act. This was permissive - i.e., a law which allowed authorities to do something, rather than compelling them - which made it possible to build sewers. The Act excluded London altogether. The construction of sewers was opposed on the grounds of cost; the General Board of Health was abolished in 1853, and the Act was repealed in 1858.

1866 Sanitation Act. It created 'local boards of health'. Scotland was brought in in 1867.

1872 Public Health Act. This defined responsible sanitary authorities, either town councils (in urban areas) or Poor Law Boards of Guardians (in rural areas). The reason why the Poor Law authorities were used was that there was no other body in rural areas able to take on new responsibilities effectively.

1875 Public Health Act: a consolidatory measure.

Local Government

English local government developed around the Poor Law; Scottish local government, about the 'police burghs' introduced in 1833 and 1847. Existing authorities accrued increasing responsibility by default; there was no-one else there to take it.

1871 The creation of the Local Government Board.

1885 Scottish Office

1888 County Councils formed.

1894 District Councils formed.

1897 Local Government Board for Scotland.

1920 Government of Ireland Act. The intention was to allow home rule, in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off independence; the legacy was that Northern Ireland retained devolved powers which they continued to hold after the Republic of Ireland left the UK.

1929 Local Government Act. The Poor Law Boards of Guardians were replaced by local authorities.

In the 1930s, local government was  responsible for a very wide range of activities: their responsibilities typically included hospitals, social assistance, police, fire, gas, electricity supply, water, roads, housing, education and public health.  Most of these roles were subsequently removed or diluted.


Scotland had free schooling from 1691, organised since 1803 on a parochial basis. It was criticised in Victorian times because it failed to meet needs adequately - there were 90,000 children out of 500,000 who did not attend school. But in England, by contrast, before 1870, the only main state provision for education was under the Poor Law.

1870 Education Act (1872 in Scotland). This provided free compulsory elementary education for all, up to the age of 12 at first, later to 14. (The secondary system, 11+, was private or voluntary, and based on fees).

1863.  Payment by results.  Following the recommendations of the Newcastle Commission, schools were to be funded in ways that reflected their results, judged by attendance and an examination covering reading, writing and arithmetic.  The system was widely disliked: it created paperwork, it was thought to discriminate against the church schools and  it entrenched inequalities in funding.  It fell into disuse by the 1890s and was formally abolished in 1904. 

1902 Local Education Authorities were formed, based in the new local government system. This was extended to Scotland in 1908.

The Health Services

A hospital ward in 1880. (c) Hulton-Getty collection,
A hospital ward in 1880.
(c) Hulton-Getty collection.

Medical care in the nineteenth century was principally private or voluntary. However, sickness was a primary cause of pauperism, and the Poor Law authorities began to develop 'infirmaries' for sick people. The number of infirmaries grew very rapidly after the foundation of the Local Government Board, because of the influence centrally of doctors. The demand for the infirmaries was at first resisted by a deliberate emphasis on the stigma of pauperism, of which the main legal consequence was the loss of the vote. Few people who became paupers had the vote, but after the extension of the franchise in 1867 and 1884, the numbers increased dramatically.

In 1885, the law which required people to become paupers before using the infirmaries was abolished.

1929 Local Government Act. The responsibility for managing poor law infirmaries (the publicly funded hospitals) was transferred from the Poor Law, who had administered them up to then, to local authorities.

Subsequent developments in health are covered in the page on health care.

The 20th Century

The Liberal Government

Lloyd George promises to look after the sick, 1911.  Image in the public domain.
1911 Election poster for the Liberal Government

The Liberal government laid the foundations of contemporary social services. Concerns with "national efficiency" fuelled the desire to provide an infrastructure of public services: these services were deliberately provided outside the Poor Law, to avoid the stigma associated with pauperism. The Liberal Government did not introduce the 'welfare state', but it has been seen as the foundations of a "social service state".

1905 Unemployed Workmen Act: This made grants available to businesses or local authorities  to hire more workers.

1906 Education Act: free school meals. 1907 School Medical Service.

1908 Old Age Pensions: these were non-contributory, but denied to paupers.

1909 Labour exchanges: this introduced labour exchanges (now called job centres).

1911 National Insurance Act: this covered medical care and unemployment.

The inter-war period

Long queues of men wait to sign on, 1930s.
Signing on the dole. (c) Hulton-Getty Collection

This became a period of mass unemployment. Services continued to be introduced outside the Poor Law. They included the 'means test', initially intended to offer out-relief without the stigma of pauperism. It became as hated as the Poor Law itself.

1918-1921 Means-tested 'out-of work donations' were given to unemployed people.

1919 Addison Act: the first major finance for council housing.

1925 Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act. The 1908 Act was abolished and replaced by an insurance system.

1927 'Transitional' payments for the unemployed.

1930-1932 Royal Commission on Unemployment. This led to the 1934 Unemployment Act. The Unemployment Assistance Board was set up, and the household means test was introduced.  It was abolished in 1941.  Many of the other rules of the UAB were however carried forward into the 1948 system of National Assistance.

The end of the Poor Law

In view of provision for pensions, unemployment benefits and health insurance, the influence of the Poor Law had been greatly reduced since the time of the Liberal Government. The 1929 Local Government Act abolished the Boards of Guardians, and put public hospitals, out-relief and the operation of the Poor Law under the management of local authority committees. The workhouses were renamed as Public Assistance institutions. Local authorities could in principle have stopped implementing some of the Poor Laws at this point. From 1919 to 1925 the Guardians at Poplar in London had refused to levy the high rates needed to pay for their extensive out-relief, and s.5 of the 1929 Local Government Act permitted local authorities, subject to ministerial approval, to introduce alternative schemes of poor relief; but the exemption was little used.

The 1930 Poor Law Act codified the remaining poor law legislation; there were further Poor Law Acts in 1934 and 1938. The Poor Laws and public assistance, and then unemployment assistance, operated side by side, working to different rules. The 1948 National Assistance Act abolished the poor laws, declaring in section 1 that "The existing poor law shall cease to have effect", and the schedule of repeals removed more than twenty Poor Law Acts that were still in force.

The 'welfare state' inherited many physical resources from the Poor Law - along with responsibilities for the people they had previously provided for. Some residential institutions were still in use thirty years later.

The welfare state

The welfare state was, in Beveridge's famous phrase, a "British revolution" - an attempt to break away from the legacy of the Poor Law and to establish a new, universal system on completely different principles. The Poor Law had been a "residual" system or safety net, responding to poverty; the Welfare State was going to offer support for everyone, as of right.

1942 Beveridge report. Beveridge proposed a system of National Insurance, based on three 'assumptions': [6]

1944 The wartime coalition government committed itself to full employment by Keynesian methods, which had been shown to work by the New Deal in the USA.   

1944 Education Act: free universal secondary education

1945 Family Allowance Act.

The Labour Government was elected later in 1945. The timing of key legislation was set to come into force on the same day, 5th July 1948 - a  process which emphasised that, from that point on, everything was supposed to be different.

1946 National Insurance Act

1946 National Health Service Act.

1948 National Assistance Act.  This contained the abolition of the Poor Law, and set out a new legislative framework for provision for people in need, including residential care.

1948 Children Act, which established local authority departments to receive children into care.

For more on the idea of the welfare state in Britain, follow this link; for details about contemporary social services in Britain, click here.


  1. M Luther, 1523, Ordinance on a common chest, in F Salter (ed), 1926. Some early tracts on poor relief, London: Methuen
  2. P Spicker (ed) 2010, The origins of modern welfare, Oxford: Peter Lang.
  3. G Elton, 1953, An early Tudor Poor Law, Economic History Review 6 1953-4 pp 55-67.
  4. J Townsend, 1788, Observations on various plans offered to the public for the relief of the poor, London: C. Dilly.
  5. J Poynter, 1960, Society and pauperism, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  6. W Beveridge, 1942, Social insurance and allied services, Cmd. 6404, London: HMSO.

Further reading

M Bruce, 1978, The coming of the welfare state, Batsford
D Fraser, 1973, The evolution of the welfare state, Macmillan
K Laybourn, 1995, The evolution of British social policy and the welfare state, Keele University Press.