An introduction to Social Policy

Social Policy: Theory and Practice - 3rd edition

Paul Spicker

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.  Many European sources emphasise the role of working-class movements, which are still of considerable importance in some national systems; but this is one strand of many, along with religious, voluntary and civic initiatives.

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

The movement of people continued throughout Tudor times, but it began in the first half of the sixteenth century to be noticed, with increasing population and movement of people. Elizabethan Acts in 1563 and 1572 made provision for the punishment of sturdy beggars and the relief of the impotent poor. The 1574 Act in Scotland followed England's lead, supplemented in 1595 by 'buttock mail', a Scottish poor rate. In England, the law of 1572 was superseded in 1598, but the 1574 Act remained in force in Scotland till 1845.

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.

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.

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, though of course it reflected the practice of long-established charity.

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, a building now owned by the National Trust. 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. It was not for want of trying, but there was no way that the conditions of many people inside the workhouses - sometimes called 'pauper palaces' - could be much worse than conditions outside. Nicholls wrote:

"the workhouse inmate is better off than the ordinary labourer. He is better fed, better clothed, better attended in sickness, better care for in health, and far more lightly worked; and were it not for the restraints imposed as the condition of his reception, the workhouse would too probably beome an incentive to pauperism, instead of being a check or preventive."[6]

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, in Palmerston's choice phrase, as "the dirty party".

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.

By 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.

The Health Services

Medical care in the nineteenth century was principally private or 'voluntary', which could be charitable, fee-paying or some combination of the two. However, sickness was also a primary cause of pauperism, and the Poor Law authorities began to develop 'infirmaries' for sick people. 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. 

The Second World War was to bring most voluntary hospitals under state control, paving the way for nationalisation.  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".

Social security between the wars

Unemployed men queue outside a former workhouse, 1930.  Source:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10246 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Unemployed men outside a former workhouse, 1930
- the workhouses at that stage were being
transferred to local authority control.

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, but the harsh administration and limiting rules made it burdensome to claim. It became as hated as the Poor Law itself.

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 remains of the Poor Law continued until 1948.  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': [7]

Several measures were introduced before the foundation of the 'welfare state':
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. The key measures were:

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

For a consideration of competing historical interpretations of the development of welfare states, follow this link.


  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. G Nicholls, 1853, A history of the English Poor Law, vol 2 p 311.
  7. 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.