chapter  1
4 Pages

Introduction

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was the single most important piece of social legislation ever enacted. Its radical redefinition of the principles of social policy fixed the parameters for all subsequent debate and discussion. Its organizing assumptions cast a continuing shadow over attitudes towards the nature of social obligation and dependency. Its imagery, stamped so firmly on our collective memory, invigorates research, sustains controversy and underscores the continuing relevance of historical understanding in our everyday lives. The Poor Law touched almost every aspect of life and labour in Victorian Britain. Employment and wages, housing and rents, migration and settlement, medicine, marriage, charity and education - all were influenced in one way or another. Relations between rich and poor were shaped by the Poor Law and local party politics energized by the controversies that surrounded it. Not surprisingly, the New Poor Law remains difficult to characterize. Was it progressive or reactionary, malevolent or misguided? Opinions differ. For some scholars the reformed Poor Law represents the triumph of ideology over reality; for others the victory of common sense over chaos. Poor relief also raises issues respecting continuity and innovation in social theory and social practice. How far was the reformed Poor Law an extension of the unreformed Poor Law and to what extent did it constitute a radical break with the past? Other issues which excite debate include the transition from pauperism to poverty and the redefinition of the social question in the late-nineteenth century. Of interest, too, is the significance of the Poor Law for the long-term development of social policy. Questions also arise concerning the nature of poor law studies. Is it, in fact, possible to write a satisfactory poor law history? Must we make do with institutional accounts from which dependency and the pauper experience are forever excluded by the importance assigned to the policy-making process? These and related issues are considered in the account presented below.