Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834

Prepared by: Senior, Nassau
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First Pub. Date
London: H.M. Stationery Office
Pub. Date
Additional preparers include Edwin Chadwick. Includes testimony by Richard Whately.



The Appendix referred to throughout the Report is that which was laid before Parliament with the Report. Part of it has already been printed by order of the House of Commons; but a considerable portion is still in the press. The latter circumstance accounts for the number of references left blank.

Copy of the Report Made in 1834 by the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws.
Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty

[Part I]


[Statement of Proceedings.]



WE, the COMMISSIONERS appointed by YOUR MAJESTY to make a diligent and full inquiry into the practical operation of the Laws for the Relief of the Poor in England and Wales, and into the manner in which those laws are administered, and to report our opinion whether any and what alterations, amendments, or improvements may be beneficially made in the said laws, or in the manner of administering them, and how the same may be best carried into effect,—Humbly certify to YOUR MAJESTY, in manner following, our proceedings in the execution of YOUR MAJESTY'S Commission, and the opinions which they have led us to form.


Our first proceeding was to prepare questions for circulation in the rural districts, and afterwards in the towns. Considerable alterations were made in the rural questions, after the earlier answers received by us showed that some of the questions were imperfectly understood, or that additional inquiries might be usefully made. Appendix (B.) contains copies of our questions with their different variations. The town questions, having been prepared after those for rural districts had received their last amendments, were never altered.


As we were directed to employ Assistant Commissioners in the prosecution of our inquiry, our next business was to frame instructions for them. For the purpose of facilitating their preparation, two of the Commissioners made excursions into the country, in order to ascertain by actual experience the sort of duties which the Assistant Commissioners would have to perform. Assisted by that experience and by the information contained in the answers to our circulated questions, we prepared the instructions for Assistant Commissioners, which are contained in the Supplement to this Report. We then proceeded to the appointment of Assistant Commissioners; a task by no means easy, as the office was one requiring no ordinary qualifications, necessarily involving a great sacrifice of time and labour, likely to be followed by much hostility, and accompanied by no remuneration. The difficulty of discovering a greater number of fit persons whom we could induce to act, by confining the number of Assistant Commissioners, forced us to assign to them much larger districts than would have been in other respects advisable. And different accidents, which prevented several persons who had undertaken the business from proceeding in it, in some cases forced us to confide to one person districts which had been intended for two, and to leave some altogether unvisited. One of these was South Wales, to which two persons were successively appointed, each of whom was subsequently prevented from acting.


Our commission did not extend beyond England and Wales. Mr. Tufnell and Mr. Johnston, however, made inquiries for us in Scotland; Mr. Le Marchant in Guernsey; Captain Brandreth in Flanders; and Mr. Majendie in France. We have inserted their reports in the Appendix, together with some valuable information respecting the public provision made for the poor, and the state of the labouring classes, in the continent of Europe and in America, which have been communicated by the Foreign Office, and by Count Arrivabene, M. Thibaudeau, M. de Chateauvieux, and from other sources.


So much time was taken up in the preparation of questions and instructions, and in the appointment of Assistant Commissioners, that few of them proceeded on their mission before the middle of August, 1832.


They were directed to make their Reports by the end of the following November. Very few Reports, however, were received until the beginning of January, 1833. In the mean time we had received returns to our circulated queries so numerous, that it became a question how they should be disposed of.


The number and the variety of the persons by whom they were furnished, made us consider them the most valuable part of our evidence. But the same causes made their bulk so great as to be a serious objection to their publication in full. It appeared that this objection might be diminished, if an abstract could be made containing their substance in fewer words, and we directed such an abstract to be prepared. On making the attempt, however, it appeared that not much could be saved in length without incurring the risk of occasional suppression or misrepresentation. Another plan would have been to make a selection, and leave out altogether those returns which appeared to us of no value. A very considerable portion, perhaps not less than one half, are of this description; their omission would have materially diminished the expense of copying and printing, and the remainder would have been more easily consulted and referred to when unincumbered by useless matter.


But on a question of such importance as Poor Law Amendment, we were unwilling to incur the responsibility of selection. We annex, therefore, in Appendix (B.), all the returns which we have received. In order to diminish, as far as possible, the inconvenience arising from their number, they are so arranged that the answer to any one of the 53 questions may be read as a separate subject without the attention being distracted by the intervention of other matter, the answer from each parish occurring in the same portion of each page. The only alterations which we have permitted have been the omission of disquisitions on matters perfectly irrelevant, and the insertion, in a different part of the Appendix, of some passages which were too long to appear in a tabular form.


The Report of the Assistant Commissioners, though less voluminous than the Returns, form altogether a large mass; and a large body of testimony consist of the communications made to us from every part of England, and from some parts of America, and of the Continent of Europe.


We felt it to be of the utmost importance that we should ourselves be masters of the contents of all this evidence, and that those whose conduct may be influenced by our suggestions should be enabled to examine all grounds on which they are founded. For these purposes, it was necessary that it should be in print; any use of it in manuscript being exceedingly fatiguing, and the complete use impossible. We obtained, therefore, the permission of the Lord Chancellor, and of the Speaker of the House of Commons, that it should be printed by the Parliamentary printers, in anticipation of the orders of the two Houses; and it was accordingly placed in the printer's hands in the beginning of February, 1833.


In the mean time we received a communication from YOUR MAJESTY'S Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, directing us to "transmit, in detail, the information which we had received as to the administration and operation of the Poor Laws, in some of the parishes in which those laws have been administered in various modes, and particularly any returns to our inquiries, showing the results of the various modes adopted in those parishes." On the receipt of this letter we requested the Assistant Commissioners to furnish us with such extracts from the evidence collected by them as they thought most instructive.


The papers received in consequence of these applications were subsequently published, and obtained an extensive circulation. It has, we believe, been supposed that these extracts were selected by us, and contained the most striking parts of our evidence. Both these suppositions are erroneous. Neither on this occasion, nor on any other, have we exercised any discretion with respect to our evidence. We left the task of selection to the Assistant Commissioners, very few of whose Reports we had then seen, and we transmitted to the Home Office what they chose to furnish. And on comparing the portions which they thought fit to extract with the whole of their Reports, it will not be found that the Extracts, strange as they must have appeared to any one unacquainted with the system which they describe, differ from the general tenor of the Appendix. For one part of the volume, however, we are responsible, since it was prepared in the offices of the Commission, and that is the Index. As it was considered important that the extracts should appear as soon as they could be got ready, the index, to save time, was prepared from the proof sheets; and, as the paging of these sheets was subsequently altered to meet the corrections made by the Assistant Commissioners, all the references become inapplicable, and a few were ultimately passed over without correction. A graver complaint has been made of the index as containing expressions of opinion. We admit that the complaint is to a certain degree well founded: our apology is, that, as is usually the case, we left the index to be prepared by others, and did not see it until the work had been for some time in circulation.


We have already stated that our Appendix was placed in the printer's hands in the beginning of February, 1833. If it could have been printed, as we hoped, in three months, we should have been able to report before the end of the last session. The outline of this Report had been prepared in the beginning of that session, and all that was necessary was, to add references to the evidence, and to make those additions, qualifications, and exceptions, which the reconsideration of that evidence might show to be necessary; but the vast bulk of the manuscripts, and the degree in which the Parliamentary printers were engaged by other matters, so prolonged the printing, that not one-fifth of it had been executed before the end of the session. It proceeded more rapidly after the prorogation, but even then so slowly, notwithstanding the exertions of the printers, that even now it is not completed. We have been forced, therefore, to take it as it was furnished to us week by week, using the proof sheets, unpaged and unindexed. And this is one of our apologies for the defects of this Report, and for the omissions and occasional false references which, with all our care, must, we fear, be found in it. If it had been possible to wait till the whole Appendix was in a perfect state, we could have completed our Report with far less labour, and in a far more satisfactory manner. But that would have involved a delay of three months longer, a delay which might, in fact, have occasioned the postponement of remedial measures, so far as they are to be promoted by this Report, until the following year. Such a delay appeared to us a greater evil than the imperfections and inaccuracies to which the course which we have adopted must expose us.


It appears from this narrative, that the magnitude of the evidence has been the great difficulty with which we have had to struggle. But we believe, on the other hand, that that very magnitude gives the principal value to our inquiry. All evidence is necessarily subject to error, from the ignorance, forgetfulness, or misrepresentation of the witnesses, and necessarily tinged by their opinions and prejudices. But in proportion as the number of witnesses is increased, those sources of error have a tendency to compensate one another, and general results are afforded, more to be depended upon than the testimony of a few witnesses, however unexceptionable. The evidence contained in our Appendix comes from every county and almost every town, and from a very large proportion of even the villages in England. It is derived from many thousand witnesses, of every rank and of every profession and employment, members of the two Houses of Parliament, clergymen, country gentlemen, magistrates, farmers, manufacturers, shopkeepers, artisans, and peasants, differing in every conceivable degree in education, habits, and interests, and agreeing only in their practical experience as to the matters in question, in their general description both of the mode in which the laws for the relief of the poor are administered, and of the consequences which have already resulted from that administration, and in their anticipation of certain further consequences from its continuance. The amendment of those laws is, perhaps, the most urgent and the most important measure now remaining for the consideration of Parliament; and we trust that we shall facilitate that amendment by tendering to YOUR MAJESTY the most extensive, and at the same time the most consistent, body of evidence that was ever brought to bear on a single subject.


In the hope of diminishing the difficulty of making use of this voluminous Evidence, we have embodied a considerable portion of it in the following Report; and wherever it has been practicable, we have subjoined to our quotations references to the pages in the Appendix from which they were extracted. But as the Appendix, owing to the obstacles which we have already stated, is still incomplete, and much of it unpaged, many of our references are unavoidably left blank.

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