There is much debate today about benefits; who is entitled to them, who is not, how much they cost the taxpayers and whether they act as a disincentive for the unemployed to work. In 1834 Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act (4 & 5 Will. 4 c. 76) which effectively meant that those seeking relief from poverty would have to enter the workhouse. Historians have argued about the real effect of the ‘new’ poor law but there is little doubt that it was extremely unpopular with the labouring poor of Victorian England and Wales.
The act became law in August 1834 but came after decades of discussion of what to do with the impoverished and needy in Britain. Anyone seeking help first went to the parish as the institution tasked with administrating relief, if that failed (or if they hoped to avoid the stigma associated with the poor laws) there was always charity. But help in either form could often involve some sort of ‘payback’ (which might mean work, loss of freedom, or public humiliation to a greater or lesser extent). In short, it wasn’t great to be poor in the 1800s (not that it is today of course).
In June 1834 a ‘rough looking fellow’ named George Williams was called before the bar at Marylebone Police Court on a charge of assaulting a fellow pauper, Henry Dawes. The court was told that a week or so earlier the paupers employed to ‘water the roads’ (presumably to keep the levels of dust down) had ‘struck’ (i.e. they had gone on strike) demanding an advance of their wages. They had all returned to work fairly quickly however, except for Williams.
George was ‘exasperated’ by the capitulation of the others and decided to take out his frustration on Dawes. Marching up to him he stated: ‘if I can’t crack stones, I’ll at least convince you I can crack skulls’, and proceeded to beat him about the head. He knocked him but before he could do too much more damage others intervened and Williams ran off.
The magistrate committed him to prison for a month. As the image at the top shows (it is a poster issued by those that opposed the hated new 1834 Poor Law) those sent to workhouses were tasked with repetitive forms of ‘work’. Men and women were set to breaking rocks for road aggregate, beating hemp, or similar forms of menial work. William’s remark then may have reflected his experiencing of labour as a pauper.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 12, 1834]