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  • Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870 by David R. Green
  • Nancy LoPatin-Lummis
Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870. By David R. Green (Franham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010, xviii plus 279 pp.).

This study of poor relief in London attempts to chart the shifting debates and ideological justifications for poverty relief from the turn of nineteenth century until the pressures of urban pauperism became too great for that system to adequately help the growing numbers in need following industrial panic, market forces and changing sensibilities. Green makes very clear from the outset that his is a book “about the relationships between place and policy and the actions and intentions of those individuals involved in the operation of the poor law—as overseers and guardians, as paupers and paid officials” (xiv). It ends with the [End Page 793] full incorporation of poor relief under the Poor Law Board in 1867. Thus, it traces the debate on the 1834 Poor Relief Law, the construction of workhouses to apply indoor relief philosophy as well as the continuation of pauper farming and rural outdoor relief. Inequalities between districts and recommendations for increased centralized control are illustrated by comparisons of paupers’ experiences, as well as the Poor Law Commissioners. The result is a study where the readers can follow the changing values of industrializing Britain and how society reevaluated individual responsibility with previous views of a moral economy while creating more bureaucratic institutions and government authority in the social welfare of its citizens. When Parliament passed the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867, the new age of Victorian liberalism “recognized once and for all the collective responsibility of metropolitan districts to provide relief for the poor …” (23) with reform measures to reduce inequality and provide institutional relief.

Beginning with a summary of the old relief system and its practical application in London and its environs, Green compares workhouses built in the metropolitan era after 1834 and concludes that while many poor houses in London could accommodate 16,000 poor, most City parishes were too small to even create separate workhouses, sending their poor to larger parishes (59). Population pressure (and, therefore, pauper pressure) only mounted in the city while newer parishes, such as St. Marylebone, built workhouses to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Casual and Irish paupers contributed to the pressure, making fiscal inequality a real issue for rating residents and for requiring residency for relief.

The New Poor relief system systematized rules for relief. Vestry elections mirrored parliamentary ones, though Poor Law guardian elections were less equalitarian and the result was often two elected bodies “composed of different and potentially conflicting groups” (97). New unions brought joined small city parishes, balancing populations that could maintain a workhouse while not imposing difficulties in administration of an overly large area. Green examines both the administrative debates for change and the popular opposition to such a transformation, shifting administrative authority from the locality to the center. This workhouse expansion provided the model for other institutional ways to aid the poor, particularly children. Separate schools for pauper children followed as workhouses became overcrowded, allowing metropolitan unions more space for adults, rather than requiring the building of new workhouses. The mentally ill were also relocated and the licensing of Victorian madhouses became another means.

The negotiation of relief by overseers and the poor followed the policy of over removal of certain paupers. London courts showcased both criminal prosecution and the application for relief by petty thieves. They also afforded the opportunity for grievances against overseers to be voiced and magistrates acted on their new responsibilities to regulate and systematize the distribution of relief, the conduct of those in the workhouses and the conditions afforded to those receiving it. Personal responsibility, authority and morality came together in the new poor relief system.

Change came with a price tag. Indoor unions were costly, and poor law expenditure followed the fortunes of the overall nineteenth century economy. Downturns in the 1840s and poor harvest in the mid 1850s, meant greater need [End Page 794] for relief and stricter distribution by guardians. Newer metropolitan districts drew from the workforce (and rate-paying population), exacerbating difficulties...


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