Pauper Children: Poor Law Childhoods in England and Wales 1834-1910

In August 2016, I will publish my first book. It is not finished, I still have bits and bobs of research to complete; a trip to Liverpool to the Royal Liverpool School for the Blind and to the Nazareth House Archives in Hammersmith. I dare say some other ‘vital’ questions will come up too between now and then.

So, I’ve decided to share my writing adventures and publish monthly posts about my progress and summaries of the chapters I’ve just finished. I hope this will enable me to think more clearly about my arguments and be more concise if I have to paraphrase 10,000 words in only 1,000. So today I’ll start with my introduction, please feel free to comment and critique. Suggestions are always welcome and if you know of any of the institutions I’m writing about, I’d really love to hear about them.

Children who belong to the state

By far the most evocative and enduring representation of the alleged evils of the new poor was the character of Oliver Twist created by Charles Dickens.[1] While the poor law sounds to be as dry as dust law, in reality it shaped social welfare for over a hundred years and is intimately linked to so many issues in the cultural and social history of England and Wales.

David Englander calls the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act ‘the single most important piece of social legislation ever enacted’. Historians have engaged with its complexities since its chaotic beginnings and the resulting scholarship is diverse and substantial.[1] While the legislation itself and the minutiae of its administration can encourage somewhat dry scholarship, this book is mindful to avoid ‘stripping’ people of ‘their humanity’, and focuses on the human drama of paupers’ experiences within this hugely important Victorian law.[2] The ‘new’ poor law was designed to deter paupers from applying for relief by including a ‘workhouse test’ whereby only the ‘deserving’ people would accept the offer of the ‘House’ as the only relief available.

In reality, many directives and recommendations issued by the central authorities were not always replicated by individual poor law unions. This is illustrated most starkly by the two main principles of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act proving unworkable in reality. The doctrine that all relief to able-bodied paupers and their families should only be given in workhouses was infeasible unless hundreds of new workhouses were constructed, and became impossible in times of high unemployment.


The deterrent principle of ‘less eligibility’ intended that the standard of living in the workhouse was lower than that of the poorest independent labourer. In practice, diet and conditions in workhouses often exceeded those found in the homes of many poor families,[3] but nonetheless a deterrent remained owing to the widely held punitive and humiliating reputation of the workhouse.

Nineteenth-century Britain was home to ‘great floods of children’ who throughout the course of the century constituted up to 40 per cent of the population.[4] As children also made between 30 and 40 per cent of recipients of poor law relief in nineteenth-century Britain, their impact on poor law resources and doctrine was substantial.[5] The widely publicised plight of pauper children also generated attention from philanthropists and child welfare campaigners.[8] These intersections between state aid and private philanthropy revealed competing ideologies of care and cost, and fostered class and gender friction.


Cardigan Workhouse

The book

Pauper Children is organised into three sections:

Part one explores the experiences of pauper children in poor law institutions such as workhouses, district schools and later, cottage homes. Part two looks at the most used strategies for the care of pauper children in local communities including outdoor relief and boarding-out. Part three analyses how pauper children fared when they were sent by the guardians to privately run charitable establishments, and also examines the lives and future prospects of disabled children.

The treatment of children in workhouses is explored in the first chapter. The family circumstances of the children and their education are compared with children of independent labourers. The workhouse was perceived as a site of moral contagion from which many unions sought either to remove children or attempt to nullify its effects by education, segregation and monitoring. Arguments and debates about separate establishments for pauper children took place over many years. Chapter Two analyses these discourses and the subsequent life pauper children could expect in these seemingly more child-friendly homes. This chapter argues that although family type institutions were perceived as leading the way in child welfare, by the early twentieth century these homes had equally fallen out of favour.

Chapter Three explores the much discussed and prevalent strategy of boarding-out pauper children. This policy is very familiar to today’s carers of looked after children, but was contested throughout the nineteenth century. This chapter sheds light onto how pauper children were perceived in local communities and whether affection or monetary gain was the motivation of foster parents. Until the end of the nineteenth century poor law central authorities did not favour boarding-out, primarily because of the loss of control over the children and the often lax supervision of local boards of guardians.

Chapter Four highlights what the 1834 poor law amendment act chiefly sought to change, the practice of allowing paupers a ‘dole’ in their own homes. It argues that, contrary to poor law propaganda, outdoor relief was never completely curtailed and that it was the principal strategy to relieve the majority of paupers outside of London and certain ‘hard-line’ unions. Fewer sources exist to enlighten the lives of outdoor pauper children but this book endeavours to read against the grain of sources about poverty in nineteenth century England and Wales to uncover the children’s experiences. Although these policies were the most extensively used by many guardians, they are often neglected by historians because of the paucity of sources relating to them.


The final part of this book is devoted to the children who were sent to privately-run charitable institutions. Chapter Five explores diverse establishments, ‘orphan’ homes for Roman Catholic girls, many which looked after physically or mentally disabled children. Unions also sent some boys to training ships to learn discipline and a trade, and these are the only institutions to which a punitive label can be attached. Although disparate institutions, it is argued that all were motivated by the making of respectable responsible subjects. The final chapter also examines disabled children, in this case those who were blind or deaf. It explores attitudes to the education of blind and deaf children and analyses the children’s lives and expectations and questions whether these institutions enabled or disabled the children in their care.

Anna Davin argues that historians need ‘both zoom and wide angled lens’ to capture the particular as well as the general.[1] Pauper Children offers a wide-ranging and multi-layered analysis of poor children and their relationships with poverty, their parents and each other; the poor laws and philanthropy in England and Wales. The histories of pauper children are complicated by conflicting attitudes of (and within) regional poor law unions, competing strategies of child welfare activists and fluctuations in policy by central authorities.[2] Although the ‘new’ poor law sought to bring uniformity to welfare provision, the treatment and care of pauper children was largely dependent on chance; where and with whom they lived.

As Henriques argued, many of the harsher elements of the poor laws were mitigated by the ‘goodwill’ of individual guardians, and this insight can also be ascribed to the behaviour of masters and matrons, house-mothers, teachers, and indeed the children’s own family, or to whom they were fostered.[3] It is problematic to attempt to homogenise and pigeonhole the lives of pauper children. Their varied experiences need not be seen as a problem because an overarching argument and conclusion may prove to be elusive, but as an opportunity to explore in one book how the poor laws and philanthropy interacted with its dependent children, and how the children fared in a multiplicity of circumstances.


Voices of the Children

This book was always going to be about the children themselves. I don’t think Ludmilla Jordanova is correct when she argues that historians ‘persist in searching for the voice of children themselves, in their diaries and autobiographies’ when there can be ‘no authentic voice of childhood speaking to us from the past because the adult world dominates that of the child’. As Helen Rogers has demonstrated in her wonderful project Writing Lives, we can attempt to unravel children’s own experiences from multiple clusters of sources, undeniably mediated by the ‘adult world’, and, as Natalie Davis argues, ‘step forward from the margins’ to attempt readings of what has been revealed.

One of the children we meet is WHR. A child who was sent to the workhouse because of death in the family, he later entered a poor law school. His time there was joyous and he went on to be a poor law teacher himself. WHR wrote his memoir for the 1873 Annual Report, at a time when the poor law authorities were encouraging unions to form district schools to move their children out of workhouses. WHR’s story certainly promotes this agenda, but his memories of childhood are not negated by this, rather unsaid feelings revealed by his writing demonstrates the value of personal testimony in encounters with children’s lives.

There are many, many children’s lives in the book. James Howard who lived in cottage homes and went on to a scholarship to Cardiff University and thence to the Ministry. Violet and George Evans’ family breakdown saw them being cared for by the poor law, and Beatrice Isaac spent many of her childhood years in a boarding school for deaf children. Moses Rees described as a blind ‘foundling’ was educated in a blind school and later trained in London as a piano tuner.

Although ‘authentic’ voices from the past are undoubtedly disorganised and unstable, autobiography can reveal much about particular ‘personal dragons’ with which the author chooses to ‘wrestle’, and are acutely revealing as is shown by the working-class autobiogras used in my book.

[1] Anna Davin, Growing Up Poor, Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914 (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996), 11.
[2] See Thomas Dixon, The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2008.
[3] Ursula Henriques, ‘How Cruel was the Victorian Poor Law?’ The Historical Journal, vol. XI, no. 2 (1968), 365-71.
[4] David Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Nineteenth Century Britain, 1834-1914 (London: Longman, 1998), 1.
[5] Margaret Crowther, The Workhouse System, 1834-1929: The History of an English Social Institution (London: Batsford Academic & Educational, 1981), 1;
[6] See for example Valerie Johnston, Diet in Workhouses and Prisons, 1835-1895 (New York: Garland, 1985).
[7] Eric Hopkins, Childhood Transformed, Working-Class Children in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 161-2.
[8] Karel Williams, From Pauperism to Poverty (London: Routledge, 1981), 197.
[9] Charles Dickens, ‘London Pauper Children’, 551.
[10] Jelinger Cookson Symons, Tactics for the Times, As Regards the Condition and Treatment of the Dangerous Classes (London, 1849). 183.
[11]Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers, The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 275.
[12] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London: 1867, first published 1837-8).


9 thoughts on “Pauper Children: Poor Law Childhoods in England and Wales 1834-1910

  1. This looks really interesting, and I’m curious to see how sharing your book in this way will unfold. I think it’s a brilliant idea. One thing – the footnotes need renumbering!

  2. Hi Lesley – great idea to share your thoughts as you write! Great project, too. The sociologist in me wants to know about your sources and methods. What’s the balance between institutional sources and other kinds of sources? How systematically did you approach the life story/life history elements? How much of the book is based on specific institutional case studies? Happy to share our findings from our Young Criminal Lives project – also writing those up now for our own book of same name. We’re v mindful of fact that the institutions we focus on (ref and ind schools) are the tip of the institutional iceberg in that they were dwarfed by child workhouse/boarding out numbers.
    All best, Pam (

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