Poor Law Unions (After 1834)

Following the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 the old system of the parish providing relief to their poor was ended and it became the responsibility of the newly formed Unions.

Each Union was run by a Board of Guardians who met on a regular basis to discuss and vote on all matters relating to the Union. However, the day to day running of the Union was in the hands of the officers of the Union whom the Guardians appointed. It was these officials that the ordinary person was likely to have to deal with and these officers’ abilities were crucial to the competent running of the Union.

Those who were seeking relief would normally have to first approach the Relieving Officer who would then present the case to the Guardians. In the early years of the Union the applicant might also have to make a personal appearance before the Guardians. A decision would then be made as to whether out relief would be given, or refused, or whether an order for admission to the workhouse offered to the applicant. In emergencies the Relieving Officer often had authority to make a decision and then have it confirmed by the Guardians. Medical relief could also be given as the Guardians employed their own Medical Officers who were local doctors.

Every Union had its own workhouse and a Master and Matron were responsible for the running of it, with assistance from various other staff such as the porter and schoolteachers. How successfully a workhouse was run was very dependent on the character and abilities of the Master and Matron and the inmates could be subject to a very benign regime or a harsh one. The inmates of the workhouse would be a mix of people including the insane, the old, the sick and children as well as the able bodied making it very difficult to cater properly for each of their special needs. Over the decades, as attitudes changed and medical knowledge increased, some of these groups were removed from the workhouse to have specialist care and attention and the workhouses became an important place as a hospital for the poorest of society.

By the time that the Unions were abolished by the passing of the Local Government Act of 1929, to become the responsibility of the County Councils, they had become institutions mainly for the old and sick.