Beyond the workhouse: old age, outdoor relief and the New Poor Law by Tom Heritage

Workhouses, and the poor who inhabited them, continue to fascinate us all. From social historians to the wider public, we are intrigued by the institution and the characters within. As I explore in a recent article for Social History, those who spent their old age in poverty under the Victorian New Poor Law regime did not always face a one-way route to the workhouse. In fact, the Board of Guardians provided welfare to those in their own homes if they successfully applied for outdoor relief. Before the introduction of old age pensions in 1908, there was no guarantee that one would receive welfare when they reached old age; one had to actively apply to the Board of Guardians for outdoor relief. The Board of Guardians thought older people were the ‘most deserving’ recipients of welfare, compared with the ‘able-bodied’, or ‘working-age’, population, owing to their perceived infirmity.

From ‘In a London Workhouse’ George Sims, Living London; its work and its play; its humour and its pathos; its sights and its scenes, vol. 2 (London, 1902), 103.

Despite this, the literature presents a pessimistic picture of New Poor Law policy, especially from the 1870s when a ‘crusade against outdoor relief’ was sanctioned by the Poor Law Commissioners of London to curtail relief expenditure to the poor. Consequently, the rate of older people on relief fell, the allowances of outdoor relief given became meagre and they increasingly saw themselves accommodated in workhouses. These arguments are often formed without consultation of rare source materials recording the testimony of the outdoor poor. For example, who were they? Why did they apply? How does this relate to the wider local and regional context of the Poor Law Unions in which they were based? My article fills in the gaps through a thorough study of outdoor relief application and report books.

What are the outdoor relief application and report books?

Simply put, they document the process of an individual applying for outdoor relief, and the outcome of their application by the Board of Guardians. Listed on the left-hand page of the book was the applicant’s name, address, age, the length of time spent in the Poor Law Union, the reasons for applying for poor relief (for example, ‘old age’), their occupation, their ability (whether ‘able-bodied’ or disabled), and the extent of their infirmity. All these criteria informed the decisions made by the Board of Guardians, as recorded on the right-hand page of the report book – whether they would grant cash allowances, or welfare in kind, or an offer of the workhouse, or refuse relief altogether.

Surprisingly, these books have been neglected in favour of workhouse admissions and discharge registers, or workhouse populations in census records. Keith Snell has discussed how archivists and officials destroyed many outdoor relief documents in favour of workhouse materials after the creation of the modern welfare state in 1948, resulting in hundreds of irretrievable individual case histories [1]. Fortunately, however, those application and report books that have survived are a goldmine for social historians.

Outdoor relief entry for William Buck, aged 75 years, parish of Aldfield, Ripon, October 7 1880, left-hand page, followed by right-hand page. Source: North Yorkshire Record Office, Outdoor Relief Application and Report Books, October 7 1880 to September 22 1881, BG/RI 4/1/4.

The first Union I selected for analysis was Ripon Union in the historic county of Yorkshire, West Riding. Its application and report books are the only ones available at the North Yorkshire Record Office in Northallerton. Likewise, the only existing report books at their respective county record offices are for Hertford Union, Hertfordshire, and Alton Union, Hampshire. Transcribing all applicants applying for outdoor relief that were aged 60 years and over between 1879 and 1882, I created a database of 504 single applicants and 174 married couples (discounting those in a marriage that were under 60 years of age).

What have we found in the application and report books?

Firstly, older people in the southern Poor Law Unions of Alton and Hertford were more likely to receive outdoor relief as a share of the population than in Ripon Union in the north. This is likely explained by regional agricultural differences. In the north, older men primarily ran family smallholdings, and by owning their share of the land could save for a comfortable retirement. This was denied to the many agricultural labourers of Alton and Hertford Unions in the south, who could not fall back on any land or capital. Secondly, limited allowances were given to those aged in their sixties, on average between one shilling and two shillings sixpence. They were perceived by the Board of Guardians as more ‘able-bodied’ than those in their seventies and eighties, who assumedly became frailer and less capable of managing their lives, and were thus granted more generous allowances (between three shillings and four shillings sixpence).

Thirdly, I was surprised at the generosity of the Board of Guardians in Ripon. Nearly two-thirds of married couples were granted between seven and eight shillings, which was more generous than the average of five shillings granted to married couples in Alton and Hertford, and close to the ten shillings later granted to married couples under the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908. What I found particularly intriguing is how the single allowances prescribed to some outdoor relief recipients matched or even eclipsed the maximum allowance of weekly old age pensions given to single individuals decades later (five shillings). William Nicholson, from Ripon, an 84-year-old blacksmith, received four shillings per week in outdoor relief, granted on 7 October 1880. By 7 April 1881, he was deemed ‘wholly disabled’, not only owing to ‘old age’, but also his ‘bad legs’, which meant that he was granted eight shillings a week for 26 weeks. Aged 69 years, Ann Waite, also from Ripon, received seven shillings for four weeks after the death of her husband. The Board of Guardians permitted the  continuation of  the weekly allowance she had received when married but adjusted this to four shillings in widowhood. It is also compelling that, although William and Ann’s testimonies are not directly recorded, the adaptation of their allowances may reflect their agency in successfully bargaining for more generous allowances.

Conversely, other case histories suggest the New Poor Law’s stringent nature. Although seen by the Board of Guardians as disabled on account of her deafness, Eliza Mascall, from Hertford, had just turned 60 years of age and was able to work as a charwoman. Thus, it appears a compromise was reached between her ‘able-bodiedness’ and her disability of deafness, and on 31 March 1881, she was granted two shillings and sixpence for three months. As Eliza had attained the age of 60 years, this may have influenced the Hertford Board of Guardians’ decision and we must remind ourselves that they differentiated between applicants who were infirm ‘partially from age’ compared with ‘wholly from age’. Those in their sixties were more likely to be refused outdoor relief outright, or offered the workhouse instead. Applicants had to wait longer to receive the same privileges of Thomas Craft, a 91-year-old from Hertford, whose receipt of two shillings per week was often renewed along with meat, seven pints of milk and half a bottle of brandy.

A more humane New Poor Law?

Although the New Poor Law reduced expenditure to those in need, and has rightly been called out by historians as a harsh regime, I have found evidence of a more benign approach to the elderly poor. We assume that older people were first given pensions by the state under the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908. In fact, in the early 1880s, married and single individuals could receive weekly allowances of outdoor relief close to, or on par with, or even in excess of the amount given to old age pension recipients. It must be remembered that the New Poor Law and the Old Age Pensions Act differed in their approach to welfare. Whilst allowances under the New Poor Law were given at the discretion of the Board of Guardians, and although sometimes generous in one place were nonetheless inconsistent elsewhere, the Old Age Pensions Act universally provided old age pensions across the country. However, taking this evolutionary view of generous welfare provision in the past means that we lose out on appreciating, at least locally, the New Poor Law’s more humane treatment of the elderly poor. By looking ‘beyond the workhouse’ at the outdoor relief application and report books, this blog, and the article which inspired it, captures the voices of the outdoor elderly poor, and their ability to successfully bargain for welfare provision in the face of a stringent regime.


[1] K.D.M. Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, identity and welfare in England and Wales, 1750-1950 (Cambridge, 2006), 209-10.

Dr Tom Heritage is a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Local Population Studies, and recently completed an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, University of Cambridge.