The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834
The intent here is not to provide a complete history of the Poor Laws, but rather to assist in understanding how important the Poor Law Unions were in British genealogy.
Under the ancient feudal system the proprietors of land provided for the poor; and after Christianity was introduced the indigent were relieved out of the tithes and estates of the churches and monastic institutions. Many of the latter were richly endowed for religious, superstitious, educational, and benevolent purposes. When Henry VIII. suppressed the monasteries and confiscated their property the poor were deprived of their ancient rights and left in a state of destitution, which compelled Queen Elizabeth to impose poor's rates on all occupiers of land, houses, and other property. Before the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, in 1834, the long continued maladministration of the old Poor Law had become an evil of the greatest magnitude, which was eating like a canker into the heart of the nation, pauperising the labourers of whole counties, reducing them to deep degradation, taking away the motive and the reward of industry, and oppressing that capital which was to employ and remunerate labour. In some counties the regular employment of labourers had nearly ceased, many farmers paying their workmen only half-wages, and sending them to the overseers for what more was necessary for the bare subsistence of their families. This system cut the very sinews of industry, took away its reward, and levelled all distinctions of skill and awkwardness, and virtue and vice. It made the labourer a pauper, left him without any encouragement for good conduct, and gave him a positive interest in marrying early, however imprudently, as his allowance from the parish was so much per head, and it was so calculated that he was more comfortable with a large than a small family. In like manner, women having illegitimate children were actually gainers by their shame, in consequence of the parish allowance. The New Poor Law amended both the law and the practice; it benefited both the employers and the employed, and raised the labourers of whole counties from the condition of paupers to that of independent workmen, by diverting immense sums of money from the degrading channel of parish pay into the honourable channel of wages of labour.
Under the new Act all the parishes and townships of England and Wales were arranged into large UNIONS for the maintenance of their paupers in extensive new workhouses. Several of these extended into the adjoining counties.
Most of these Unions were used as the basis for the Civil Registration districts which commenced on the 1st July 1837.
The Poor Law Unions continued until their powers were transferred to the new councils of the county and county boroughs were formed, under the Local Government Act, 1929, effective 1st April 1930. The Poor Laws were eventually abolished in 1946.
Poor Law Unions by county
Axminster, Barnstaple, Bideford, Crediton, Devonport, East Stonehouse, Exeter, Holsworthy, Honiton, Kingsbridge, Newton Abbot, Okehampton, Plymouth, Plympton St Mary, South Molton, St Thomas, Stoke Damerel, Tavistock, Tiverton, Torrington, Totnes
Barton Regis, Bristol, Cheltenham, Chipping Sodbury, Cirencester, Clifton, Dursley, Gloucester, Newent, Northleach, Stow on the Wold, Stroud, Tetbury, Tewkesbury, Thornbury, Westbury on Severn, Wheatenhurst, Winchcomb
Aldershot, Alresford, Alton, Alverstoke, Andover, Basingstoke, Catherington, Christchurch, Droxford, Eastleigh, Fareham, Farnborough, Fordingbridge, Hartley Wintney, Havant, Headley, Hursley, Isle of Wight, Kingsclere, Lymington, New Forest, New Winchester, Petersfield, Portsea Island, Ringwood, Romsey, South Stoneham, Southampton, Stockbridge, Whitchurch
Blean, Bridge, Bromley, Canterbury, Cranbrook, Dartford, Dover, East Ashford, Eastry, Elham, Faversham, Gravesend and Milton, Hollingbourne, Hoo, Isle of Thanet, Maidstone, Malling, Medway, Milton Regis, North Aylesford, Penshurst, River, Romney Marsh, Sevenoaks, Sheppey, Strood, Tenterden, Tonbridge, West Ashford