The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was a group set up to decide how to change the Poor Law systems in England and Wales. The group included Nassau Senior, a professor from Oxford University who was against the allowance system, and Edwin Chadwick, who was a Benthamite. The recommendations of the Royal Commission's report were implemented in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.
On 1 February 1832, the formation of the Royal Commission was announced by Viscount Althorp in the House of Commons. The Royal Commission consisted initially of seven commissioners and sixteen assistant commissioners. The central board was expanded to nine commissioners in 1833. The assistant commissioners were to be sent out into England and Wales to collect data on poverty by visiting parishes and by having persons respond to questionnaires, while the central board were to digest the information into a report.
The findings of the Poor Law Commissioners, published in thirteen volumes, began appearing in February 1833. They were used to argue that the existing system of poor relief needed a radical overhaul.
- Charles James Blomfield (Bishop of London) - Chairman
- William Sturges Bourne (chairman of the 1817 Parliamentary commission)
- John Bird Sumner (Bishop of Chester)
- Nassau Senior
- Walter Coulson
- Rev. Henry Bishop
- Henry Gawler
- James Traill
- Edwin Chadwick (secretary)
The first seven were appointed in 1832, the last two in 1833.
The writers of the report suggested radical changes to English Poor Laws:
- Separate workhouses for different types of paupers including aged, children, able-bodied males and able-bodied females.
- The grouping of parishes into unions to provide workhouses
- The banning of outdoor relief so that people had to enter workhouses in order to claim relief
- A central authority to implement these policies and prevent the variation in practice which occurred under the old poor law.
Response from Parliament
There was strong support for the report from all sides of Parliament. The report's ideas were quickly passed into law. The Whigs controlled the House of Commons and supported the utilitarian arguments of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham. Those that did not support the bill were more concerned with the levels of centralisation the act would bring rather than the recommendations of the report such as the building of workhouses.
The report lowered the cost of poor relief which was a concern of MPs.
There is evidence that Nassau Senior had written the report before the data was collected – therefore evidence was used selectively to meet the pre-written report. Of the questionnaires sent out only 10% replied and some of the questioned directed a certain response. However, the inquiry was not supposed to be impartial, the commission wanted to change the existing system, and keeping the current system was not considered an option. The questionnaires used asked leading questions that were poorly framed leading to responses that were ambiguous or irrelevant.
- Leon Levy (1970) Nassau W. Senior, 1790-1864: Critical essayist, classical economist and advisor of governments. New York: A.M.Kelley, pp.81-83
- Sir George Nicholls; Thomas Mackay (1899). A history of the English poor law in connexion with the legislation and other circumstances affecting the condition of the people. J. Murray. p. 52.
- Senior, Nassau; Chadwick, Edwin (1834), Poor Law Commissioners’ Report of 1834, London: H.M. Stationery Office
- Sir George Nicholls; Thomas Mackay (1899). A history of the English poor law in connexion with the legislation and other circumstances affecting the condition of the people. J. Murray. p. 31.
- Poverty and Public Health 1815–1949 by Rosemary Rees
- Blaug, Mark, The Poor Law Report Reexamined, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jun., 1964), pp. 229–245
Bryan Green. Knowing the poor. A case study in textual reality construction. London: RKP, 1993