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Pauper Migration under the New Poor law

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Shortly after their appointment at the end of 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners (PLC) were approached by some eminent manufacturers in Lancashire, with the suggestion that a shortage of workers in the region's rapidly expanding manufacturing industries could be filled by unemployed labourers rural parts of the south. In March 1835, the Commissioners wrote to a number of northern manufacturers with an offer to promote such a scheme in suitable rural areas, and also to help with the vetting of applicants.

The first trial of the scheme took place at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, an area of high unemployment and low wages. An Assistant Commissioner visited the area and carried out personal visits to families in distress who, in a previous submission to the Commissioners, had stated that they were living on a total income of seven shillings a week. Despite being offered the possibility of work at an initial wage of 24 shillings a week (per family of four working hands), rising to 30 shillings after a year, there was little interest. However, two families finally agreed, and were followed by others, with a total of 83 individuals eventually migrating. Subsequent migrations followed from Princes Risborough, Chinnor, and other places in the county. The Commissioners trumpeted the success of the scheme in their annual report:

The head of the first family who migrated declared that not all the horses in Buckinghamshire should draw himself and family back to his parish. The employers of the workpeople have expressed themselves well satisfied with the conduct of these southern families, and have declared their intention of seeking families from the same districts in the event of their requiring additional hands.

The first two families to move from Bledlow arrived in January 1835 at Quarry Bank in Cheshire to work at the mills of Samuel Greg and Company. In fact, the fathers of the two families were employed in farm work while it was their children who became mill hands. 38-year-old John Howlett worked 12 hours a day as a cowman and general labourer. His daughters Mary Ann (16), Ann (14), and Celia (12) did 11½-hour days at the mill, while 10-year-old Timothy worked 8 hours. The family received a combined wage of 24s. per week during their first year, rising to 27s. a week in the second. This compared with John's average weekly wage of 10s. back in Bledlow. Similar arrangements were made for John Steevens and his family. They were joined in March by another Bledlow family — widow Hannah Veary and her five children who were aged between 10 and 18. Also in March, 41-year-old Joseph Stevens with his wife and seven children moved to Turton, near Bolton, to work for Henry and Edmund Ashworth. Stevens, a husbandry labourer, had been able to earn 7s. per week when in employment, while his children had performed casual parish labour, mostly collecting stones from the fields for repairing roads. At Turton, the family soon had a combined income of 28s. a week. They were joined by George Allen, with his wife, seven children, and two orphans for whom he had become guardian, named Jesse and Thomas Neal. Two further families followed: Joseph Shepherd, with his wife and nine children, and James Fryer, with his wife and seven children.

As a result of the migration, the poor-rates of Bledlow were said to be reduced by a half. Further migration was organised from Cranfield in Bedfordshire, and from parishes in Suffolk, Kent, and Sussex. Their destinations included Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. To handle the detailed organisation of migrations, the Commissioners appointed two Migration Agents, Richard M Muggeridge for the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire, and Robert Baker, for the West Riding. Muggeridge conducted an analysis of the origin and destination counties of migrations that had taken place up to July 1836:

County of OriginNo. of FamiliesNo. of Individuals
Bedford18144
Berkshire13120
Buckingham47414
Cambridge549
Dorset19
Essex440
Kent548
Middlesex13
Norfolk1096
Northampton18
Oxford17141
Southampton437
Suffolk1841464
Sussex1466
Wiltshire534
TOTAL3292673

Destination CountyNo. of Individuals
Cheshire760
Derbyshire339
Lancashire1223
Somerset18
Staffordshire74
Warwickshire57
Westmorland39
Yorkshire163
TOTAL2673

By July, 1837, around 10,000 persons had undergone relocation funded by parish poor-rates. The agricultural county of Suffolk was one of the most prominent areas to take part in the scheme, with 275 families, amounting to 2005 individuals (20 per cent of the total), migrating by this date. 203 of these families (1660 individuals) had migrated with a definite contract of employment in place, and only 53 persons had returned home by the date of the survey. Of 72 families migrating without an employment contract, 59 out of a total of 345 individuals had returned to their home parish. The cost of parish relief given to all the migrating families in the 12 months prior to their migration had been £1954. However, payments for travel and outfits for those migrating cost parish funds just over £3746, an amount which they hoped would be justified by savings in future years. One of the migrating families, from the Hoxne Union, had been previously receiving parish relief for 30 years.

As well as lowering the cost of relief, the Commissioners anticipated that the reduction in surplus labour in areas from which migration was taking place would also increase the level of wages and availability of work for those who remained. A survey of a number of unions by Muggeridge in 1837 found mixed evidence as to the effect on the labour market in parishes from which migration was taking place. In many parishes, the numbers involved were felt to be too small to make a significant difference.

Migration was not without its critics who viewed the Boards of Guardians of southern unions as acting with mercenary motives in its promotion, and with little care for the future condition and welfare of the migrants who would be "out of sight, out of mind". To counter such views, the Commissioners published letters of gratitude from those who were happy in their new life. the following extract is of a letter from James and Elizabeth French, who migrated from Hoxne Union, Suffolk, to the employ of Messrs. Greenwood & Brothers, of Mytholmroyd Bridge, near Halifax. It was addressed to Mr. John Pettet (presumably Elizabeth's father), grocer and draper, of Altrington, near Eye, Suffolk.

20 April 1836.
We are all well, thank God for it. We have all according to the agreement. We have met with no disappointments. There is no fear of work here if it be contracted for, and by reason of contracts you will be sure of work; but if you come of your own heads perhaps you will not happen of a master. Men's wages run from 10s. to 25s. per week, and such as shoemakers, carpenters and tailors are scarce in the country. We have a house quite as large as yours; and, dear father, we are not disappointed. Here is a good living for the working hands, and the work agrees very well with all our families.

Another Suffolk migrant, John Brett, wrote:

I arrived here with my family all well. I was immediately put to work in the factory, and five of my children. The employment for the first week or two was strange and rather irksome, but after that time neither myself nor children experienced any unpleasantness. My present master, who is very kind to me, employs between 400 and 500 hands in the factory in which we work, and every thing is carried on with the greatest regularity. I know it is said with you that factory children are badly used, that they are cruelly used by the over-lookers, that they are overworked for their age, and obliged to labour 14 or 15 hours each day ; I can assure you that this is not the case ; my children work twelve hours for five clays, and nine hours on Saturdays ; and the overlookers never beat them. With regard to the healthiness of the employment, I can say this, that during the time we have been here, about four months, my family has been very healthy, and that with having better food, and better clad, they look much better than they did. both me and the family have now regular wages, and are well clothed and well fed, and have regular work.

However, the offer of employment at a distance was often declined, with many potential candidates being stirred into finding work in their own home parishes. Despite the Poor Law Commissioners' early optimism, home migration came to a virtual halt in the late 1830s, due to a severe downturn in the northern textile manufacturing industries. Despite this, however, they still viewed the scheme as having been successful, as this report notes:

Our endeavours to promote an interchange of labour have been guided exclusively by proof of a superabundance existing in one part of the kingdom, and a comparative scarcity in another. So long as the manufacturing districts afforded a demand beyond that which the indigenous population could supply, and the agricultural counties possessed large numbers of unemployed families, migration afforded beneficial relief to each; but... the embarrassments in the manufacturing districts, and the extensive commercial depression occasioned by the temporary suspension of the trading intercourse with the United States, placed the condition of the manufacturing population... in too perilous a position, to render an augmentation of their numbers by home migration expedient or desirable. The families who had previously migrated under our sanction, have, in a few instances only, sustained any inconvenience from these causes. The number who have, from any cause, returned to their parishes, form but an inconsiderable per centage (probably not exceeding five per centum) of the whole of the migrants, the far greater proportion of whom have attained circumstances of comparative independence and comfort. Where sickness or other casualties may have rendered relief necessary, it has been afforded, and usually at the cost of the parish from whence the migration was effected.

A separate page describes the emigration of paupers to destinations outside Britain.

Bibliography

  • Annual Reports of the Poor Law Commissioners (1835-1847). British Parliamentary Papers.
  • Return relative to the removal of labourers from agricultural to manufacturing districts. PP (1843) xlv (254).
  • Benton, A (1983) From Bledlow to the mills: pauper migration, in Origins, 7 (3), Bedfordshire FHS, pp.76-80.
  • Boyson, R (1970) The Ashworth cotton enterprise: the rise and fall of a family firm, 1818-1880 (Clarendon Press)
  • Redford, A (1926) Labour migration in England, 1800-1850 (Manchester: Manchester UP)
  • Rees, C (1991) The sponsored poor law migration scheme, 1835-1837: a study of the Preston area in Lancashire Local Historian, 6, pp.23-31.
  • Rose, MB (1986) The Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill: the rise and decline of a family firm (Cambridge: Cambridge UP)
  • Worship, V (2000) Cotton factory or workhouse: poor law assisted migration from Buckinghamshire to northern England, 1835-37 in Family and Community History, 3 (1), pp.33-48.

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