new administrative geographies of the 1830s and the new poor law

The tranche of shopkeepers and woollen manufacturers elected by the Radical Association to Rochdale poor law board in 1838 could be portrayed as a triumph for the petit bourgeoisie concerned more about their rates than for the poor. On the other hand, the fact that board remained under radical control for so long suggests otherwise. It offered the working classes an avenue of influence on a policy that affected them directly; few of the basic principles of the new poor law, including the workhouse, were enacted in Rochdale until as late as the 1870s.[1] In Bolton, the Liberals rather than the Tories supported radical appointments as overseers, and they were able to carry a majority in the select vestry each year from 1837 onwards, and thus retained control over poor relief until the delayed poor law was implemented in 1847.[2]

Throughout the north, the new poor law failed in its initial aim to eradicate outdoor relief. Faced with opposition, both assistant commissioners Charles Mott and Alfred Power had to reassure guardians in Bolton and Blackburn that they would not lose their power of discretion to grant outdoor relief. Boards of guardians opposed applying the test to the unemployed claiming relief during bouts of seasonal economic depression.[3]

[1] Northern Star, 7 April 1838; Garrard, Leadership and Power, p.119.

[2] Taylor, Popular Politics in Industrial England, pp.30, 35; Garrard, Leadership and Power, p.210.

[3] R. Boyson, ‘The New Poor Law in south-east Lancashire, 1834-71’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 70 (1960), 43.



Chartist opinions were increasingly represented in matters relating to civic patriotism, reversing the exclusion that working-class radicals experienced since the 1790s. This was achieved through sheer persistence and forthright challenges.

At Hull in December 1840, the mayor held a meeting in the town hall at eleven o’clock in the morning to draw up an address to the Queen, congratulating her on the birth of her daughter. Attendance was low, and Mr Healey, ‘a working man’, objected to the ‘unreasonable hour for which it was called, as it excluded almost all the working classes’. The meeting was adjourned to a Friday evening, and a committee was formed with the Chartists, Whigs and Tories having three members each. Again this indicated that the local elites had to take the Chartists if not seriously then at least on the same grounds as the other parties. The Chartists used the opportunity to bring up their other grievances, asking rhetorically

‘if there are not 200,000 handloom weavers in a state of destitution? … Do we not see Union bastilles erected all over the country, and have they not inflicted upon the country a Rural Police force to mark the footsteps of the working classes, and to transmit to the Secretary of State every circumstance connected with their movements?’[1]

The Chartists thus reclaimed the position of the radical working-class in the civic body politic.

[1] Northern Star, 12 December 1840.

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