The Poor Law

The 1601 Poor Law Act (also known as the 43rd Elizabeth)

1601, the 43rd year of the reign of Elizabeth I, saw the passing of 'An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore' (43 Eliz. I c.2) which, although it was essentially a refinement of the 1597 Act, is often cited as marking the foundation of the Old Poor Laws.

The 1601 Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore consolidated and replaced a variety of previous legislation and planned the following

  1. Establishment of parochial responsibility, with churchwardens or overseers (from two to four in number, depending on the size of the parish) allocating relief.
  2. Suppression of begging
  3. Provision of work for the able bodied
  4. Use of County Houses of Correction for vagrants

The Poor Law Act of 1601, which was to be the basis of Poor Law administration for the next two centuries, divided the poor receiving relief into three categories

  1. The able bodied who were to have work provided for them.
  2. The rogues, vagabonds, and beggars, who were to be whipped or otherwise punished for their unwillingness to work.
  3. The 'impotent' poor (the old, the sick and the disabled) who were to be relieved in alms houses

The 1601 Act also determined that in each parish the churchwardens and two or more substantial landholders should act as Overseers of the Poor and collect the poor rate.

Further provisions of the Act made each parish responsible for its own poor. It would appoint its own Overseers of the Poor (usually the churchwardens and two or so substantial landowners) who would collect the poor rate.

Local Poor Houses up to 1834 (when the New Poor Law was introduced)

Poor_Law.pngA parliamentary report of 1777 recorded local workhouses in operation at Huddersfield (with accommodation for 50 or 60 inmates), Almondbury (60), Kirkheaton (19), and Lockwood (15). There were early workhouses at Honley and Lepton, and by 1815 ones had been established at Golcar, Linthwaite and Marsden. Wooldale and Thurstonland set up workhouses after 1815.

By 1834, establishments also existed at Slaithwaite, Upperthong, Lindley, and possibly at Netherthong, Scholes, Holme, Dalton, and Longwood (Place, 2004).

Lewis B Whitehead (1942) 'Bygone Marsden' stated that the Marsden Poorhouse was originally sited in a cottage at Scout in the early 1800s.

Interestingly however, the late Barbara Spooner who lived at Lower Scout Farm for a great number of years suggested that the 'Poorhouse' was in one of three cottages in Scout.

Alan Place (2000) 'Pray Remember the Poor', asserts that it is strange that the Marsden Poorhouse was built so far from the village centre.

Also, it was strange that it was built so near to the Slaithwaite Poorhouse.

Colne Valley Poorhouses

Slaithwaite had a poorhouse located to the north of the township on Back o'Wall near Worts Hill. The house, still known as Poor House, is a rare survivor amongst Huddersfield workhouses. The Linthwaite workhouse was at the south side of what is now Causeway side. The Golcar township workhouse was at Pike Law, to the south of Scapegoat Hill.

Golcar Workhouse, a Poor Law inspector’s report

The Golcar workhouse was a small establishment sited in a bleak hillside location. In October 1866, Poor Law Board Inspector RB Cane noted that the premises were designated for able-bodied inmates, of whom 22 could be accommodated.

He found the workhouse 'wholly inadequate in every respect'. It consisted of two old cottages, one for men and one for women, but with no yards. The men slept two to a same bed, with up to 14 in one small room containing seven beds.

At the time of his visit, seven women and five children occupied four beds in one small room which also served as the lying-in ward. The kitchen and washhouse were a small lean-to shed and the inmates' 'puddings' were boiled in the same copper as the foul linen was boiled and washed.

West Yorkshire Archive. Guardians' minute books (1837-1930)

The impact of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

The poor law was radically following the great reform act of 1834. The main difference was that the relief of the poor was changed from a local responsibility into a group one. Groups of parishes were consolidated into Poor Law Unions so removing the local community responsibility.

Out relief was discouraged and the workhouses, which had been in existence for the previous two centuries, became the primary source of relief. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the laws were tightened and modified until the administration was transferred to the Ministry of Health in 1918.

It was not until 1930 that the poor laws were finally abolished.

Huddersfield Poor Law Union formally came into being on 10th February 1837. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 41 in number, representing its 34 constituent parishes and townships as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

Yorkshire — West Riding

Almondbury (2), Austonley, Cumberworth Half, Cumberworth Lower, Cartworth, South Crosland, Dalton, Farnley Tyas, Foolstone, Golcar, Hepworth, Holme, Honley (2), Huddersfield (5), Kirkburton, Kirkheaton, Lepton, Lingards, Linthwaite, Lockwood, Longwoods, Meltham, Marsden in Almondbury, Marsden in Huddersfield, Netherthong, Quarmby with Lindley, Scammonden, Shelley, Shepley, Slaithwaite, Thurstonland, Upperthong, Upper Whitley, Wooldale (2). Later additions: Scholes (from 1894), Skelmanthorpe (from 1876).

The 1834 Act is often criticised by historians with reference to its philosophy of putting all able-bodied paupers in the workhouse. No able-bodied pauper was to receive outdoor relief under the terms of the act. However the act was focused on the rural south and not the urban industrial north.

There were too many paupers, unemployed people subject to the vagaries of the economic climate. Therefore, in the north many poor law guardians continued with the practice of outdoor relief where possible. There was also a strong anti-poor law movement in Huddersfield led by Richard Oastler – a land steward at Fixby and leader of the Ten Hour Movement.


Historical evidence shows that in 1840 the Huddersfield Guardians reimbursed the cost of maintenance of two paupers in the Marsden in Almondbury workhouse. Further evidence in the census of 1841 shows that there were two paupers, named Joseph and Mary Brooksbank, living in Scout.

But Place (2000) states 'The location of the Scout site, North of the new Colne, would have been in Marsden in Huddersfield, a different township in a different parish. In December 1845 the Huddersfield Guardians considered giving up several houses in Marsden in Almondbury occupied by paupers belonging to that township, and providing relief to paupers living in such houses'.

Therefore, it seems that the township of Marsden in Almondbury owned other properties in their parish, and the Scout cottage was owned by Marsden in Huddersfield. Not much is known about Marsden workhouse, like many small rural workhouses it seems to have closed. But, many townships were paying rent for 'habitations of the poor'. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that many paupers in Marsden in Almondbury were still receiving outdoor relief.

Smaller rural townships also paid maintenance for their paupers in other union workhouses. The 1881 census shows that some former Marsden residents were inmates in other workhouses. These paupers would be former residents who had been working/living in the townships where they were inmates thus they would have held a settlement certificate for one of the two Marsden Townships.

Therefore the townships of Marsden would be liable for the maintenance of these paupers in the workhouses.

1881 Census: Residents of Union Workhouse, Saddleworth, York

John HILL 81 M Inmate Woollen Weaver , Marsden, Huddersfield, York

1881 Census: Residents of Dean House Workhouse, Honley, Huddersfield, Yorkshire

Joseph HOLDROYD 65 M Inmate Stone Mason, Marsden

Elizabeth HILL 21 F Shawl Finisher , Idiot Marsden

Henry SCHOFIELD 62 M Inmate Stone Quarryman, Marsden

1881 Census: Residents of Crosland Moor, Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

Mary SMITH 72 F Inmate Hawker, Marsden Huddersfield, York

Alfred MARSDEN 14 M Inmate Scholar, Marsden Huddersfield

Vagrants and vagabonds were a social problem and were viewed by their peers as lower than paupers. The 1834 act sought a resolution to the problem. The 1840 act made Poor Law Unions responsible for caring for vagrants, rather than parish constables. Huddersfield Union opened a 'Vagrants Office' in 1851, but it was a lodging house rather than an office.

Historical evidence shows that in the same year Marsden posted notices between their village and Delph stating that, from March 1st, no tickets for lodging would be given to vagrants by the Marsden constable. Instead all (vagrant) applicants would be dispatched to the Huddersfield Vagrant Office! More administrative acts were soon to change local government and begin the long process of democratising Marsden/local government.

Lewis B Whitehead (1942) Bygone Marsden states that 'originally, the two Marsden Local Boards, Marsden in Huddersfield and Marsden in Almondbury, held their meetings alternately in the Old Town School from July 4th , 1860, to November 30th 1876, and later in the Mechanics’ Hall. A Provisional Order to combine the two authorities was granted in 1886, and this was known as the Marsden Local Board. The first election for the Urban District Council was in December 1894, and was composed of 12 members'.

In 1912 Marsden was to be significantly affected by the National Coal Strike. This was to cause much hardship as coal was to become in very short supply.

Despite government intervention, and to national dismay, the strike began at the end of February. The strike opened at Alfreton in Derbyshire, one of the best conducted pits in the country, and spread slowly as local notices expired. 'At the great majority of the Nottinghamshire collieries', it was reported on the first day, 'the notices expire tomorrow, and at a few of the pits on Wednesday.'

A report in The Huddersfield Examiner of March 12th 1912 indicates the great measure of hardship endured by local people during the coal strike.

The situation in Marsden remains much the same as last week, though the distress has naturally become more acute. Bank Bottom Mill, Fall Lane Mill and Ready Carr Mill have now been idle for three weeks. Clough Lee Mill ceased work a week ago and Messrs Crowther, Bruce and Co’s premises, which have been running short-time during the past fortnight, were closed on Thursday evening until the supply of coal is replenished. The gasworks are keeping up the supply of gas very well though coke of a serviceable quality is nearly as scarce as gold’.

'Relief has been given in all needy cases almost from the beginning of the trouble. Then soup kitchens were opened in the Liberal, Conservative and Socialist Clubs. Later the Adult School also began to provide soup. The management and control of the soup supply has now been centralised in order to prevent overlapping. Some members of the committee sit in the council room at the Mechanics Institution twice daily in order to issue tickets to those who need relief, and the applicants are very numerous and increasing in numbers as the distress becomes more accentuated’.

'Help is given also in other ways, and no one need suffer want for the present. Many houses are without coal, this shortness is very difficult to overcome, as the coal supply is practically stopped. Bags of coke are greedily purchased when they can be, and even wood is eagerly sought after. It is to be hoped that the weather will be mild during this trying period’.

Marsden Urban District Council May 3rd 1912 (the coal strike has ended)

The chairman addressing the council, 'He thought as representatives of the ratepayers of Marsden they might be proud of their constituents for the self restraint which they showed in a very terrible crisis and in that respect it was their duty as a council to recognise the voluntary efforts made by public bodies either directly or indirectly, because all, , political, social and religious has endeavoured to mitigate suffering’.

'They must also recognise the work done in a more substantial and pressing sphere by Mr Tom Whitely for the relief provided through anonymous benefactions and Messrs Firth for coal which they supplied free to all necessitous cases.

The one great beauty, to his mind, so far as Marsden was concerned had been the discriminating character of the work done, which had been recognised more as a moral obligation than a humiliating charity. But for the work done in that direction it would have been the duty of the council ......

'He thought if moral obligations were more generally recognised as man and man they would possibly require fewer acts of parliament for dealing with distress and suffering that came their way’.

To conclude it can, arguably, be seen that paternalism had replaced the judgmental harshness of the 1834 Poor Law. However, moral obligation, a sense of duty and social status were still the driving force of Edwardian society, yet England, including Marsden, had adopted a more humanitarian approach to the poor in society.

Cynthia Phillips