Poor law union

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Poor law union
Also known as:
Poor law district
Category Ad hoc board
Location England and Wales
Created by Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
Created 1834
Abolished by Local Government Act 1929
Abolished 1930
Additional status Registration district
Rural sanitary district
Government Board of guardians
Subdivisions Civil parish

A poor law union was a geographical territory, and early local government unit, in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Poor law unions existed in England and Wales from 1834 to 1930 for the administration of poor relief. Prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 the administration of the English Poor Laws was the responsibility of the vestries of individual parishes, which varied widely in their size, populations, financial resources, rateable values and requirements. From 1834 the parishes were grouped into unions, jointly responsible for the administration of poor relief in their areas and each governed by a board of guardians. A parish large enough to operate independently of a union was known as a poor law parish. Collectively, poor law unions and poor law parishes were known as poor law districts. The grouping of the parishes into unions caused larger centralised workhouses to be built to replace smaller facilities in each parish. Poor law unions were later used as a basis for the delivery of registration from 1837, and sanitation outside urban areas from 1875. Poor law unions were abolished by the Local Government Act 1929, which transferred responsibility for public assistance to county and county borough councils.

England and Wales[edit]

The English Poor Laws[1] were the system of poor relief that existed in England and Wales[2] from the reign of Elizabeth I[1] until the emergence of the modern welfare state after the Second World War.[3] Historian Mark Blaug has argued the Poor Law system provided "a welfare state in miniature, relieving the elderly, widows, children, the sick, the disabled, and the unemployed and underemployed".[4]

The functions of Poor Law Unions were exercised by Boards of Poor Law Guardians, partly elected by ratepayers, but also including magistrates.

Some parishes, many in the metropolitan area of London, were able to avoid amalgamation into unions because of earlier local acts that regulated their poor law administration. The Metropolitan Poor Act 1867 allowed the Poor Law Board to include these parishes in unions.[5]

Until 1894, the Guardians consisted of justices of the peace along with other members elected by rate-payers, with higher rate-payers having more votes. JPs were removed and plural voting stopped in 1894, but nobody actually receiving poor relief was allowed to vote.

The Unions were later used for other functions, such as civil registration, and were the basis of the rural sanitary districts established in 1875. [6]

In 1894, rural districts and urban districts were set up based on the sanitary districts (and therefore indirectly on the unions). In 1930, under the Local Government Act 1929, the Poor Law Unions were finally abolished, with their responsibilities transferred to the county councils and county boroughs.


In Ireland the Poor Relief Act of 1838 divided into districts or "unions" in which the local taxable inhabitants were to be financially responsible for all paupers in the area. In 1898 the Poor Law Union was adopted as the basic administrative division in place of the civil parish and barony. Further subdivision into 828 registration districts and 3,751 district electoral divisions followed. Townlands were not arranged according to these divisions with parish and barony retained as a means to make comparisons with records gathered before 1898.


The Poor Law in Scotland was reformed by the Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845. Poorhouses (as workhouses were generally known in Scotland) were organised at parish level.[7] The Act permitted, but did not require, parishes to join together to build and operate poorhouses. A union of parishes operating a single poorhouse was known as a Combination.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Encyclopedia: English Poor Laws". Eh.net. 2002-05-07. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  2. ^ "The Poor Law: overview". Victorianweb.org. 2002-11-08. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  3. ^ "British social policy 1601–1948". .rgu.ac.uk. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  4. ^ Blaug, Mark. "The Poor Law Report Re-examined." Journal of Economic History (1964) 24: 229–45
  5. ^ Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Nineteenth-Century Britain, 1834-1914, David Englander (2013)
  6. ^ "The implementation of the Poor Law". Victorianweb.org. 2002-11-12. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  7. ^ Higginbotham, Peter. "The Workhouse in Scotland". The Workhouse Web Site. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  8. ^ Higginbotham, Peter. "Poorhouses in Scotland". The Workhouse Web Site. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 

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