Skip to main content

RADNORSHIRE AND THE NEW POOR LAW TO CIRCA 1850 Keith Parker The POOR LAW AMENDMENT ACT of 1834 encountered little opposition in its passage through Parliament, in spite of fears as to its central- ising tendencies, since not only political economists, but also most ratepayers, regarded the Old Poor Law as costly, ineffective and threatening to pauperise the rural labour force. By the Act parishes were to be grouped into unions for purposes of poor relief, with local administration entrusted to guardians of the poor, elected by the ratepayers, with local magistrates serving as guardians in an ex of- ficio capacity. At the national level the system was supervised by the Poor Law Commission from its headquarters at Somerset House. Thomas Fran- kland Lewis of Harpton Court was one of the original three commission- ers, and on his resignation towards the end of 1838 he was succeeded by his son George Cornewall Lewis who served until the Commission was re- placed by the Poor Law Board in 1847. The aim of the Commission was the abolition of outdoor relief, particularly for the able-bodied, who were to be eligible for relief only if they were prepared to enter the union work- house, where conditions were to be so rigorous as to deter all but the most desperate from applying from relief. The initial implementation of the Act at local level was in the hands of assistant poor law commissioners, each of whom briefed the Commis- sion on the situation in the localities in his charge and, after consultation with the local gentry, determined the boundaries of the unions in his dis- trict, subject to the approval of the Commission. Once the guardians had been elected, the assistant commissioner gave advice on procedures to be followed and tried to steer the board of guardians into policies in keep- ing with the Commission's objectives. The new regime was implemented first in the 'Speenhamland' counties of south and east England and it was not until 1836 that the Commission turned its attention to Wales and the neighbouring English counties. Radnorshire, along with the counties of Hereford, Brecon and Cardi- gan, lay within the jurisdiction of Edmund Walker Head, who had been appointed as an assistant commissioner in 1836. He was the only son of the Revd Sir John Head, Bart., and had been educated at Winchester and Oriel College, Oxford, where he formed a close friendship with George Cornewall Lewis. They travelled together in Germany in 1835 and there-