Resisting the workhouse: poor relief in nineteenth-century Cornwall

On 17th February 1837 a riot occurred at Camelford in north Cornwall. There were also reports of disturbances at Stratton, further north. These events were caused by the establishment in that year of Poor Law Unions, following the implementation of the New Poor Law of 1834.

This reform transferred responsibility for poor relief from the local parish vestry to Boards of Guardians elected by ratepayers in groups of parishes (there were 13 in Cornwall). It also included plans to build a centralised workhouse in each union. It was this combination of centralisation and the fear of the workhouse that triggered widespread protests in 1837. Henceforth the intention was that the able-bodied poor would only receive help by entering the workhouse, which was made deliberately grim.

Camelford Workhouse in 1881:
handy for the pub!

Its critics pointed out how the new system was too inflexible to cope with short-term or temporary unemployment. It was little surprise that slate quarriers from Delabole, liable to be laid off in bad weather or during building slumps, were prominent among the rioters at Camelford. In the event, the authorities found it impossible to stick to their principles. Out-relief (cash or kind given to those living in their own homes) continued for some at least of the temporarily unemployed and at Camelford the workhouse wasn’t even built until 1858.

There were further reports of riots over the New Poor Law in the summer of 1837 at St Ives and Perranarworthal in the west. But why did the first and most active opposition arise in north Cornwall in the two smallest (in terms of population) Poor Law Unions?

The answer is simple. Before 1837 these were the districts with the highest per capita poor law expenditure in Cornwall. Poor relief was relatively high because wages for farm labourers were notoriously low. The poor justifiably suspected that the farmers who would now control the boards and paid the rates would not spurn the opportunity to reduce spending.

In fact, there were two contrasting poor relief regimes in Cornwall. In east Cornwall expenditure was close to rates in Devon. Further west expenditure was much lower. There, competition for labour from a growing mining industry into the 1860s kept wage levels up. In addition, there was more access to smallholdings and potato patches. These were in turn bolstered by Methodist teachings about self-reliance and a tradition of resolute independence and community/family support that avoided dependence on poor relief.

The imposing entrance to
Liskeard’s workhouse

The main purpose of the Victorian workhouse was to discipline the able-bodied poor. We now have universal credit which has a similar function.

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