The Poor Law

Ref: C3669041

The Poor Law dominated the lives of the poor from the 16th to the 20th century, by using original records, some recently discovered, the lives of the Poor in the West Riding will be examined and their experiences revealed.

Course aim

To explore the history of poverty in the West Riding and the lives of those who suffered and were stigmatized by society for over four centuries.

Who is the course for?

No previous experience required

What topics will this course cover

Week 1 The fate of the Poor The legacy of poverty. This session will examine the origins of the Poor Law in the 16th century and how this was administered until the poor law reform in 1834. Sources will include records from the parish chests, registers, accounts, indentures and related material. Week 2 1834: the New Poor Law Radical changes proposed in the New Poor Law led to riots in the West Riding, most notably in Bradford and wide spread protests. This session will also examine the closure of local workhouses and the increased emphasis on establishing rights of settlement. Week 3 Incomers and aliens Social movement resulting from the Industrial Revolution led to new pressures on the Poor Law and Boards of Guardians. The Irish influx from the famine and other ‘incomers’ added pressure to a system already struggling to cope. Week 4 Social deprivation and Public Health Role of workhouse infirmaries and health issues such as mass vaccinations, epidemics and mental illness. The links between the workhouse and the Asylums. Social reformers and campaigners Week 5 Rehabilitation and a better life Board of Guardians tried to protect the most vulnerable, especially children. Session will explore the Emigration movement, apprenticeships and training ships. Also the use of Industrial schools and programmes for a better life. Week 6 The Art of Poverty Poverty in literature and art, examination of the way writers/artists depicted poverty and the poor. The idealised poor and the political writers. The poor as a political cause. Week 7 Not fit for purpose The decline of the Boards of Guardians from 1919 to the formation of the welfare state. Workhouses into NHS hospitals and legacy. Review of how modern history judges the work of the Board of Guardians. Consideration of the legacy of attitudes towards poverty and language that is still used based on concepts derived in the 19th century.

What will it be like?

WEA classes are friendly and supportive. You will be encouraged to work together with your fellow students and tutor. You will be asked to share your ideas and views in the class and work with the group to give and accept feedback in a supportive environment. The WEA tutor will use a range of different teaching and learning methods and encourage you to be actively involved in your learning. You may be asked to undertake work to support your course outside of your class.

By the end of the course I should be able to:

Have a wider understanding of the social impact of poverty in the period studied Examine primary sources and apply critical criteria to these Have identified themes that continue into modern society regarding poverty and social deprivation

How will I know I'm making progress?

Group sessions will encourage students to interact with each other and the tutor. This will allow tutor to assess student progress and understanding. Time will be allocated in the sessions for students to have one to one feedback with tutor as required

What else do I need to know, do or bring?

Pencils and paper would be useful

Reading and information sources


What could the course lead to?

Other WEA courses and potential motivation to take part in community schemes

Download full course outline

The Poor Law Course Outline

Is this course right for me? Request more information

This course has been cancelled.


You can if you meet all of the following requirements:

  • are paying the standard fee or are on any of the qualifying benefits
  • are paying with a credit/debit card or are not paying a fee because of a qualifying benefit
  • have a valid email address
  • have been resident in the UK, EU or EEA for the last 3 years
  • are aged 19 years or older on 1st September 2016
  • have read and accept the standard terms and conditions
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