Timeline - Poor Laws, Workhouses, and Social Support

It is likely that lots more will be written on this page during 2005. The eventual aim is to include far more than "poor laws" and "workhouses".

Some sources were each used in a number of the entries below:

When? What? Information
1349 -1350

Ordinance of Labourers

(23rd Edward the 3rd, 25th Edward the 3rd)

The Ordinance of Labourers prohibited private relief to able-bodied beggars. (The purpose of the 1350 Ordinance was to supplement and reinforce certain points of the 1349 Ordinance which had been left vague).


Statute of Cambridge

(12 Rich. 2, ch. 7)

Statute of Cambridge placed restrictions on the movement of labourers and beggars.


Vagabonds and Beggars Act

(11 Henry VII c.2)

"Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid".


Act For the Relief of the Poor

(39 Eliz. c.3)

Consolidated and extended previous acts and provided the first complete code of poor relief.

An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore

The "old" Poor Law

The 1601 Act was built on the Poor Relief Act 1597/8. These Acts gave Justices of the Peace responsibility for the administration of poor relief on a local level. Local poor rates were defined. Although preference was given to assisting people within their own homes, the act of 1598 allowed for the setting up of workhouses in urban areas. The Acts of 1598 and 1601 remained the main provision for the poor in England until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Every parish was ordered to levy a tax on householders to raise a fund. Overseers of the poor were appointed to spend the money on the sick and aged and on establishing workhouses where the able-bodied adults could work. Orphaned children came under the care of the overseers, who were to apprentice the children to suitable trades.


An Act for the better Relief of the Poor of this Kingdom

The Settlement and Removal Act
(13&14 Car. II c.12)

(The origin of this was the 1388 Statute of Cambridge). In 1601, the Poor Law Act placed administration of the poor rates in the hands of each local parish. Since some parishes were more generous than others, many poor people moved to where relief was higher. This led to objections by payers of the poor rate, and in 1662, the Settlement Acts were passed to prevent such movements. These had the unfortunate side-effect of reducing mobility of labour, and made it difficult for those without work to seek it elsewhere.

The laws stated that, following any complaint made by the church wardens or overseers of the poor to a justice of the peace, "any person or persons that are likely to be chargeable to the parish" could be removed and conveyed to "such parish where he or they were last legally settled either as a native householder, sojourner, apprentice or servant". It remained legal for migrant harvest workers and others to work elsewhere if "they carry with him or them a certificate from the minister of the parish and one of the churchwardens and one of the overseers of the poor that he or they have a dwelling house or place in which he or they may inhabit". If they fell "sick or impotent" they should be removed to their parish of origin.


An Act for amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Imployment, and Relief of the Poor

Knatchbull's Act or the Workhouse Test Act
(9 Geo. I c.7)

Sir Edward Knatchbull's Act enabled workhouses to be set up by parishes or groups of parishes, and the workhouse test was introduced, whereby the workhouse - a place of asylum for the poor - would serve as a deterrent: relief and would be available only to those willing to submit to its rigorous regime.


An Act for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor

Gilbert's Act
(22 Geo. III c.83)

Thomas Gilbert's Act permitted unions of parishes to construct a workhouse for the old, the sick and infirm, and orphans. Able-bodied paupers were to be found employment with farmers, landowners and other employers, who would receive an allowance from the parish to bring up their wage to subsistence levels. (However, not much was achieved along these lines until after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act ).

This foreshadowed the (1795) Speenhamland system of outdoor relief, whereby the parish would supplement wages according to the price of bread and the number of children in a family. It led to a widespread belief that out-of-work able-bodied labourers might get relief and abuse the system: the precursors of today's "welfare cheats".


An Act to Amend so much of an Act... as prevents the distributing occasional relief to poor persons in their own houses, under certain circumstances and in certain cases.
(36 Geo. III c.23)

Sir William Young introduced this Act which repealed some of the provisions of Knatchbull's Act and gave greater powers to local magistrates to order outdoor relief. This was not a universally popular measure and may have encouraged some parishes to form Gilbert's Unions which were exempt from such measures.

Speenhamland system

(Speen, Berkshire)

The guaranteed minimum income provisions introduced in England in 1795, and known generally as the Speenhamland system. Unfortunately, it tended to aggravate the underlying causes of poverty in any particular parish. The immediate impact of paying this poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse. (It is named after the hamlet of Speen, near Newbury, where this was first tried).


Sturges-Bourne's Act

(59 Geo. III c. 12).

Sturge Bourne's Act introduced scrutiny of poor relief by small committees (or vestries), and the payment of overseers.

1832 - 4

Poor Law Commission (1832)
Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 (March)

The commission (appointed by Earl Grey, Prime Minister) conducted extensive investigation into the operation of the poor laws. The report influenced the 1834 "new" Poor Law.

Note that the basis for workhouses already existed. (Knatchbull's Act, Gilbert's Act, etc). They were not invented by the 1834 Report and Act.

August 1834

An Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales

The "new" Poor Law

This cut off completely all relief-money to the able-bodied. (In fact, it revised pretty well the whole system of poor relief that had operated so far). The aged, sick, or child paupers were compelled to enter work-houses where they were forced to perform degrading labour.

The abolition of outdoor relief in 1834 inflicted a trauma of upheaval on thousands of people. Chartism, the campaign for popular democracy, drew support from anti-Poor Law sentiment:

1913   "Workhouse" now referred to as "Poor Law Institution" in official documents.

Local Government Act 1929

(19 &20 Geo V, c17),

All Poor Law Unions were abolished in 1930 and their functions were transferred to the Administrative County Councils. This led to the provision of relief for the unemployed (later called 'public assistance') by the National Assistance Board (1934).
King's Norton Workhouse
1775 - 1803?

King's Norton's first workhouse

Overseers' accounts from Kings Norton survive from 1774, but the third volume has the significant title-page: 'This House was opened for the Reception of the Poor, January 13th 1803, by John Saunders Governor". According to the Tithe Apportionments, this body paid rent on a yard and gardens located on the road from Cofton (Rednal Road), lying behind buildings on Green Wharf Road.

November 1836

King's Norton Poor Law Union was formed.

The Union continued to utilise the Parish Workhouse situated opposite King's Norton Green.

It incorporated the parishes of King's Norton, Northfield, Beoley, Harborne and Edgbaston. Each already possessed a workhouse of its own.



The Poor Law Commissioners authorised an expenditure of £1,500 for the alteration and enlargement of the old buildings.



102 inmates.



141 inmates.

1870 - July 1872

New King's Norton Workhouse

The new Workhouse was erected at Selly Oak from designs by Edward Holmes, architect. The road known as "Workhouse Lane" was later renamed Raddlebarn Road.

King's Norton Workhouse (1870)

King's Norton Workhouse (1870)

King's Norton Workhouse (1870)



A total of 327 individuals were lodged in the Workhouse.

1880s, extended 1893

Erection of Cottage Homes at Woodcock Hill (near Cromwell Lane)
SP 0181 NE

King's Norton Union operated a cottage homes site at Woodcock Hill. Cottage homes provided accommodation and training for pauper children away from the workhouse, usually in semi-rural locations. Children were housed in cottages each holding 20-30 boys or girls and supervised by a house "parent". The King's Norton Cottage Homes site included ten cottages, a school, swimming bath, a hospital and workshops.


King's Norton Workhouse and Infirmary

A pavilion-plan infirmary was erected at the south-east of the workhouse. The site became known as the "King's Norton Workhouse and Infirmary". (This is is a precursor to its later role as Selly Oak Hospital).

It was extended in 1908, and a nurses' home erected at the opposite side of the main road.


The site was extended to the west with a new entrance block, ward block, clothes store, sewing room, and wood-chopping shed.

King's Norton Workhouse (1902)

King's Norton Workhouse (1902)

Birmingham Workhouses before amalgamation with King's Norton

This summarises the situation in Birmingham prior to the merging in 1912 of the Birmingham, King's Norton, and other, Unions and workhouses. It isn't do with King's Norton, but sets the scene for King's Norton from 1912.


Birmingham Parish Workhouse founded



Birmingham became a Poor Law Incorporation



Birmingham Union Workhouse opened its doors



Separate infirmary opened


Amalgamation of King's Norton Workhouse with the Birmingham Workhouse

King's Norton Union was amalgamated with the Birmingham Poor Law Union.

The Unions of Birmingham, and King's Norton & Northfield, and Aston, merged to become the Birmingham Public Assistance Committee.

The (1872) King's Norton Workhouse became known as the Birmingham Union Workhouse.


King's Norton Workhouse became Selly Oak Hospital.

The former Workhouse is now part of the Physiotherapy Department.

See photographs above, which are of the current hospital.

1948 Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary became Dudley Road Hospital The pre-merger Birmingham Workhouse site later became Dudley Road Hospital. Workhouses, and especially their infirmeries, provided buildings for many hospitals, and helped lay the foundations for the NHS. But workhouses also became various other types of building, such as museums, libraries, schools, etc.