Outdoor Relief

8th June, 1848.


ADVERTING to their Circular of the 23rd ultimo, concerning the Relief which may legally be afforded from the Poor Rates to the destitute wives and children of persons occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land, the Commissioners for administrating the Laws for the Relief of the Poor in Ireland direct me to state, that having reason to believe that some misapprehension exists as to the precise nature of the modifications which the law, as explained in that Circular, may introduce into the administration of Relief, they desire to make the following observations:—

The only practical difference which that Circular need make in the administration of Relief is, that Boards of Guardians and Relieving Officers should not permit the wife or child of a person occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land to die of starvation, or to suffer extreme privations, because the husband or father (as the case may be) refuses to qualify himself for Relief, by ceasing to occupy more than such quarter of an acre. But it would be an entire perversion of the meaning of the law, and of the language and meaning of the Circular, to give Relief systematically and indiscriminately to the wives and children of persons occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land, when the legislature has expressly declared that such occupiers are not to be deemed destitute.

If such occupiers are really able to maintain their wives and families, Boards of Guardians have exactly the same remedy under the Irish Vagrant Act, (10 & 11 Vic., c. 84,) against them, as against a person in employment with high wages, who "deserts or wilfully neglects to maintain his wife or any child whom he may be liable to maintain, so that such wife or child shall become destitute, and be relieved in or out of the workhouse of any Union in Ireland." Under that act, any such occupier may be prosecuted for wilfully neglecting to maintain his wife and child, and he "shall, on conviction thereof, before any Justice of the Peace, be committed to the common gaol, or House of Correction, there to be kept to hard labour for any time not exceeding three Calendar months."

It is true that Boards of Guardians have no adequate protection against a person who, although he persists in occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land, is so poor that he cannot be said, in the legal sense of the words, wilfully to neglect to maintain his wife or child, and who yet is practically the cause of the destitution of such wife or child, by his refusing to bring himself within the conditions through which he would be entitled by law to Relief. The Guardians will be thus exposed to numerous attempts at imposition, which can only be successfully met by patient inquiry and discrimination on the part of themselves and of Relieving Officers. At the same time, it is to be remembered, that Boards of Guardians are now deemed to be in a position which will enable them to save an innocent wife or child from death by starvation, arising from the obstinacy of a husband or father; and means are thus afforded for the better securing an object, which must be regarded as the principle aim of every Poor Law, viz., the preservation of human life.


 By Order of the Commissioners


The Clerk of each Union.

Under the terms of The Poor Law Relief Act of 1838, relief was available to the destitute only within the workhouse. The policy of no outdoor relief applied to Ireland only. Under the English system outdoor relief was available for the more deserving classes. In Ireland those who were destitute had to chose between entering the workhouse or starving outside it.


The Famine had a tremendous impact on the workhouses. Not surprisingly the accommodation in the workhouses had to be greatly increased and new unions created. However, even with extra accommodation the overcrowding in the workhouses was extreme. The mortality rates in the workhouses rose dramatically. By the Summer of 1847 it was recognised that the policy of indoor relief only had failed to cope with the victims of the Famine. Some additional method of dealing with the countless destitute people had to be found.

The first move towards finding a new method of intervention was the provision of food for the destitute people through the Temporary 'Soup Kitchen' Act. The Soup Kitchens Act set up temporary relief committees to provide food for the destitute unable to secure admission to the workhouse. This act came into force in February 1847 and was superseded six months later by the Irish Poor Relief Extension Act. The precedent of direct relief in periods of particular distress had already been established by the Quakers and other voluntary groups in both Ireland and England.

Another Commission was appointed to run this new scheme of outdoor relief. Local committees were appointed to draw up lists of people requiring relief. But this time the regulations regarding eligibility were less stringent than before. The act empowered the guardians to grant relief at their own discretion outside the workhouse to the aged, infirm and sick poor, and widows with two or more dependent children. The act also empowered the Commissioners to allow Boards of Guardians to give outdoor relief in the form of food to able-bodied persons for limited periods. In the early years of outdoor relief it was usually given in kind rather than in cash; e.g. someone on outdoor relief in 1840 received an average less than 1 lb of Indian meal per day, costing about 6 old pennies per week. If a man was working he could get up to 1 lbs. per day.

The situation of all classes of eligible persons was constantly under review. The period of relief in most instances did not exceed two months and was most widely availed of in the month of July when the old crop of potatoes had been used and the new one was not ready. Outdoor Relief was primarily to tide people over a period of acute distress and the recipients could have no feeling of security about it. In all cases relief ceased once accommodation became available in the workhouses.

A harsh amendment was made to the 1847 Irish Poor Relief Extension Act, often referred to as the 'Gregory Clause'. It stipulated that persons in occupation of more than a quarter acre of land were excluded from receiving relief. Many families preferred to stay in their cabins and starve rather than give up their plot. When such a situation arose the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that rather than prosecute the father for not providing for their family, relief in the workhouse should be given to the wife or the children or relief in food "in cases of extreme necessity". The landlords on the Boards of Guardians, who were intent on clearing their estates of their surplus tenantry, "strongly opposed this ruling and in many places refused to act on it". The quarter acre clause was repealed in 1863.

By the mid 1850s poor law policy was to cut back as far as possible on outdoor relief. Boards of Guardians varied in their attitude to outdoor relief, some were more liberal in their approach than others. However, by the 1860s the law in relation to granting of outdoor relief was more liberally interpreted by an increasing number of Boards of Guardians. By the 1880s, the government's long resistance to large scale outdoor relief has been shattered during periods of acute distress and outdoor relief became acceptable as an unavoidable feature of the Poor Law system.