Irish Immigrants: the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838

Updated: Feb 9

Irish immigrants sailing to America during the Great Famine.

From Trump’s Wall to Farage fighting over post-Brexit immigration, it seems we can’t escape discussions around immigration. But let's take it back a notch, and settle ourselves back into history. Specifically, let’s go back to our Victorian cities and meet some newly-arrived Irish immigrants. How many of you know the history of Irish immigrants? Because, so often, there are aspects to history that are overlooked. Even with 7+ years of History education under my belt, including a 3-year undergraduate degree, I never had the opportunity to look into the history of Irish migration to England. So, get ready for a series of posts on exactly that, starting with the Why…

The 19th century saw a mass movement of Irish immigrants into England. In fact, by 1861, 600,000 Irish people called England home. Primarily, this mass movement was caused by the Potato Famine of 1845-52, probably one of the best-known aspects of Irish history. This meant that England saw a wave of immigration as a generation of Irish-born workers moved to English cities and growing industrial towns in search of employment prospects. Many of these Irish immigrants were unskilled, and they began working in some of the poorest trades, but some were involved in more highly skilled industries, like mechanics.

Like today, the arrival of Irish immigrants prompted some to raise concerns about overcrowding, religious differences, political impact, job competition and cultural degeneration. In Victorian England, Parliament felt it necessary to create a commission to investigate Irish poverty. They were trying to establish whether there was a need to introduce an Irish Poor Law, which would address the instability and widespread poverty in Ireland and match that which had previously been introduced in England in 1834.

The Irish Commission carried out an investigation and found Irish immigrants working for far less than their English counterparts. In another survey of Manchester and Salford, their standard of living shocked the nation:

“It often happens that a whole Irish family is crowded into one bed; often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in an indiscriminate heap, where all alike are degraded by want, stolidity, and wretchedness. Often the inspectors found, in a single house, two families in two rooms. All slept in one, and used the other as a kitchen and dining-room in common. Often more than one family lived in a single damp cellar, in whose pestilent atmosphere twelve to sixteen persons were crowded together. To these and other sources of disease must be added that pigs were kept, and other disgusting things of the most revolting kind were found.”

By 1838, the government had taken action. The Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 laid out a system of relief, poor-house building programmes and the minimisation of casualised, outdoor relief. It allowed "paupers" to be housed, clothed and fed in return for work. Poor-houses were seen as one of the only answers to the issue of poverty in Victorian England, unfortunately.

Like all relief systems, there were flaws in its operation. Furthermore, the Irish Poor Law was received with mixed opinions, and the newspapers were among many who criticised its introduction:

“The constant endeavour [sic.] […] is to make it [relief] as little as possible; and, by the defects in the details of management, that little is given in the worst manner—the process of receiving a relief is in itself almost a punishment” (De Nie 30).

Some viewed the Irish Poor Law as a desperate attempt to give relief using the same system that the English had used with their own people. However, they failed to recognise the extent of the damage and that it was easier said than done to transfer the system over as it was.

So, to wrap up, the mass emigration of Irish to England, whom, for some, was a stepping stone to America, meant that many stayed in England, which had an adverse effect on the crisis within England itself. In doing so, they highlighted the dire situation in a famine ridden Ireland. This resulted in England creating a "quick fix" in the form of workhouses, which was like putting a plaster over a bursting pipe of suffering.

This post was created by The Herstorian writer, Ellie Cossar.


De Nie, Michael. “The Famine, Irish Identity, and the British Press.” Irish Studies Review 6.1 (1998): 27-35. Web.

Star of the Sea: A Postcolonial/ Postmodern voyage into the Irish Famine- Irish Poor Law and its Failure to Measure up. Accessed via.

The Irish in early industrial Britain: George Cornewall Lewis's report / Our Migration Story

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