Strikers and the Right to Poor Relief in Late Victorian Britain: The Making of the Merthyr Tydfil Judgment of 1900

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    Did late Victorian strikers have a right to poor relief? Historians have suggested they did not. Scholars point out that nineteenth-century strikers rarely turned to the Poor Law for assistance, and when they did, during a colliers' strike in South Wales in 1898, Poor Law officials were taken to court by disgruntled coal companies. In the subsequent High Court ruling known as the Merthyr Tydfil judgment of 1900, the Master of the Rolls decided that the policy of relieving the strikers had indeed been unlawful. However, it is argued in this article that the judgment has not been properly understood by historians. Contemporaries did not think it obvious that the giving of poor relief to strikers was illegal. On the contrary, in 1898, there was widespread agreement that Poor Law officials had no choice but to support destitute strikers; the Poor Law demanded they relieve the men and their families, a point confirmed in an earlier High Court ruling in 1899. Thus, Poor Law scholars should view the Merthyr judgment as a notable innovation in Poor Law policy. Labor historians should see the ruling as part of the employers' counteroffensive against the labor movement of the 1890s and 1900s. Merthyr came out of the same febrile atmosphere that produced the Taff Vale judgment. That its true significance has been forgotten can largely be explained by the labor movement's unease at having a striker's right to poor relief confirmed in 1899. Respectable workers, union leaders averred, should not be supported out of the poor rates.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)128 - 152
    Number of pages24
    JournalJournal of British Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Feb 2013


    • labour history
    • poor law history
    • industrial disputes
    • legal history
    • victorian era


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