Central Government

The 19th century saw an increase in the powers of the central government which was generally exercised through departments of government.  However, the early 19th century was marked by traditional philosophy of laissez-faire, which held that most social work and regulation was best left to the free market.

Central government supervised  local authorities through the Board of Trade, the Board of Agriculture and the Local Government Board at the end of the 19th century.

Board of Trade

Charles II in 1660s established two councils, one the Board of Trade and one the Board of Plantations.  These represented the start of modern ministry.  On motion by Mr.  Burke in 1780, the Boards were abolished by parliament on the basis of lawfully enabling Members of Parliament to draw significant public salaries.

After that, the affairs of trade were managed by an informal Committee of the Privy Council.  A Committee of Council for Trade was established and separated from the Privy Council in 1786 and came to be known as the Board of Trade.  It did not formally receive this name until 1862.

The body had wide administrative powers which increased over time.  It had a President, a Parliamentary Secretary and permanent staff.

The Board of Trade’s business was to consider commercial treaties, colonial acts affecting trade, export and import duties and restrictions affecting the trade of the country.

Free trade rose and enormous industrial expansion took place in the 19th century, particularly in railways, shipping and joint stock companies.  Legislation threw greater duties of administration and supervision on the Board of Trade.

Boards Departments

The Board at the start of the 20th century consisted of the following:

  • Commercial and Statistical Department,
  • Railway Department,
  • Marine Department,
  • Harbour Department,
  • Financial Department.

The Commercial and Statistical Department gave advice on commercial matters to other departments.  The statistical side was created in 1832 preparing statistics on the UK colonies and foreign countries.  It provided statistics on a range of matters including agriculture, railways, and immigration.

The Railway Department was established in 1840 in order to inspect railways and conduct inquiries into accidents.  It conducted reports on a range of matters affecting railway safety as well as tramways and Metropolitan Gas.

The Marine Department had  duties in supervising merchant shipping.  This included compulsory examination of masters and mates, engagement of seamen, health, discipline, issues affecting seamen and the condition and equipment of ships.

The Harbour Department looked after lighthouses, pilotage and harbours.  It dealt with Crown fisheries.  It also dealt with weights and measures in trade and science providing the standards for the Mint and Assay Office.  It dealt with  standards for gas and test apparatus relating to petroleum.

The Financial Department dealt with accounts of the Department of Trade and related bodies.  It examined the accounts of life assurance companies.

Board of Agriculture

The Board of Agriculture was created in 1889 and took over functions exercised by various Commissioners.  It took over functions from the English Land Commission in the area of tithe, copyhold, enclosures and drainage.  It took over functions of the Privy Council in the areas of animal and crop disease.  It took over the Ordnance Survey from the Commissioners of Work.

Local Government Board

The Local Government Board was established in 1871 as a central authority for organising the functions of local government entities such as the Poor Law Board, whose principal functions were the administration of public health and poor law.  It had a range of functions in relation to vaccination, prevention of disease, public health, baths, washhouses or artisans’ dwellings, local government and local taxation.

The Board had significant powers to make delegated legislation and regulations on a wide range of issues affecting public health.  It could make bylaws in a wide range of areas from animal to public health.  This included slaughterhouses, markets, hackney carriages, public bathing, canal boats and food safety. The Board sought to ensure that sanitary authorities did not diverge too much in their use of bylaw power.  It had power to advise authorities and assist them in an emergency.

The Board had power to hold inquiries and charge expenses on rates.  It reported on private bills, brought before parliament in respect of local matters.  It analysed and acted on the basis of numerous returns required to be made under statute.

The degree of control varied on the nature of the legislation concerned.  In some areas, particularly those funded entirely from local rates, its law was supervisory.  In other areas including in particular those financed by central government, its powers were more thoroughgoing.

The Board regulated the financial aspects of local bodies.  Generally, sanitary authorities could not borrow without the approval of the Board.  In this way, it had a significant influence on roads, paving, widening, public baths, gas works, hospitals, open spaces, slaughterhouses and cemeteries.  It verified the alleged local need and scrutinised estimates.

It audited the accounts of most authorities under the District Auditors Act 1879. The District auditors were appointed to every Board of Guardians, Council and Board under its authority.  In this way, it sought to reduce a lot of anomalies and corruption in local government expenditure.  Mechanisms existed whereby it could disallow expenditure and surcharge officeholders.

Even by the late 19th century, the development of governmental through departments had made it more difficult for the Parliament to exercise effective scrutiny.


Police in the United Kingdom in the beginning of the 19th century has very little equivalence to the modern police force existed.  Until 1829, there were no paid police force.  It was only in 1856, that general legislation provided in England for an organised body of police force to maintain order and prosecute offences throughout the country.

Formerly every township was to have its own constable with every man in the township was eligible to serve.  He might be elected by neighbours or appointed by the judges.  His principal duty was to arrest offenders.  Local acts provided for the appointment of watchmen.

An 1831 Act provided a mechanism to compel persons to serve as special constable in cases of special need.  They were fined for failure to serve.

In London there was a horse patrol of 54 men in the suburbs and a foot patrol of 100 men in the metropolis.  Parish constables were in place by day and at night to watch.  The watchman was appointed by the parish and had no remit outside his parish.  Watchmen were situated in boxes and were required to move outside their box twice in every hour for a beat which  might last no more than 10 minutes.

Parishes regularly kept constables and borough heads.  The offices were prone to corruption. Offences could be compounded if offenders could pay and the expenses of prosecution were significant.  Borough heads had opportunities for significant corruption.

Various statutes dating back to the 17th century provided rewards for the apprehension of burglars, highwaymen, sheep stealers and convicts at large.

An Act of the late 17th century provided for the privileges for persons who apprehended a felony.  This exempted the holder from serving in certain offices in the parish where the apprehension had taken place.  The ticket was transferable and commanded significant market value.

In some cases, persons were convicted incorrectly or induced to commit offences for the purpose of obtaining the reward on conviction.  The reward was given in the name of blood money. A further effect was that police took greatest interest in offences with rewards so there was d little incentive in relation to more minor crimes.  There was an incentive to allow petty criminals to develop into serious crime in order to collect the reward when the more serious crime was committed.

Formation of Police Forces

In 1829, the new Metropolitan Police Force was created.  Initiated by Sir Robert Peel, the names Bobby and Peeler endure.  The force was under the authority of a Secretary of State.  The Metropolitan Police in London was and became an independent police force.

In 1839, a police force on a military model was created but under the control of the corporation.  This meant that two police forces under different controls operated in overlapping and contiguous areas.

Political movement required that newly created boroughs should have their own constables paid by Town Council.  In 1856, it was enacted that all counties which had not yet have a paid county constabulary should do so immediately.  Yearly inspection was provided for by government inspectors.  Regulations were provided in terms of number of men, discipline etc.  The Home Secretary must certify the efficiency of the force.  Treasury paid half the cost of maintenance, outside of London.

By the late 19th century, a range of administrative type of functions devolved on to the police.  This included weights and measures, explosives, common lodging house, contagious disease.

Poor Law in England

A statute of 1601 directed that officers should be appointed for each parish in England to be called overseers of the poor.  Their duty was to raise a common fund for the necessary relief of the poor and to set to work all paupers in the parish and their children.

At the start of the 19th century, each parish collected separately and administered its own poor law fund.  Each parish had to maintain its own poor.  There was no equivalent legislation in Ireland at that time.  The Act of Union nor did any system of poor law commence until 1838.

Overseers could obtain an order from the justices to  move paupers back to the parish where they belonged to be maintained at the expense of that parish.  He was bound to be maintained by the parish where he was last legally settled.  A great deal of law developed around the concept of settlement and was later supplemented by statute.

The justices made orders for removal of paupers from one parish to another.  Much of the litigation was between parishes.  Allegations of bias arose as decisions were made by justices of the peace.  In many cases, appeals to the quarter session followed by a  further appeal to the King’s Bench.  This was lucrative for lawyers and the cost of disputes greatly exceeded in many cases the cost of maintaining the persons concerned.

As early as 1662, certain parishes commenced uniting for poor law purposes under Acts of Parliament.  They maintained a joint workhouse.  Under 1782 legislation, parishes were authorised to combine for the purpose of the providing indoor relief. The legislation was permissive only.

Poor Law Reform

One of the first pieces of work undertaken by the first Parliament elected after the Reform Act of 1832 was the remodelling of the administration of poor law.  The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 provided for the appointment of a central body of commissioners with extensive powers  It grouped parishes into unions.  The entire of England was divided into poor law unions.

Legislation created Boards of Guardians of each union to whom the duty of relieving the poor was transferred.

Each poor law union had its own workhouses and the parish poorhouses ceased to exist.  Settlement cases only arose as between different unions.

1846 legislation provided for the status of removability.  If a man had resided in the parish for five years, he could not be removed to another parish even though he may be settled elsewhere.  It he had his industrial residence in the first parish he was irremovable from that parish.

He might return to his own parish in which event he could not be returned to the industrial residence parish.  However as long as he chose to reside in the latter, the latter had to maintain him and educate his children. The period was reduced to three years in 1861 and later to one year in 1865.  This minimised the number of removal cases.

The Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act 1876 provided that a pauper who resided for three years in any parish in such circumstances so that during those years he would have been irremovable from the parish, acquired a settlement in that parish.  The reversion of settlement from ancestors was removed except for children under 16.

A man or an unmarried woman who had not acquired a settlement for himself, was settled where he was born.  A married woman took her husband’s settlement.  A child under 16 took the settlement of his father or widowed mother till he acquired his own settlement.


Guardians were empowered to exercise discretion in respect of whether to employ outdoor or indoor relief.  A person who was really destitute was entitled to be received into the workhouse of wherever union he happens to be in and to be relived there until it is proved he was legally settled elsewhere.

Guardians were no longer compelled to separate husband and wife if they entered into the poorhouse.  They might be allowed to remain together if over 60 or if infirm.

Outdoor relief was not readily granted.  It was more commonly granted in kind than in money.  Outdoor relief was granted more readily in rural areas with almost three quarters of the expenditure in  rural areas being so expended while the opposite percentage applied in the metropolis.


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