George Nicholls and the Irish Poor Relief Act

June 1836

In June 1836, and again in the autumn of 1837, Sir George Nicholls was sent over to Ireland to inquire as to the best form of legislation for the Irish Poor-law Act, 1838. He was then requested by government to superintend the early stages of its introduction, and from September 1838 resided, with his wife and children, at Lis-an-iskea, Blackrock, Dublin.

Sir George Nicholls (1781-1865) had been an Overseer of the Poor under the old system of poor relief. After the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, he was a British Poor Law Commissioner.

Following on from the English Poor Law Act of 1834 (prompted by fears that unemployed Irish immigrants could flood into Britain and increase poverty there) George Nicholls visited Ireland in 1836 and recommended an Irish Poor Law (allowing for the creation of workhouses to help transition the economy and 'shape the Irish character').

“Our impressions of the moral conduct of the Irish females are highly favourable. Their duties appear to be much more laborious than those of the same class of females in England. Their dress, too, is very inferior, and so likewise seems their general position in society; yet they universally appear modest, industrious and sober. I state this as a result of my own observations, and I do so here because, if the Irish females have preserved their moral character untainted, under the very trying circumstances in which they are placed, it affords a powerful argument for ‘letting well alone.’

In 1837, he visited Ireland again and admitted that poverty was more extensive than he had believed. He stated that the Poor Law would be insufficient 'where the land has ceased to be reproductive'. His report was presented to the House of Commons as the Irish Poor Law Bill.

In July 1838, The Irish Poor Law Act was passed, introducing a national system of poor relief. The Act allowed for the setting up  of workhouses to accommodate the most distressed paupers. Ireland was divided into 130 new administration units known as 'unions'. Each union had its own workhouse which was administered by a board of guardians. This in turn was calculated to involve local landlords.George Nicholls became the first resident Poor Law Commissioner in Ireland.