‘It’s Not Fair’: Natural justice and the New Poor Law

This month, we have a guest blog from Sarah Bradley, one of our volunteer transcribers, who reflects on the language of ‘natural justice’ in pauper letters.

‘She’s got more than me.’  ‘Why can’t I go out with my friends?’  ‘It’s not fair!’ It’s the cry of children everywhere.  And while, as adults, we might (sometimes) be more restrained, our sense of natural justice remains.  The refrain ‘I have paid my taxes all my life’, is not uncommon these days when people feel they are being ignored or penalised by the ‘system’.  Googling the phrase results in many stories from people who feel their contributions to society (through taxes and national insurance) should guarantee them access to services in their later years. More recently, we find the word ‘fairness’ cropping up regularly in relation to coronavirus. While the constraints of the initial lockdown were widely accepted as reasonable in such exceptional circumstances there is less unanimity on how to deal with the second wave, and debate continues on how to achieve a ‘fair’ balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. This sense of fairness or moral justice underpins the relationship between the citizen and the state.  

People in the past were, of course, no different and it is inevitable that many of the letters written to the central poor law authorities by paupers or their advocates (and uncovered by In Their Own Write) were complaints of unfairness in the system or the way that it operated. The authors of these letters varied in how they reacted to those perceived injustices. Some focussed on their legal rights. In September 1853, for example, George Hancock of the Chelsea Poor Law Union, annoyed that he was unable to put his request for leave of absence to the guardians in person, wrote to say:  ‘I have always heard that every pauper had the right to request an interview … and if no such right exists, where is the protection for any pauper, and how can any grievances he may have be Known, and what chance of redress? I think upon further consideration you will find you have made a mistake in this’ (MH12/6991/33091). Others were whistleblowers, complaining about self-evident abuses (something we dealt with back in 2018). An anonymous writer, in a long letter of complaint about the Nantwich workhouse, for example, wrote in March 1839 that there ‘is as good meat took to that house ever was Butchered But when it is cooked wonderful to tell it is all vains and Grissells’ (MH12/1013/2467c). But some people wrote because, quite simply, they felt that the way they had been treated was just not fair.

George Ellis, aged 74, was so convinced of his case that in 1862 he wrote to the Poor Law Board twice. His first letter, written in March, was referred back to the Basford Guardians, who gave him a month’s worth of bread, but then in May, ‘I was compelled to aply (having no work) on Friday last, & the Relieving officer has given me an order for the House which I consider unreasonable at my time of life’ (MH12/9248/17853).

Eighty-five year old Mary Chester also felt that the elderly had earned the right to be treated reasonably. In June 1862, she wrote expressing moral outrage at the way she had been treated by the Basford Poor Law Union:

Left a widow in the year 1830 with a family of five children with hard labour and hard living I Brought them up in an honest way without any Assistance from the parish I Am now worn out with old age and quite infirm not able to labour [I] have applied to the Board of guardians Basford for Relief but they refused – Gentlemen My days cannot be many have lived among my family to age of three score and fifteen and now to be parted from my children to die in a Union perhaps not one Relative to close My Aged Eyes would … quickly bring My Grey locks with Sorrow to the grave I have 4 children living but neither of them have the Means of Keeping Me without Relief my family are labourers with families (MH12/9248/23894).

Mary Chester’s Letter

In April 1866, another elderly man, James Pickett, also thought ‘it hard to be forst to go in the workhouse’, as ‘I Ham A very old man’.  Echoing the modern-day lament, he explained that he had ‘Paid Rate and Taskes’ and quoted his service at sea as an able seaman in ‘his ma nav’ (His Majesty’s Navy) on the ‘Bellephlion’ (HMS Bellerophon?), and the ‘ARey C H Ne’ (HMS Arachne?) (MH12/6879/37356). Both Chester and Pickett implied that  their treatment was not only unfair, but also morally unjust, both having contributed as citizens by paying taxes, serving in the armed forces or, in Chester’s case, bringing up future citizens under extremely challenging circumstances.

Timothy Hoyle of the Keighley Union asked the Central Authority to intervene on his behalf, not on grounds of age, but of ill-heath, explaining, ‘I have now been out of employment a long time through want of work and in consequence I have been employed by the Guardians … at Out Door Labour’. He went on to explain that ‘I am now in an emaciated and broken up state of health … [but] The Board have lately employed me in Breaking stones on the Highway and I find that unless I can Secure a change of employment I shall very soon be unable to work at anything’ (MH12/15161/25542). The annotations on his letter indicate that the central authorities were not anxious to intervene. Typically, a copy of a pauper’s letter was sent to the guardians ‘for their observations’, but their response to  Ellis suggests that this was likely to be a fruitless exercise: ‘It rests with the Gs to decide in what way relief shall be given – & … the Bd cannot further interfere’ (MH12/9248/17853). The same response is often annotated on letters from paupers.

It is notable that much of this correspondence comes from individuals who were supposed to have been protected under the New Poor Law. The workhouse system was intended to be a deterrent to the able-bodied, prohibiting (in theory at least) outdoor relief being given to them in the community.  As Edward Twisleton, an Assistant Commissioner, explained in a letter of 24 April 1841 which was quoted in the 7th Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, ‘The chief object of our exertions is to diminish (without harshness to the aged and infirm) the evil of pauperism among the labouring classes.’ George Ellis, Mary Chester, James Pickett and Timothy Hoyle  were all either aged or infirm, and on first sight it does indeed seem harsh treatment to have forced them into the workhouse or to break stones when they became destitute.

On first reading, these writers present themselves as supplicants: ‘The Petition of Timothy Hoyle, a Pauper belonging to Keighley … Humbly Sheweth that your Petitioner is a very poor man’ (MH12/15161/25542). They open and close politely: ‘I humbly Beg I shall incur your displeasure taking the liberty of Soliciting you it is necessity urges me’,  and ‘Gentlemen if you will Condescend to intercede with the guardians of Basford for out door Relief for the Aged widow’ (MH12/9248/23894). But on closer inspection it is clear that they are not the pleas of people who are ready to accept their fate quietly. These are all individuals who have already sought justice from the Guardians and who, failing to find it, have felt compelled to take their complaints further. They explain why they deserve, or have earned, better treatment (‘I Brought [my children] up in an honest way without any Assistance from the parish’, and ‘I consider [the workhouse] unreasonable at my time of life’). Their letters are carefully worded to elicit sympathy, certainly, but also to persuade the Commissioners to do what is morally right. Hoyle closes: ‘I therefore trust you will have the Kindness to make inquiry into my distressing case … By doing this you would confer a lasting benefit upon your Petitioner’; while  Pickett emphasises that, ‘I ham vere Pore … Gentleman I Ham A very old man’. Most poetically of all, Mary Chester pleads that, ’now to be parted from my children to die in a Union … would … quickly bring My Grey locks with Sorrow to the grave’. 

The authors of these letters were not campaigners or whistleblowers. There is no indication that they wanted to change the system. They were simply ordinary people who considered that they had a right to be treated according to the precepts of natural justice, and they were prepared to demand that right.

“I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper”: Overcoming the challenges of ‘communications inequality’

Patrick O’Flaherty was desperate. He had a respectable trade as a piano tuner, but something had gone terribly wrong, and in 1866 he found himself destitute in Manchester. With nowhere else to turn he wrote this plea for help on the reverse of a flyer advertising his services: “any Broken Food which would Appease Hunger, Or some small Pecuniary Aid which would enable him to return to Ireland” (MH 12/6059/52432). His plea tugs at the heart strings, but the fact that it is written on the back of flyer which recalls better times makes it doubly distressing. The flyer, with no comments attached by the Poor Law Board, was unceremoniously stuck onto the last page of the 1866 volume of correspondence from the Manchester Union. This sad little note, written on a scrap of paper, raises many questions about paupers and their access to writing materials.

Today, without access to a computer and the web it can be almost impossible to engage with services of many kinds. Lockdown has exposed vulnerable groups who have struggled with daily life in the ‘new normal’ through lack of access to the web: shielded people (usually in the older generations) with no experience of online systems have struggled to secure grocery deliveries; locked-down disadvantaged children have had no access to online teaching. But back in the nineteenth century when paper was the most common form of communication, were things so very different? If you could not read or write, or could not afford writing materials or postal costs, how then did you engage with a burgeoning central authority? If you were a pauper with a complaint, how easy was it to put pen to paper and communicate that grievance to the Poor Law Commissioners in London?

The growing numbers of pauper letters (from both the old and the new poor law) show that paupers were indeed able and willing to write about their complaints. But there are clues in the letters from In Their Own Write which suggest that some struggled when they were obliged to communicate (perhaps for the first time) with the central authorities. They worried about the quality of paper they used, about using pencils rather than ink, and also complained vociferously about being denied access to either by unscrupulous workhouse masters.

James Barnett clearly had paper in his possession when he was in the workhouse in Sheffield, but it was removed from him as a form of punishment over a dispute about picking oakum. He wrote that “everything belonging to me…my writing paper, and the medications were taken away” (MH 12/15488/84438). He wrote a second time, after the Master had told him it was against the law for paupers to write to the central authority:

the Master came in…telling me the grosly absurd tale that the local Government’s orders were that no inmate must write to them…After [the letter was] read by the Guardians…it was given me back, with the very unnecessary and unsolicited leave…to finish it. Having no ink for that purpose, and having been forbidden to borrow any, I am compelled to use a substitute;

which explains why his letter was written in pencil (MH 12/15488/84933).

Such claims of the withholding of writing materials from paupers are seen time and again in the complaints made to the central authorities, although curiously the writers never explained how they finally managed to obtain paper to make their complaint!

Joseph Brentnall, an inmate from Basford in Nottinghamshire, also complained that he was refused access to paper or pens. His letter from 1886 appears to have been written on lined paper cut out of a notebook. He went on to say that inmates had been told that writing would do them no good, as all letters sent to London would come straight back to the workhouse officials, and reported that the Master had told him that if a pauper: “Write[s] to london to find a friend he finds his enmey in sted…because the Poor law has not got any power to interfere with the guardians and the[y] can du as the[y] like”. Brentnall obviously ignored the warning, as he included details of it in his letter of complaint to the Commissioners (MH 12/9251/6568).

Perhaps surprisingly, Harriet French was able to borrow writing paper and ink from the Master of Linton Workhouse in order to write a letter accusing him of assaulting her. Less surprisingly, however, when giving evidence against to the inquiry that followed, she explained that: “When I got the pen and ink I wrote to my father to complain of what had happened…but the letter never reached [him]”. The Master had given Harriet the wherewithal to write her letter, but also ensured that it would never reach its destination (MH 12/672/35311).

We do not know what sort of writing paper the Master gave to Harriet French, but it may even have been headed Union paper. We have come across examples of pauper letters on Union-headed paper elsewhere. In 1872, for example, George Hall’s letter was among a number that were sent that year from Poplar on Union-headed paper. None of the writers explained how it had come into their possession: it is possible they had taken it without permission, or (like Harriet) that it had been given to them by the Master. There is a delicious irony in paupers using the official paper of the institution they were complaining about when writing their concerns, and perhaps it is an irony that was not lost on them (MH 12/7692/71837).

Some correspondents seemed genuinely concerned about the poor quality of their writing paper and the impact that might have on the outcome of their cases. A distraught former teacher in Gainsborough was beside himself with embarrassment. Now unemployed, W.S. Shay had applied for outdoor relief, only to be told by the Board of Guardians that he must go into the very Workhouse where he had once been the schoolmaster. His shame was compounded by the lack of suitable writing material on which to make his plea: “Please excuse this paper,” he wrote, “I have no better” (MH 12/6710/37157).

George Briggs wrote a long and rambling letter to the Poor Law Board from Great Yarmouth in which he described the challenges he faced in writing to them: “I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper as I had no alternative and my Hand [is] paralysed…it has been quite a Task to get [through] this letter” (MH 12/8635/34809). The paper Briggs used appears quite inoffensive and his handwriting significantly more legible than many we have seen in the project. Nevertheless, Briggs himself clearly feared that the quality of his paper would somehow diminish his appeal for justice.

In 1869 Joseph Sinker, in Birmingham Workhouse, was worried that his argument was not persuasive enough, but also that his use of a lead pencil might diminish it still further. In an extraordinarily long letter, he expressed his determination to make a coherent argument. “You will perhaps be surprised that after I had written about ten or eleven pages, I then read the whole of what I have wrote, thinking over the various clauses whether there was a unity in the connecting portions”. In fact, Sinker’s final letter ran to over 20 pages of closely-written text, presented as an origami of folds and a chaotic arrangements of pages. At the end of it he apologised for using a pencil, explaining: “I can write quicker with lead pencil and I must state [there is] not much ink for use of paupers” (MH 12/13317/6616). In most cases, the only feasible avenue open to paupers to complain to the central authorities was in writing, but limited access to writing materials could present almost insurmountable challenges and paupers were obliged to use whatever was at hand. Patrick O’Flaherty’s trade flyer at the beginning of this blog is good example of this, but there are others.

James Pickett’s letter demonstrates many of the challenges paupers faced once they had decided to write to the central authority. His letter is written on several scraps of paper. It is grammatically challenging to the point that it is difficult to follow, the spelling reflects his East End background and his handwriting is almost indecipherable. In a way, it reflects well on the clerks in London that they even attempted to read letters such as this, and indeed in some cases they actually transcribed the least legible ones into the record to make the job of responding to them easier.

One of the most unexpected examples of writing paper came from Richard Wyatt in Bethnal Green. Wyatt was a serial letter writer to the Local Government Board in the 1890s, and although most of his letters were written on unremarkable paper his letter of October 1900 certainly catches the eye. It was written on note paper decoratively embossed at the top with forget-me-nots – perhaps an odd choice for a man described elsewhere as an habitual criminal, and one that sits rather uncomfortably alongside the content of a letter in which Wyatt complains about the disgraceful treatment of ‘imbecile’ patients in Bethnal Green Infirmary, and the “scandalous doings of the attendants” (MH 12/6897/121036).

In surveying the thousands of letters in this project it has become clear that paupers used a wide variety of writing materials, and no little ingenuity. Sometimes the paper was foolscap, sometimes small notepaper; occasionally it was lined or blue, and in some cases letters were written on whatever scraps came to hand. Some of the paper was so thin it was akin to tracing paper; and in one case, at least, it was thick and shiny, more reminiscent of old-fashioned toilet paper than Basildon Bond!  What the letters from In Their Own Write clearly demonstrate, however, is that this nineteenth-century, socially disadvantaged group was able to overcome the numerous challenges that letter-writing presented; and by using their ingenuity they were, perhaps, better able to engage with central authorities than many digitally excluded communities in the 21st century.

“Oh never mind, you are going to Paddy’s Land”: Echoes of Windrush in the 19th century English Poor Law

Looking through the material discovered by the In Their Own Write project team, a group of letters from Stockport Union resonated with the recently dramatised story of Anthony Bryan, a member of the Windrush generation who, in 2016, came very close to being deported to Jamaica, a place he had not set foot in for 50 years. (“Sitting in Limbo”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08g29ff/sitting-in-limbo).

Viewed in this context, one item in the Stockport letters stands out. It is a newspaper clipping, dated 27 April 1848, from The Freeman’s Journal (a Dublin newspaper) sent by the Irish poor law officials to the Commissioners in London. Under the intriguing headline, “Important – Transmission of English Paupers to Ireland” it outlined the shocking case of Mary Anne Henley, a resident in the Dublin workhouse. Mary Anne was no regular pauper inmate, but had been removed to Dublin by the Board of Guardians in Stockport.

From The Freeman’s Journal, 27 April 1848

Mary Anne claimed she had been removed to Ireland entirely against her own wishes. She was, she insisted, an English woman born in Liverpool to English parents, although her father had Irish ancestry.  She was 19 at the time of her removal and had been working steadily “earning her own bread” since the age of 9. In 1858 she was living in Stockport and earning enough not only to support herself but to send money to her widowed father who still had a large family of younger children to support.  Some weeks before her removal, she had been struck down with fever and having no-one locally to look after her (her father lived in Glossop) she was forced to go into the Fever Hospital. It was here she came to the attention of the authorities. Once recovered Mary Anne planned to go to her father to convalesce before returning to her job in Stockport, but instead two men from the Stockport Workhouse arrived, “took charge of me” and carted her off to the workhouse. There Mary Anne told officials repeatedly that she should not be in the workhouse and would return home, but the response she received was “Oh never mind, you are going to Paddy’s Land”. An inmate who witnessed the scene told officials, “it was a pity to send that poor Lass to Ireland … she was crying her eyes out at being sent away to a Strange country”.  Poor Mary Anne – this was probably her first encounter with officials of any kind; she had little grasp of her rights, although it was clear she had a sneaking suspicion that what was happening was illegal. Further argument fell on deaf ears. “Neither I or any of my family have ever received any kind of relief,” she told one of the Relieving Officers, “you have no right to send me away”. But she was forcibly removed from the workhouse, the men threatening to handcuff her if she resisted; she was taken to the railway station at Stockport, transferred by train to Liverpool and from there to the Irish packet bound for Dublin. Four or five men guarded Mary Anne, and a number of other paupers in a similar situation, along the whole journey to prevent escape. On the boat she was given a 4lb loaf and nothing else; she had just two pennies to her name. Once in Dublin and destitute and with no friends in the city she was obliged to go to the workhouse, which is where she made this statement. All she wanted to do was to go home and return to her job in the mill (TNA MH 12/1142/14249 and 20338).

One of the Dublin officials declared that the central authorities in London should “not permit the unfortunate English poor to be thrown thus upon the guardians of this country” and that they ought to take steps to prevent such cases from occurring. It was observed that “the number [of such cases] … latterly was greatly on the increase. There were double the number this year than last”.

Steam packet
Dublin to Liverpool steam packets readying to leave Dublin, from The Illustrated London News, May 1851

In removing Mary Anne to Ireland, the Stockport Guardians were treading a thin line with respect to the law. The 1846 Poor Removal Act was supposed to protect the poor against removal if they could convince two magistrates that, among other things, they had lived continuously in the parish for at least 5 years.  But the law left many loopholes for Guardians to exploit in their efforts to remove unwanted ‘burdens’ from their ratepayers. By her own admission Mary Anne had lived in Stockport for only 12 months prior to be being taken ill, so the 1846 Act provided her with little protection and the Guardians may have been within their rights to remove her either to Liverpool (where she was born), or perhaps to Glossop where her father lived. Why they decided to send her to Ireland where she had no connection was never explained.

Mary Anne was probably inadvertently caught up in a deliberate strategy on the part of the Stockport Guardians to clear Irish paupers from their books. In the same year four other controversial cases of pauper removals to Ireland, all of whom had been resident in Stockport for many years, were brought to the attention of the Poor Law Commissioners. Some were better informed than Mary Anne and quoted the law back at the Union officials, but to no avail. In the case of Patrick Egan, three times the magistrates upheld his objection to his removal, but the Union went ahead anyway and he was removed along with his three younger children to Dublin, leaving his two older, working-age children to fend for themselves (TNA MH 12/1142/9038).

The Stockport Guardians were not alone in taking these peremptory (and possibly illegal) actions. Mary Gibbons, a resident in Tynemouth for 12 years, went before magistrates in 1860 after applying for relief and was told she must be removed to Ireland. She stated she was born at sea, but as her mother had been born in Ireland the magistrate told her she must find her mother’s parish and be removed there. She was subsequently sent to the workhouse in Belfast with her two children. The Belfast Guardians were less than pleased and complained to the London authorities, who also seemed displeased by the removal. The Tynemouth Guardians were instructed to investigate. Unfortunately the outcome was not recorded in this case (TNA MH 12/9161/33725).

In 1858, the Bradford Union was accused of devising its own rules for removability. Clearly outraged, W.F. Black wrote that: “The Guardians are determined … to pass to a country they may have forgotten and where they may be unknown all Irish who seek relief, regardless of the number of years they have lived here” (TNA MH 12/14729/11842). In 1847, Stephen Power, a victim of Bradford’s local rules, was sent to Dublin despite having lived in Bradford for 18 years. The Relieving Officer made things quite clear: “he threatened to send me to the parish in which I was born in Ireland [and] said he would send all the Irish home no matter how long they had lived in Bradford” (TNA MH 12/14726/4937).

Age was no barrier.  Francis Dowling was 72 in 1858 when he was removed from Stockport to Dublin, despite having lived in Stockport for 15 years, paid rates and earned the right to vote for the town council. The Stockport magistrates ignored these qualifying characteristics; he was Irish-born and should go back to Ireland, a place he not seen for 45 years. Poor Patrick Ryan, a 10-year-old boy, was shipped back to Ireland alone by the Merthyr Tydfil Guardians. An orphan, born in Ireland but sent to Merthyr to live with his Aunt, Patrick found himself in the Merthyr workhouse in 1858 and then on a steamer to Waterford. “No person had charge of me” during the journey, he testified, except a young girl of 14 who was also being removed to Ireland. On arrival he was incarcerated in the Waterford Workhouse (TNA MH 12/16331/34617).

There are many more examples of Irish (and supposedly Irish) removals from all over the English and Welsh Poor Law system. The Guardians were taking advantage of the poorly drafted Act to deal with the burden placed on them (as they saw it) by the large influx of Irish migrants in the mid-century. The constant refrain that the victims of removal had no connection with Ireland appeared to elicit little sympathy: they were ruthlessly separated from friends and family and sent into the unknown.

It is hard not to see parallels with the experiences of the Windrush generation. Geographically, Ireland may not be as remote from mainland Britain as the West Indies, but in nineteenth-century terms it was a huge distance. It is hard to imagine the distress caused to people (as young as 10 and as old as 80) uprooted with little or no warning from familiar places and unceremoniously dumped with no means of support in a strange country.

Taking the Long View of Contagion, Compassion and Community Response

Temporary Spanis Flue hospital 1918 ii
Temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918

In these unsettling times it might seem as though history has little comfort to offer us. When we look back for reassurance, we tend to light on the scale of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the horrors of the Black Death, or the ravages of smallpox through the ages. Yet despite the hardships and, for some, personal tragedies that have followed in the wake of Covid-19 it is important to maintain a sense of perspective, and one way we can do this is by recognising just how resilient and resourceful we are, and always have been, in the face of epidemics and communicable diseases. From the early modern period onwards, we have built on empirical observations and experimental science to understand the best ways to mitigate and even halt the spread of deadly diseases; but, individually and collectively, we also have a rich history of compassion and public spiritedness when  it comes to protecting vulnerable groups and supporting those most affected by epidemics. Nowhere are all these tendencies clearer than in the stories that emerge from the correspondence to the Poor Law Commissioners across the 19th century.

Hampstead Smallpox Hospital ii
A Ward in the Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, 1871

In 1893, for example, Charles Wills, the medical officer of health for the Southwell Rural Sanitary Authority, wrote to the Local Government Board that a case of smallpox had been discovered at the union workhouse. The affected man, Henry Jackson, had tramped from Manchester (where he was believed to have picked up the disease) and arrived on the 27 January. The authorities swiftly determined that he had shared the vagrant ward that night with a further 18 men, and this was communicated to the Local Government Board with an account (as far as possible) of their ongoing movements. The ward was then closed, and Jackson was placed in isolation with another male inmate to act as his nurse. His companion was chosen specifically because he had previously survived the disease and was therefore assumed to be immune. The Guardians took further measures to stop the spread of the disease by vaccinating or re-vaccinating all inmates over the age of 10 who would allow it. As a result of their swift action, Jackson’s was the only recorded case on this occasion: he seems to have recovered by late March, and his ‘key worker’, Robert Rushton, who nursed him for a full seven weeks, was later given a guinea by the Guardians as a reward for his efforts, which enabled him to discharge himself from the workhouse. In a postscript to the case, the Medical Officer, Charles Wills, wrote that there were many isolated cases of smallpox in Derbyshire and Yorkshire at the time, and that it was bound to be exported to neighbouring districts. In response, he proposed that some semi-detached cottages should be built on property adjacent to the workhouse in order to improve facilities for isolation if it reached Southwell again (it is not known whether the Board chose to act on his recommendation in this instance)  (TNA MH 12/8544, 9547).

If all of this sounds remarkably familiar, then it’s hardly surprising: the very fact that epidemics were a constant threat before the refinements of modern medicine meant that rapid responses and empirical methods of containment were at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and many of the public health measures that were instigated from the 1830s onwards were, of course, specifically aimed at achieving this outcome. Crucially, the newly centralised and bureaucratised structures of the poor law were an ideal forum for applying these measures. So it was that when Richard Pugh, the clerk to the Watford Union, reported in 1849 that there had been a fatal case of cholera in the town, the Guardians were well placed to put in train a series of measures to ensure that it was checked at source. These included a house-to-house visitation of infected localities, and when a case was discovered in the Workhouse Infirmary it involved daily testing and examination of all workhouse inmates to ensure that timely treatment could be applied as soon as symptoms manifested themselves (TNA MH 13/197).

Indeed, large parts of daily workhouse practice were specifically aimed at stopping the encroachment of communicable diseases from gaining a foothold in these institutions, and from spreading more widely if detected. The oft-noted practice of removing a person’s clothes for ‘purification’ (usually by boiling) when they were admitted and replacing them with workhouse dress was done for precisely this reason. It is a subject that has often caused controversy in the literature, because contemporaries, and most historians, have chosen to interpret it simply as a way of enforcing a degrading uniform; but, in fact, it was a very effective way of checking the spread of disease. As the president of the Poor Law Board explained to Parliament in 1849, “the rule now in force [was] introduced on considerations suggested by the necessity of securing cleanliness,” and he added that “by enforcing it, the cleanliness and health of the establishments [has] been very materially promoted” (Bath Chronicle, 28 June 1849). When common sense measures such as these were not followed, paupers themselves were the first to complain. In 1867, for example, J. Smith, an inmate at Bethnal Green workhouse, wrote that the nurses from the sick wards were carrying their dirty washing through the day rooms, which were used predominantly by elderly and infirm inmates, and that this laundry was likely to be contaminated from contact with infected patients. He complained that it was a practice which was “injurious to health and not to be tolerated,” and he suggested that the only reason nurses were not allowed to go the “proper way” to the laundry was because the Master was fearful lest his own children “should catch a disease, as they would have to pass his apartments” (TNA MH 12/6854).

This focus on the workhouse poor brings us back full circle to the situation we face today with Covid-19. Thankfully, here in Britain, as in many countries where it has made such rapid progress, things have begun to stabilise and, though obviously still of great concern, the overall number of cases and deaths seems to have plateaued. One of the areas of increasing anxiety, however, relates to care home residents, and we still have little understanding of just how devastating it will turn out to be for the institutional care sector as a whole. Clearly, many of the practical measures outlined above were specifically designed to protect workhouse populations from mass outbreaks. But the authorities were also acutely aware that other measures that we are now becoming all-too familiar with could make a crucial difference in preventing institutional tipping-points. So, for example, when Widow Granger, a resident at Barnet workhouse, asked permission to go out and visit her dangerously ill granddaughter, the Guardians “refused [her request] in consequence of the complaint being the small pox” (G. Gear (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Woodcock: Master of the Barnet Union Workhouse 1836-38 (Herts. Record Society, 2008), p.98). This entry tells us that Widow Granger would, under normal circumstances, most likely have been allowed out on compassionate grounds; something that, in itself, challenges many of the standard narratives about workhouse life. But it also tells us that officials in the 19th century were constantly grappling with the competing needs – emotional, psychological and medical – of those under their charge in exactly the same way as those who are currently trying to manage the spread of Covid-19 in care homes. The question of how to protect the physical welfare of vulnerable residents, while ensuring that they are not denied the life-affirming contact and support of loved ones, is clearly not a new one.

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented for most of us: but alongside the uncertainty and inevitable anxiety that comes with a situation like this, we also have the opportunity to reflect on the great sacrifices that ordinary people – from key workers to coordinators, and from community volunteers to self-isolaters – are making for the public good. It is, perhaps, some comfort to know that we have such deep reserves of selflessness and rapid response to draw on. This last example, from the Board of Guardians’ Minutes of Mitford and Launditch Union in Norfolk during the last great epidemic of smallpox in 1871, is a wonderful case in point (TNA MH 12/8484).

The attention of the Guardians was particularly directed to the case of William Cory, of Great Dunham, Labourer, who, with his Wife and family of six children, had recently been deprived of their usual Harvest earnings by reason of the state of Quarantine imposed upon them, for 5 or 6 weeks, in consequence of the existence of Small Pox in a Cottage adjoining his Dwelling house and under the same roof: And it being shewn to the satisfaction of the Guardians that this insulation of Cory and his family has tended to prevent the spread of the disease but that he had thereby incurred a loss of Five pounds and upwards, it is unanimously resolved that he be allowed the sum of Five Pounds, either under the provisions of the Sanitary Acts, or by way of gratuity under the special circumstances as the Local Government Board may approve.





“Drunk, Drunk, Drunken Bich”: The Crime (and occasional merits) of Anonymity

1842 attack workhouse stockport
Illustrated London News, 1842

In a previous post (‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper Style’), we talked about the potential hazards to paupers of complaining openly about their treatment under the New Poor Law, particularly those who were resident in the workhouse. They could be – and, they claimed, often were – subject to severe reprisals for bringing injustices, cruelty and misdemeanours to light. In fact, it is a constant source of amazement to us that so many wrote to the Poor Law Commission under their own names, given the fact that they were, by definition, economically dependent on the very officials they sought to bring to account. The vast majority of the letters from paupers that we’ve found in the MH12 collection carried their own names, and many workhouse inmates wrote again and again to highlight poor treatment and injustice, very often giving details into the bargain of the physical and material cost to themselves of doing so.

One of the problems for pauper letter-writers was that the Commissioners in London quickly decided, after 1834, that they would not respond to anonymous letters – presumably in order to discourage criticism of the system without accountability. When such letters arrived, they were quickly annotated by officials with comments like “Anonymous, and not worth noticing” (MH12/6847, original ref. 25188/1856), or “I presume that as the communication is anonymous nothing further need be done” (MH12/3408, original ref. 46590/1869). This meant that, in order for their concerns to be taken seriously, paupers knew that they simply had to identify themselves; and, given that the first response of the Commissioners was to forward a copy of the letter to the local guardians for their comments, it is easy to see how this system could be abused.

As all this suggests, however, a minority of letters were sent anonymously, and there are reasons why this should be so above and beyond the threat of reprisals. Sometimes, the subject of a complaint was so serious that paupers – and particularly workhouse inmates – simply did not feel that the risk of identifying themselves was worth taking. In 1866, for example, a letter was sent to Sir George Gray, the Home Secretary, from an inmate at Bethnal Green urging “an inquest on Mrs. Follett who was starved to death in my Ward”. The unnamed author noted that “We sent a Letter the other day to the Police Station, but she is took away and no inquest”, and concluded, darkly: “but it will come out” (MH12/6852, original ref. 13543/1866). On other occasions, anonymity allowed paupers to dispense with the usual niceties and give vent to their frustration in the most uncompromising terms. So it was that an unnamed inmate of Basford workhouse, in Nottinghamshire, wrote to inform the Poor Law Board that “misis Johnson [the Matron is] allways drunk She puts a Botle in her Pockit She gets drunk and falls doun stears [and] makes her Self a Black eyes”. The writer went on to threten that “if thear is not sumthink dun sune we shall Write to the house of lords”, and finished with a flourish: “drunk drunk drunk”, he (or she) wrote with gusto, “drunk drunken Bich” (MH12/9248, original ref. 31594/1862).

Letters like this demonstrate the kind of visceral language that is more familiar from anonymous threatening letters in the 18th and 19th centuries than from the usual petitionary appeals we’re used to in MH12. It is part threat, part cathartic outpouring; and it is difficult to know which of these functions gave the writer the most satisfaction. The element of catharsis is clearly evident, too, in a series of letters that were sent from the workhouse in Cardiff, in 1855. Their target was the new master and matron, Mr and Mrs John, and the first letter was pithy and to the point: “take [heed] John”, it stated, “there his a bullet redy for you and the old chair man and…your wife[.] one of you shall die” (MH12/16250, original ref. 47409/1855). Seven further letters were sent to gentlemen in the town, appealing for them to look into the master’s conduct, and each threatened some form of violent revenge if nothing was done. “We broke one window yesterday”, read one, “and by my God if there is no alteration before this week is out the old house and they shall be burned in their beds”; “Our hearts is trembling within our bodies”, read another, “for to burn or poison the set” (MH12/18250,original ref. 48915/1855).

Rebecca & Daughters Punch v.5 p.5
From Punch, 1843

The precise grievances of the writer(s) are less important to us here than the form and tone of these letters (in fact, the general accusation was that the pauper inmates were starved while the master and his family lived in luxury). In particular, they are very reminiscent of the threatening letters that were sent during the Rebecca Riots in rural Wales between 1839 and 1843. Although Rebecca is generally described as a movement against turnpike tolls, it also led to protests against many other things, including, significantly, the treatment of the poor. As the Guardians pointed out in relation to the letters sent at Cardiff, there was very little apprehension that the writer(s) would actually carry out their threats. Nonetheless, they took them seriously enough to request that a police officer be sent from London to discover the author(s), so that they might be “punished as an example to others” (MH12/18250, original ref. 47409/1855). At least in part, this may have been because they felt Rebecca’s breath on their shoulder when they read them.

The one thing letters like this demonstrate is that, despite the general tone of respectability and conventional politeness that characterises most pauper letters in MH12, when they donned the cloak of anonymity paupers were also quite prepared to drop the mantle of compliance and subservience. Sometimes, when direct action was not an option, epistolary anonymity, and the consequent disregard of the authorities, seems to have been a price worth paying for the opportunity to vent all that simmering frustration and anger directly. I wonder if we haven’t all felt that impulse from time to time.