Paupers, Politics and the Power of the Pen

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In this strange period of plebiscites and referenda, the air is thick with the cries of professional lobbyists and consultancy firms keen to leverage influence with politicians and take advantage of unprecedented uncertainty. According to Public Affairs News (an industry website) Indyref was a ‘lobbyist’s dream’; and The Conversation (an academic discussion forum) points out that Brexit has shifted the centre of gravity for British lobbyists away from Brussels and back towards London. All this, it is claimed, has created a bonanza for the ‘big beasts’ of political influence who prowl Holyrood and Westminster Green on behalf of their powerful clients in business and industry. Yet it is a curious irony that the ‘people’s vote’ should have led to a situation where the people themselves feel increasingly marginalised from the negotiations going on in their name. So what about those ordinary citizens who aren’t part of the billion-pound lobbying industry? How do they make their voices heard above the cacophony of political noise?

This is something that has been preoccupying us at ITOW recently. The deeper we dig into the correspondence that circulated between paupers and the Poor Law Commissioners at Whitehall during the nineteenth century, the clearer it becomes that the complaints and appeals for redress sometimes built, over time and through many letters, into something like a deliberate campaign for change in the way that the commissioners’ rules and regulations were being applied locally. Thomas Gould, who appeared in last October’s blog (see ‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style’), was one such campaigner, writing ten letters and almost 11,000 words of complaint between August 1853 and October 1859. John Rutherford was another, writing four letters and 5,000 words in a flurry of activity at the end of 1885. Like other examples of ‘pauper lobbyists’ who wrote from the workhouse, these writers complained that they suffered greatly for their campaigning activities, being subject to reprisals and persecution at the hands of the workhouse officers; and both also complained of the unwillingness (or perhaps the inability) of the Poor Law Commissioners to force local officers to mend their ways.

There was another outlet for paupers to voice their concerns and frustrations when they felt their complaints had fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall, however. That outlet was the ‘court of public opinion’, and there were those who made very good use of it. John RutherfordRutherford, for example, published an important first-person account of his experiences in the Poplar workhouse while he was still a pauper. It was titled Indoor Paupers, by ‘One of Them’, and was recently republished by Peter Higginbotham, of workhouses.org.uk fame. Rutherford’s was a vivid account of quotidian life inside the workhouse, but it was also a powerful indictment of the workhouse regime, where paupers were ‘not esteemed as human beings…but as creatures of a far inferior order’. His solution to the abuses he observed was that Boards of Guardians (who oversaw relief of the poor locally) should be drawn from a much wider section of society, and in particular that they should contain ‘a fair proportion of working men’. He reasoned that ‘men who have relatives and former comrades in the house would undoubtedly keep a sharp eye on abuses likely to pain their friends’, and went on to state that ‘Guardians of this stamp would extinguish at once the insolence of Jacks in office, and the corruption and depredation’ of other officials.

Of course, Rutherford was not the first to publicise the deficiencies, and even the cruelties, of the Victorian workhouse. By the 1880s, he was adding to a long tradition of pamphleteers, journalists and fiction writers who sought to influence the ‘court of public opinion’, the most famous of whom was, of course, Charles Dickens. But as a pauper himself, he was uniquely placed to make his observations, and through his letters and his short published book, it is possible to see the mechanics of popular influence at work in the context of the New Poor Law.

Rutherford began his correspondence to the commissioners by minutely detailing the abuses he had encountered as an inmate. In his second letter, he again urged the Local Government Board to investigate, still believing them to be ignorant of the true state of Poplar workhouse. In his third letter, his impatience was starting to show, and he wrote that ‘the longer such charges remain univestigated the more favourable…the situation for the accused’. By the time of his fourth and final letter, Rutherford had become totally disillusioned with the Poor Law Commissioners as a channel for redress, and had decided that if his allegations were ‘unworthy of the notice of your Honourable Board until forced upon it by Public Opinion, I shall not trouble you again’ (MH 12/7698). Instead, he appealed directly to the public through his book – and, even though it is highly unlikely that either his published or unpublished work had any direct influence on local poor law policy, it is intriguing to note that his suggestion of widening the franchise for elected guardians was something that came to pass only a decade or so after his exposé was published.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear in our work that Rutherford and Thomas Gould were at one end of a scale of paupers and others who, collectively, did have an influence on the trajectory of workhouse policy in the later years of the New Poor Law. They did so through the many thousands of letters they sent to the commissioners, and through appeals to the wider ‘court of public opinion’ in the press. In these turbulent times when political influence has been so successfully professionalised, and the levers of power seem ever more remote from ordinary citizens, it’s worth bearing in mind that if workhouse paupers could make those levers move, however slowly, in the right direction, then surely there is hope for the rest of us.

Poverty, Honesty and the Welfare State: A Reality Check

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On 19 January 2019, The Times reported on the case of Joanne Mole. Between 2010 and 2016 Mole had made substantial claims for child tax credits, housing benefit and council tax support on the basis that she was a single mother. This was a lie, because her husband had moved back into the family home. Judge Angela Nield, sentencing Mole, argued that the British benefit system is ‘unique in the world’, and that it depends on the essential honesty of recipients because ‘it is not easy to detect claims of this nature which are made fraudulently’. This remarkable conclusion reveals the yawning gap in historical understandings of the welfare system and of the importance of that history as context for our current predicaments.

The revisionist history of the New Poor Law that emerges out of our AHRC project ‘In Their Own Write’ shows very clearly that welfare officials have never been able to rely on the honesty of claimants, and never expected to. Indeed, both the Old and New Poor Laws were designed specifically to contain dishonesty at a level which would still leave the claims of the poor with legitimacy in the eyes of local taxpayers. The workhouse test of the New Poor Law, for instance, was informed at its most basic conceptual level by a sense that a good number of claims on local welfare were either fraudulent or submitted (for contemporaries) by morally suspect individuals like single mothers. Forced residence in a workhouse would, it was felt, root out the genuinely needy.

Things did not turn out like this, of course. Workhouses rapidly filled up with the hopeless and helpless. But they were nonetheless built with the premise of dishonesty in mind. And we should be clear that the central authorities felt that the dishonest were a prominent feature of the New Poor Law, as with other past welfare systems. Thus, on 21 August 1848, the clerk serving the poor law union of Reeth (North Yorkshire), wrote to the central authorities on the case of ‘Phillis Brunskill a Widow with 9 Children all of who are under the age of 16 years’. Asking for permission to pay the widow 5s per week to supplement her income from a cow and small plot of land, the clerk added mournfully that ‘If this assistance is refused the Widow & her 9 Children will have to be taken into the Workhouse’. Outdoor relief of this sort would have been more-or-less automatic under the Old Poor Law more than 10 years earlier, but it stood starkly against the basic principles of the New Poor Law. More than this, it smacked to the central authorities of dishonesty. They wrote on 23 August to say that:

her destitution [is] very questionable – out of 9 children under 16 there must be some capable of working and helping to contribute to the resources of the family. [T]he widow herself is also probably in employment at this time of the year and the land she holds may probably be sufficiently [extended] to support her.

tramp_smoking_cigar_with_cane_over_arm_-_restorationThe authorities were clearly irked by incessant attempts in the Reeth union to bend the rules. On 11 September 1849 they wrote to the clerk in the case of Ann Birkbeck, a widow who had conceived two illegitimate children after her husband had died, making herself the archetype of Victorian immortality. Their letter expressed surprise that Reeth should consider paying an allowance to this sort of person because if it: ‘were [it] generally allowed in such cases, not only would it tend to encourage immorality but it could eventually bring an added expense on the Ratepayer increasing the number of applications for relief’. These words would later prove to have real force for Reeth. Ann Birkbeck eventually ended up in the workhouse and had a series of sexual encounters with the workhouse master which led to a further illegitimate birth and a long and fractious inquiry in 1855.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the variously constituted central authorities of the New Poor Law, it is clear that at the local level the capacity for officials to root out the fraudulent and morally unworthy, and then to keep them off welfare, was limited. Surveillance was expensive and there is (as under the Old Poor Law) a striking absence of letters through which neighbours informed on one another. In this sense, the New Poor Law simply had to live with dishonesty, ingratitude and the continuing eligibility of people like Ann Birkbeck. The modern welfare system, just like its historical counterparts, definitively does not (as judge Neild argues) rely on the honesty of applicants, merely the containment of dishonesty. The difference is a fine one, but nonetheless crucial to how we should think about the past, present and future of the welfare state.

 

 

Universal Credit: The New, New Poor Law?

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The UK’s stance on poverty has recently come under the scrutiny of the United Nations, who argue that austerity measures have inflicted huge misery on the poorest in society. The number of those who live in poverty has reached 14 million, with 1.4 million of these being classed as destitute (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46236642). The misery of many families has been exacerbated by the move to Universal Credit, the government’s new benefits system. Under this system a single monthly payment is made to people out of work and replaces many of the old benefits which were paid separately, such as housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, income jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. When a claimant makes the transition to the new scheme, new assessments are necessary, regardless of any previous decisions which were made. People who in the past have been classed as unable to work are now being classified as fit for employment, and as a result many people’s benefits have been cut. As an indication of a system in turmoil, more than fifty per cent of those who appeal against their decision win.

In June, the New Statesman published Alex Tiffin’s Universal Credit diary, entitled ‘With six days to go, I have nothing left’ (New Statesman online, 11 June 2018). In it, Tiffin highlights one of the biggest problems with the new system: the time it takes to process the first payment. In his case, it took a whole seven weeks, and even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledges that it will take at least five weeks for most claimants. That means five weeks with no food, and no money for electricity, transport costs, rent and other essential services. It also means that claimants are in arrears from the very start, yet some essential payments, such as rent, of course, are almost always demanded up-front. The DWP’s solution to this conundrum is to offer advance payments which are then clawed back from an already inadequate monthly sum. Tiffin literally begged for his repayments to be reduced, but to no avail. His diary reveals the reality of poverty in twenty-first century Britain: he lives in the rural Highlands, so ‘extra’ services like broadband are absolutely essential, especially as he needs to check into his Universal Credit Account regularly or face losing it. He confronts a daily decision whether or not to switch off the heating and lie in bed to keep warm; to feed himself adequately he resorts to parcels from a local church-run foodbank.

The language of Alex Tiffin’s diary mirrors that of many of the paupers under the New Poor Law, who were often disabled or too unwell to work, and who faced similar decisions about whether to feed themselves or their children, whether to buy food or fuel for the fire.  George Briggs, an inmate of the workhouse at Great Yarmouth, wrote in 1853, ‘I suffer so much from Cold and as to food & Clothing are so miserably scant it past endurance with me I cannot bear it’; and he finished, ominously: ‘please God [I] prefer Death [rather] than remain here’. Another pauper, Frances Land, argued that the workhouse food was so inadequate that women in the laundry would ‘stand at the tub faint and hungry’. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that is being used once again by Britain’s neediest, thanks to Universal Credit. A manager for West Everton Community Council, for example, described it as ‘the slow killer, that’s what we call it round these parts’, and she went on to say that ‘it feels like they are trying every way possible to kill the poor’ (Huffington Post, 23 September 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk).

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Gustave Doré, ‘Waifs and Strays’

In many ways, the language behind Universal Credit is reminiscent of Samuel Smiles’ theories of self-help and perseverance. The government argues that the aim is to represent conditions closest to being in work, so that those in poverty learn to manage their money better; but, of course, the levels of ‘pay’ under Universal Credit are far below those of any remunerative employment (‘less eligibility’, anyone?). The system places a responsibility for paying rent and other housing costs on to individuals who, by definition, have no money and no credit, and then blames them for getting into arrears.  In other words, it all starts to feel like a new New Poor Law, and the discussions around it are very familiar to those who know anything about the original version. The aim is to ‘control spending’, to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits, and to ‘simplify’ the system by enforcing a bewildering array of bureaucratic checks and balances through which the poor have to navigate an uncertain path. Under the old New Poor law, it is clear that many paupers learned to work with the system as best they could, and there is every reason to believe that this will be the case with Universal Credit, too. But for every pauper who made it work for them, of course, there were others who fell victim to a harsh and uncaring system. Is this what is in store for Britain’s poor in the twenty first century?

Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style

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Like it or not, there is something about the word ‘whistleblower’ that makes me slightly uneasy. It takes me straight back to schooldays, to casual bullying and the threats of what would happen if I ratted or snitched on my mates.  Even though I took those warnings to heart (‘what goes on in the chemistry cupboard, stays in the chemistry cupboard!’) the thing I feel most uneasy about is that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to them, to go boldly up to the teacher in front of the class and dob them in it: god knows, they deserved it. Thankfully, whistleblowers are nowadays not always the subject of furtive threats, behind-the-hand comments and a lot worse besides: in some circles, at least, standing up to systemic abuse and malpractice is something to be supported and even celebrated.

Did you know, for example, that in England there is now a National Guardian for the NHS, Dr. Henrietta Hughes, whose responsibility it is to provide ‘leadership, training and advice for Freedom to Speak Up Guardians based in all NHS trusts’ (https://www.cqc.org.uk/national-guardians-office/content/national-guardians-office). Her aim, and the aim of the office which she heads up, is to ‘lead cultural change in the NHS so that speaking up becomes business as usual’. Disturbingly, of the 7,000 cases that were raised with ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardians’ in her first year in office, 361 (more than five per cent) were from staff members who alleged that they had been targeted by their employers for the very act of whistleblowing.

Here at ITOW, this puts us very much in mind of those who raised concerns about their own treatment, and that of many others around them, in nineteenth century workhouses. They, too, were whistleblowers of a sort, and they wrote in large numbers to the Commissioners for the Poor Law at Whitehall to complain of everything from the state of the food and the punitive work regime, to personal assaults by staff members and much worse besides. Many letters came from paupers who sought only personal redress, but there were those who took it on themselves to speak for the majority, directly challenging the authority of those who meted out poor treatment such as workhouse masters, medical officers, matrons and schoolmasters. At the extreme end of the spectrum was a small group of paupers who dedicated their entire lives (or, at least, that part of it they spent in the workhouse) to bettering the condition of their fellow paupers, and who not only blew the lid on poor treatment in workhouses but pointed the finger at the Boards of Guardians who were supposed to oversee them.

Thomas Gould was one such crusader. Formerly a businessman, like many others at the time he found himself destitute and unable to fend for himself in old age. At 72, he had already been in the Poplar workhouse for two years when he first wrote to the Commissioners in 1853 to complain of the ‘unnecessary harshness and tyranny’ that was ‘exercised over the quiet orderly aged and afflicted poor’ (MH12/7683). His list of grievances was long, from the oakum picking that the elderly and sick poor were forced to undertake (‘being from 6.a.m. to 6.p.m.’), to the short measures and poor food they endured at mealtimes. He accused the workhouse master of bullying and peculation, and of using workhouse provisions to clothe and fatten his own large family. Overall, Gould complained of a ‘want of system…and a want of classification,’ so that ‘all are huddled together. The young and the old the blind the lame and diseased’.

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Illustration for ‘Just Starve Us’, a comic song published in 1843 (original in the British Library, shelfmark h.1260.(1.), reproduced under creative commons license)

By the time of his third letter, in 1855, he complained of being ‘perpetually annoyed and insulted by the master and matron[,] by the Guardians and I may say by many of the inmates’ who sought to curry favour with them, for speaking out (MH12/7684). But he was not a man to be deterred. Despite a campaign of persecution against him, which included being taken before the magistrates for petty (and imaginary) offences and being deprived of the liberty to occasionally leave the workhouse, something routinely allowed to all other elderly inmates, Gould wrote a further eight letters over the next six years. In total, he wrote over 11,000 words of detailed, specific complaint. He named names, and listed many instances of embezzlement, cruelty (to himself and others), sexual misconduct and sundry breaches of the rules.

It is hard to know whether Gould’s tireless campaign really changed things for the better for the paupers of Poplar. The Poor Law Board always responded to his letters, and at least two small-scale inquiries were instigated as a result of his persistence. He himself believed that he had brought about a three-month suspension and a substantial fine for the workhouse master; but he also admitted that ‘upon the return of the Master to his former position, matters then droped again into their former miss rule, and so have continued’. In the end, we can only admire the persistence of a man who had nothing much to gain from his role as self-appointed watchman, and, while he remained a pauper in the workhouse, very much to lose; a man whose only motive was to fulfil ‘a duty which we owe to the Laws of my country, to your Honourable Board, to the poor, and to myself’. May we all have the courage to be a bit more Thomas Gould.

Work at Any Cost? Lessons from the Archives

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The Stone Yard, Bethnal Green Workhouse, c.1880s

Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the number of ‘workless’ households (that is, households where no working-age adult is employed) is at its lowest level for over 20 years, with only 14% of households in Britain containing no working adults. Unsurprisingly, this ‘good news’ story was seized on by the government as evidence of its success in tackling family and child poverty. “One of the best ways to tackle poverty and give children a better chance in life,” according to Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, “is to have a working adult in the house. It gives them a role model to learn from and brings financial security to the home”. She went on to assert confidently that “getting a job means more than just a wage, it’s a way out of poverty and welfare dependency” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45341733). It’s a well-worn mantra of governments of all stripes, of course, that all we need to do is to get people off the dole and into work in order to break the cycle of dependency and create a more affluent society. But is it really that simple?

Not according to research undertaken by the TUC in May of this year. By their calculation, the number of children growing up below the poverty line in working households (that is, where at least one working-age adult actually has a job) rose by 50% between 2010 and 2018 (https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/child-poverty-working-households-1-million-children-2010-says-tuc). In real terms, this means that there were one million more children with working parents living in poverty in 2018 than there were eight years previously. The TUC’s findings are in line with recent research by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Nuffield Foundation, all of whom highlight the growth of in-work poverty in the UK. The Nuffield even published a report in May 2017 which concluded that “60% of people of all ages living in poverty were living in working households – the highest figure yet recorded” (Hick & Lanau, 2017: 3).

Like so many issues surrounding poverty and its alleviation, this is clearly a question that polarises opinion. On the one hand, it seems that a rise in the raw numbers of those employed is sufficient evidence in itself to justify cuts in benefits and household support. On the other, campaigners have pointed out that ‘work’ and ‘wages’ do not always equate to subsistence in a fragile economy, and they point to the growth of food banks and charitable assistance as evidence. Yet the belief that work should equal subsistence for a large proportion of the population, and that those in work should not need to rely on welfare, seems axiomatic in early-twenty first century Britain. The post-war consensus casts a long shadow, and despite the growing reality of the gig economy, very few of those in positions of power would dare to advocate it publicly as a long-term solution.

In the nineteenth century, of course, politicians and welfare reformers were far less squeamish about forcing the poor into poorly paid, and even punitive, work in order to encourage ‘independence’. Often, it was explicitly a deterrent measure, a way of loosening the ties between hardship and public assistance, no matter what the cost to those in need; and in a sense, McVey’s belief that work – any work – is “a way out of poverty and welfare dependence,” taken together with ever-stricter rules governing entitlement to Jobs Seeker’s Allowance and Income Support, seems to take us straight back to the era of the New Poor Law and the workhouse.

Back then, paupers like Robert Graham of Manchester routinely complained about the ‘labour test’: a way of weeding out the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor. Graham had a wife and five children, and like thousands of labourers during the cotton famine, he found himself totally incapable of supporting his family through his own efforts. He was initially given a supplementary allowance of four shillings a week by the Manchester guardians, but when he complained that there was no paid work to be had and that four shillings was completely inadequate to keep seven people from starvation, he was denied any further relief “unless he goes & Picks Oakum” at the workhouse. Graham produced certificates from “eminent physicians of the Highest Character” to prove that he was unable to do the work, but still the relieving officers denied him further relief unless he worked at the hated task of picking oakum (MH12/6053).

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Oakum Picking, early-1900s

Sometimes, the zealousness with which the labour test was applied had tragic consequences. Mary Strahan lived alone with her three children, and explained that “It is nineteen years since I worked in a Factory and no one will employ me at my age”. She managed to negotiate five shillings a week in poor relief from the Manchester guardians, but she too was forced to pick oakum in exchange for relief. As a result, her eldest daughter Elizabeth, aged 10, was left alone all day to look after her five year old brother. On Friday 6 September 1850, neighbours heard screams from the cellar where the family lived, and quickly found the young boy engulfed in flames from the cellar fire. Hannah McCombs told the coroner’s inquest that “The little girl was crying but not trying to put it out. She only screamed,” and McCombs was in no doubt that had the mother “not been obliged to go to the oakum picking shop the child…would have been alive now” (MH12/6044). In Poplar, men as old as 80 years of age, “asthmatical and scarcely able to walk,” were “placed to work at Oakum beating & Picking amidst pernitious dust…from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.” Locals complained that “even the aged or afflicted…are classed together as able-bodied and consigned to the stone yard or labour yard,” but because “the work offered is such that they are utterly unable to do [it] if ever so willing, they are therefore left to starve” (MH12/7690).

Cases like these litter the Poor Law Commissioners’ correspondence from the nineteenth century, and they still have the power to cause shock and outrage. Yet it is hard not see parallels with our own post-welfare-state world where cuts in disability benefits and punitive assessments are deemed an “incentive” for the long-term sick to get back into work (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/year-disability-cuts-starving-sick-employment); where single mothers are forced to seek any kind of work as soon as their youngest child reaches the age of three or risk losing benefits (https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2017/04/03/new-welfare-reforms-put-extra-pressure-single-parents-enter-paid-work/); and where more people than ever who are in work are living below the poverty line because of the reigning back of employment rights and the shrinking of in-work benefits. In this world, no less than that of Dickens or Charles Booth, the borderline between encouragement to work, deterrence from seeking relief, and even punishment for simply being poor, is, it seems, becoming increasingly blurred.

Further Reading

  • Hick, R. and Lanau, A. (2017). In-Work Poverty in the UK: Problem, policy analysis and Platform for Action (Cardiff University & Nuffield Foundation)