Pictures at a Workhouse (after Mussorgsky…and Emerson, Lake and Palmer!)

‘Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Workhouse’, Hubert von Herkomer (1878)

On the 7th of January this year, The Sun newspaper ran the startling headline:

Lags to Riches: prison chiefs blasted for blowing £12 million of taxpayers’ money on TVs for lags

It reported that the authorities had been criticised for buying 128,000 flat screen TVs for prisoners. Predictably, The Sun had no trouble finding members of the public who were outraged by this generosity. One commented that, ‘It’s just another slap in the face for victims who think those behind bars should be punished and not handed out treats’, and others called it ‘an utter waste of money’. Yet a hundred and fifty years ago a very similar row erupted in the papers over the purchase of pictures which were bought to make the workhouse in Huddersfield a less cheerless places for inmates. Clearly, there’s nothing new under The Sun!

The topic back then was raised in The Huddersfield Chronicle (4 April 1863) by an anonymous correspondent who accused the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, Mr Clayton, of profligacy and wasting ratepayers money for buying pictures. ‘Judge [the Board’s] amazement’, he wrote, ‘when the bill was presented. Instead of a few shillings, thirty-one pounds ten shillings were the figures! £31.10s!’ He asked, ‘how many doors has an Overseer to call [on] before he can collect that sum? How many months will it take one of the weavers of Sheepbridge, the cloth-dresser of Paddock, or the delver of Cowcliffe, to earn that sum?’ He calculated that each picture had cost on average nine shillings, and (echoing The Sun’s outrage) wondered why the money could not be better spent for the benefit of the deserving poor who struggled to pay their rates.

In response, Mr Clayton stated that the pictures had been purchased on the advice of the Commissioners of Lunacy, and he thought that it ‘reflected more honour on [the Board] than almost any other act which they had accomplished’ (Huddersfield Chronicle, 18 April 1863). Unfortunately, when the accounts of the Union were examined later in the year, the auditor clearly disagreed. He issued a surcharge for the value of the pictures, deciding that the ‘cost [was] both excessive and an illegal use of ratepayers money’ (MH 12/15080/38537). Furthermore, far from being restricted to the imbecile wards, as recommended by the Commissioners for Lunacy, a grand total of seventy pictures had apparently been spread across both the old and the new workhouses. The full list was provided in correspondence between the Board of Guardians and the Poor Law Board, including details of where they were hung (MH 12/38527 and MH 12/15081).

Distribution of Pictures at the Huddersfield Union Workhouses (MH12/15081, 4 February 1864)

Perhaps surprisingly, the surcharge was subsequently overturned by the Poor Law Board which stated that the pictures could be counted as furniture and as such the Guardians had the authority to buy them (even though it did tend to agree with the Auditor that pictures were not really proper furniture for a workhouse – MH 12/15081, 1 Feb 1864). Even more surprisingly, given what we think we know about workhouse life, the use of pictures to cheer up dismal interiors appears not to have been uncommon. A report in the Daily News, in December 1871, described the walls of St Pancras workhouse as ‘thickly hung with pictures’, while those of the day room at Basingstoke apparently had ‘a liberal supply of pictures [to] relieve…their monotony’, according to the Hants and Berks Gazette.

Tantalisingly, the list from Huddersfield only gives the titles of the pictures, which makes it difficult to confirm exactly which ones were purchased; but we can at least get a feeling for the tastes of the guardians. There were a number of landscapes, including ‘The Rush Gatherers on Loch Corrib’ (possibly by James John Hill), ‘Early Summer’, ‘Town and Castle’, ‘Bay of Naples’ and ‘The Rifle Corps at Hyde Park’ (possibly by C.J. Culliford).

‘Grand Review of the Volunteer Rifle Corps by her Majesty the Queen’, C.J. Culliford (1860)
‘Rush Gatherers on Lough Corrib’, James John Hill (ca.1860)

There were several battle scenes, some from the Crimean War and three different views of the battle of the Alamo. A few (though perhaps not as many as might have been expected) had religious themes, including, ‘Christ on the Cross’, ‘Christ Stilling the Tempest’ and the ‘Baptism of Christ’. Several titles imply a taste for Victorian romanticism – ‘French boys Birdsnesting’, for example, ‘Child-like ‘Innocence’ and ‘Does She Love Me’ – while it is to be hoped that the ‘The Old Shepherd’s Last Mourner’ did not make its way onto the walls of the Old Mens’ Day Room!

‘Birds Nesting’, Francis Hayman, R.A. (ca.1741-1742)
‘The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner’, Sir Edwin Landseer (1837)

Again, there were surprisingly few portraits among the pictures: two of Napoleon, but only one of Queen Victoria, a picture entitled ‘Regal and Imperial Cortege in Paris’ which had been published in the Illustrated London News (25 August 1855) to commemorate a visit to Paris in that year.

‘Regal and Imperial Cortege in Paris’, Illustrated London News (1855)

In fact, it’s quite possible that several of the pictures on the Huddersfield list came from the Illustrated London News, which produced regular ‘Coloured Supplements’. Readers were encouraged to frame these inserts and hang them on their walls, and it seems likely that they became a common feature in workhouses as well. An article in the Globe & Traveller of 30 November 1895 indicates this custom was well-established by the end of the century. It noted that they were prized possessions in workmen’s houses, and urged readers to send unwanted colour plates to their local workhouses for inmates to frame and hang them on the walls.

As Dr Andy Gritt from Nottingham Trent University noted recently, images of workhouse interiors are difficult to find, especially in colour, so it is hard to know what they actually looked like. Judging by the number of pleas from newspaper correspondents for the public to donate pictures, it seems likely that they were regularly used from at least the middle of the nineteenth century to relieve otherwise drab walls. Huddersfield may not have been typical in spending quite so much on them, but contrary to expectations it seems that such pictures were not generally of a particularly improving or educational nature, either: instead, they were there primarily to add colour and little brightness to workhouse inmates’ lives. One suspects that, had it been around back then, The Sun would not have approved!

Roast Beef, as Much Pudding as you Can Eat – and the dangers of Cancelling Christmas!

Victorian Christmas Market, from Thomas Kibble Hervey, Book of Christmas (1859)

Christmas: traditionally the season to be jolly and to shop till you drop; when public transport lets you down and people bet on the chances of it being a white one!  Perhaps Christmas 2020 will be somewhat different: last minute shopping online, public transport almost an irrelevance (apart from for those desperately trying to escape from the dreaded Tier 4) and, looking at the weather forecast, we are due a wet one this year (so maybe not so different after all). Jolly isn’t the word that springs to mind when anticipating Christmas 2020.

Perhaps, though, it was ever thus. ‘Christmas in Barnsley’, was the title of an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph of 26 December 1891, reflecting on the lead-up to the festive period.

A foggy disagreeable night, cold and piercing, so dark that at times it was impossible to see objects but a dozen yards away. Christmas eve was not as busy as expected … trains ran very irregularly, and no wonder when it was impossible to see from signal to signal. Country people were late arriving in the town and business was conducted very hurriedly in most cases, notwithstanding the occasion was market day instead of Saturday.

Christmas Day in Whitechapel Workhouse, 1874

Nevertheless, ‘the festival of Christmas was kept up in the accustomed manner’. In the Barnsley Workhouse, inmates were eagerly anticipating their customary Christmas treat. The Guardians had voted for the usual Christmas dinner of beef and plum pudding, and they hadn’t forgotten a ‘drop of beer for the old men’. After dinner the children would receive oranges, nuts and sweets, the old men looked forward to their plug of tobacco and for the old women there would be tea. As the newspaper commented proudly, ‘there was something for all’. In a custom established by Richard Ines, a local magistrate, each child would receive a silver threepenny piece, and although Ines had died a few weeks previously, the Miners’ Permanent Fund had agreed to continue the custom. No doubt, as in other Unions across the country, the entertainment would continue after dinner with music and singing; and for once, the 8pm curfew would be relaxed. Christmas in the workhouse – a stark contrast to the inmates’ experience of workhouse living during the rest of the year.

But also, not an experience to be taken for granted. There were enough dissenting voices in some unions to put a halt to the Christmas spirit if the mood took them. In 1891, in Barnsley, while the workhouse inmates anticipated revelry, those on outdoor relief were in a more precarious position. It was traditional to pay out door paupers a small amount of extra relief in Christmas week – usually a shilling, paid to the ‘adult head of families now in receipt of outdoor relief’. The Guardians wrote to the Local Government Board (LGB) in London to ask for permission to make these payments, and perhaps were shocked to receive response that: ‘The Guardians have no legal authority to pass a general resolution increasing relief to out door paupers for a particular period.’ (MH 12/14701/105642). It isn’t known whether the outdoor paupers of Barnsley received their Christmas box that year, but the omens were not good!

The LGB’s response contrasted harshly with the one received by the Guardians of Abergavenny Union, after asking a similar question a few years later. In 1899, the Clerk to the Union wrote that, ‘In consequence of severe weather and its been Christmas [the Guardians] find they are wishfull to give each out door pauper – that is every head of a family and adult whose name appears in the out door lists, one shilling next week, and to ask you to be good enough to give your sanction thereto if it be necessary.’  This time, the LGB replied that ‘under special circumstances, such as the occurrence of Christmas, the out door relief may be increased by a resolution of the Guardians. No sanction by the [LGB] would be required to such resolution’ (MH 12/7987/157270).

In 1891, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, the Guardians considered giving workhouse inmates a ration of alcohol to accompany their Christmas dinner. The practice of allowing the Workhouse Master to accept gifts of beer and spirits for the inmates was discussed at a Board meeting: one Guardian moved that ‘the Master should reject offers of intoxicating drinks’, but another moved that he should accept them, ‘strongly deprecating any attempt to deprive the inmates, especially the old and infirm, of their usual Christmas cheer’. The latter amendment was supported by William Peden, who just happened to be a public house proprietor! The inmates got their ‘intoxicating drinks’ by the narrowest of margins: 11 votes for and 10 against (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 7 December 1891).

Similarly, The Truth (3 December 1891) reported that, in Halifax, the Guardians, having succumbed to an appeal by the Ladies Temperance Society, had decreed that ‘inmates shall be denied their customary supply of beer this Christmas’. The Truth pondered, ‘if the reflection that they have deprived these unfortunate paupers of the only luxury Christmas was to bring them will make their Christmas the happier and the merrier?’

The Ladies Temperance Society was not alone in casting a disapproving eye on the practice of allowing alcohol to paupers at Christmas. In January 1868, an inmate of Bethnal Green Workhouse wrote to the East End Observer (MH 12/6855/3567) of his disgust at the behaviour he had witnessed that Christmas. He described an orgy of drunkenness and lascivious behaviour:

Sir allow me to call your attention to the proceedings of Late at Bethnal Green workhouse [at] Christmas time I have been an inmate of Bethnal Green workhouse for years and never before have I wittnessed such disgraceful proceedings [W]e were kept up on Christmas night till a very late hour the officers and inmates male and female were in our ward drinking and singing and on Boxing-day the male officers were drinking nearly all day and at supper time there was no one to Read prayers or grace they were all in such a disorderly state and worse … after supper there was a quantity of what are termed the Refractory girls dressed in men’s clothing dancing in the Hall with the officers male and female and I feel it my duty to make it known I think it is dreadful such goings on where the word of God is preached and no wonder then that Bethnal Green has such A Bad name I trust you will pardon the liberty I have taken

I Remain Sir your Humble Servant

Benjamin Smith an inmate

His account of the revelry did not go unchallenged, however. The following week, another inmate wrote that his account was ‘hardly credible … we enjoy our selves and that in a proper manner’. The workhouse was a godly place, he wrote, but ‘does that prevent people from injoying them selves?’ (East End Observer, 25 January 1868). He also cast doubt on the earlier correspondent’s credentials, suggesting darkly that there was no such Benjamin Smith in the workhouse.

Most newspaper reports of Christmas in the Workhouse paint a picture of a day of jollity and entertainment, and Guardians themselves were often described as serving dinner to the inmates. There are, however, some reports suggesting that even these small pleasures were denied, as might have happened in Barnsley. In 1868 riots were feared after the Guardians of Caxton and Arrington Union cancelled Christmas. A group of irate inmates wrote to the LGB on 22 December:

Honoured Sir

We The undersigned take the liberty to write these few lines to you to state our Grievances which is as follows the Old men & Women and Children and Sick are to have their fare for their Christmas Dinner as usual but the able bodied men & women are to be Deprived of it and not have any at all which is causing a great disturbance all throughout the union … We are affraid that some will kick up a Riot and some of the innocent persons will get sent to prison instead of the Guilty ones … we know that you understand and are able to inform us if we are right in our cause or not.

The letter was signed by ‘your humble petitioners, The able Bodied Inmates of the Caxton & Arrington Union’ (MH 12/604/62527).

In Liverpool, a correspondent wrote to the LGB complaining that a poor woman in the workhouse had had some Christmas treats confiscated from her. ‘The charge’, he wrote, ‘is refusing a poor woman to receive a little eatables at Christmas from a friend’, as they had been ‘taken away & detained by the governor’. ‘Will you say’, he asked the LGB, ‘whether it comes within the range of your authority’ to allow such behaviour? (MH 12/5995/362) Whatever the outcome in this case, according to the Liverpool Mercury, the correspondent’s friend would still have enjoyed the customary Christmas fare of roast beef and plum pudding. It reported that workhouse had been ‘beautifully decorated’ outside and in by the nurses and officers, while the dinner was overseen by the Master and Matron and attended by a number of Guardians. Even so, she might have wished she was at Toxteth Workhouse, a mile or so down the road where, according to the Mercury, inmates received roast beef and plum pudding, ‘of which there was an unlimited supply’. It continued, ‘There was, no doubt, many Oliver Twists on this occasion, but it is satisfactory to say that “in asking for more” they met with a ready and generous reply’ (Liverpool Mercury, 26 December 1883).

So, it seems, on Christmas Day at least, workhouse paupers had something to look forward to. In the strange times we’re living in now, we have also been looking forward to Christmas as a relief from the stresses of the pandemic, and even as our Christmas plans seem to get smaller by the day, the ITOW team send warm wishes for a good Christmas to all our readers, and to the volunteers who continue to make our work possible.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

‘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.

Newspaper
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.