Paupers, Politics and the Power of the Pen

Lobby queue ii

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.

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