‘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.

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