Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style

Picture1

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’.

auber d f e comic B20048 73
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

stone breaking bethnal green BORDER
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).

oakum border detail
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)

 

 

 

Listening to the Voices of the Mentally Ill: Lessons from the Archive

Norfolk County Asylum
Images of Inmates of the Norfolk County Asylum from the 1880s (for more details and case studies, see the Change Minds website at: http://changeminds.org.uk/case-studies/)

Issues surrounding the care of those with mental illnesses are never far from the news. Rob Behrens, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, set out in a recent article in The Guardian details of a report highlighting serious inadequacies in care for mental health patients. He claimed that “[m]any European ombudsman organisations consider poor treatment of mental health patients, such as lack of care, the loss of liberty and the absence of the right to appeal, primarily in terms of human rights violations”. At the same time an inquiry commissioned by Theresa May into the “flawed” Mental Health Act found neglect and discrimination in the system. Rethink Mental Illness found that many people who had been sectioned “felt imprisoned [and] not cared for, because they had minimal involvement in their care and their choices were disregarded … [and felt] a complete loss of any sense of control over their lives” (The Guardian, 21/3/2018 & 1/5/2018).

Accounts of poor people who suffered under a variety of mental health problems in the nineteenth century are regularly found in the collections that form the basis of our project.  The administration of pauper lunatics in the nineteenth century was closely linked with the administration of the poor law.  Although the debates leading up to the New Poor Law focused on the able-bodied poor, only around 13-17% of workhouse inmates were of this class between 1848 and 1870 (Bartlett, 1999: 40), and the workhouse regularly became the home of many of those who suffered from mental illnesses. Between 1842 and 1890 around 25% of poor people identified as insane were institutionalised in the workhouse (Bartlett, 1999: 44). However, rather than taking the statistical view, this blog takes advantage of the research we have undertaken so far into pauper letters.

William Hunter was an inmate of the Rye Poor Law Union workhouse where, in 1852, he was 36 years and described as having been of “unsound mind” for 10 years. His case is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because we can see through his writing his fluctuating mental state, from times of serious mental distress, where his writing becomes fractured, to periods of lucidity. The first letter he wrote was anonymous, signed simply an “Inhabitant of Rye”.  Handwriting comparisons with later letters and some further detection allow us to confirm, though, that this was from Hunter.  In this letter he wrote about himself in the third person.  The letter is not completely illegible but it is fairly incoherent and indicative of a troubled mind, prompting someone at the Poor Law Board to write on the reverse that “This letter seems quite unworthy of notice I can make nothing of it”.  From what we can make out, Hunter had recently been discharged from Haydock Lodge Lunatic Asylum and had, at one point, been a schoolmaster. Having failed to find employment, he wrote of a conspiracy to get him back in the workhouse.

Hunter’s handwriting contains several idiosyncrasies which mean we can see that he was also writing on behalf of, or using the name of, another pauper inmate, Henry Clark.  Two letters were sent in Clark’s name which complained about Mr Banks the medical officer, a bad case of the “Itch” going around the workhouse, and the withdrawal of Clark’s special diet.  These letters are somewhat rambling and not always easy to make sense of, but they are basically coherent and were clearly written in a more lucid time. The Poor Law Board took notice of the letters attributed to Clark and they asked the Rye guardians for their observations.  It seems that similar letters of complaint had already been received, and the guardians had already made an investigation into cases of the Itch. Intriguingly, they gave no indication that they recognised the involvement of Hunter in these letters.

Eventually we find a long letter signed by William Hunter himself.  This is a forceful letter and certainly no less coherent than those signed ‘Henry Clark’.  Having been refused liberty to “go and see My Uncle Humphrey of New Romney,” he repeated his demand and was eventually given his clothes, although he was refused shoes.  In the end he took a pair from one of the other paupers which were too small for him and caused his feet to be badly blistered.  He also complained that the food in the workhouse was being unevenly weighed, and grandly claimed that “[t]hey cannot Blind my Eyes as I Know the rules in these Houses and also the Laws with regard to the treatment of the poor both in the Workhouse and out just the same as the Schoolboy [Knows] A.B. C.”  He went on to complain about the incompetence of the guardians, and ended his letter:

I Hope My Lord you will excuse any harsh words in this letter for I will not mince my words [to]ward the parties or Eat Mince Pie for them … perhape if your Lordship was in my situation and had suffered as I have done your Lordship tongue would be Blaker toward the parties than the Pen and Ink which write this [to] you

Hunter letter
Letter from William Hunter to the Poor Law Commissioners, dated 1847

This letter was referred back to the guardians by the Board for its observations and their reply gives us a real insight into Hunter’s predicament. He had been moved seven years previously from the workhouse to Haydock lodge Lunatic Asylum, “for care and treatment in consequence of the disordered state of his Mind: he remained there nearly three years and was then discharged – being sufficiently recovered – and returned home to Rye.”  He had been given out-relief for a “considerable time,” but due to his destitution and “evident tendency to relapse into his former mental condition” he was ordered back to the workhouse and put in the infirm ward.  The Clerk finished by writing that Hunter:

has frequently addressed Letters to the Guardians of an abusive and incoherent description and also has written similar Letters for other Paupers.  Of the evident untrue statements made at various times in the Letters written by Hunter the Guardians have long been convinced and at the Meeting of the Board on the 1st inst an opinion was expressed that his Letters are not worthy of Credit.

Although it is undoubtedly true that parts of some of Hunter’s letters were “abusive and incoherent,” we can also see that even in his anonymised letter (his most confused) there were statements of truth, such as the details of his release from Haydock Lodge.  In the same letter Hunter mentions that he had been a schoolmaster, and we know from some earlier correspondence (and that of the Guardians) that he had indeed briefly been a schoolmaster at the workhouse before he became ill. Crucially, when writing more coherently under another name his complaints were taken seriously and investigated as having some merit; yet his letters were quickly dismissed by the guardians when they were identified as coming from Hunter himself, on the grounds that he was a known ‘lunatic’.

So, to return to Rob Behrens’ recent report, one feels that Hunter would instantly have recognised its findings in relation to the loss of liberty, absence of right to appeal, and mentally ill patients’ loss of control over their own lives. In some fundamental ways, Hunter’s case shows us that the care of those suffering from mental illness has moved on very little since the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • P. Bartlett, The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1999)
  • C.A. Smith, ‘Living with Insanity: Narratives of Poverty, Pauperism and Sickness in Asylum Records, 1840-1876’ in Gestrich, Hurren and King (eds.), Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor (London, 2012), 117-142

 

Fragmentary Lives: Conference Report

Prog1

The first conference organised under the auspices of ‘In Their Own Write’ was held at The National Archives, at Kew, on Saturday the 9th of June. The theme of the conference was  “the survival and interpretation of ego documents”, and it brought together a huge range of fascinating work on the subject. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term ‘ego document’, it refers to any written source that focuses on the personal lives and experiences of the writer. Ego documents are growing in importance in many areas of historical enquiry, particularly in the broad discipline of social history. Sources such personal letters, diaries, autobiographical writing, witness statements and petitions are now recognised as a vital and revealing way of addressing questions relating to the history of emotions, of domestic life, the boundaries between public and private lives, and the interactions between individuals (particularly those traditionally characterised as society’s powerless) and a range of public institutions and agencies. In particular, they often plug the gaps left by ‘official’ sources, and provide a voice for the previously unheard.

The conference was held in the new events suite at TNA which, though disturbingly high-tech for some of us older delegates, turned out to be incredibly comfortable and extremely user-friendly. Much of this was down to the organisational expertise and assistance of TNA’s permanent staff members and, in particular, huge thanks are due to Anna Sexton, TNA’s Head of Research, archivist Chris Day, and Lee Oliver, Head of Venue Management and Services, who took control of the technology and ensured that everything went smoothly: it was certainly a corrective to the Luddite tendency in many of us! Thanks are also due to Carol Beardmore and Geoff Monks from the University of Leicester for their help with registration.

Audience1
The conference opens at TNA’s new Events Suite

The day’s proceedings were set in train by Anna Sexton, and kicked off with a brief explanation of ‘In Their Own Write’ by Steve King, the project PI. We then got down to the nitty gritty of the speakers’ papers. Session One took place under the broad heading of ‘The Boundaries of Public and Private’, and took in some fascinating papers looking at the topic from three very different angles. Helen Watt looked in detail at the scribal relationship between ordinary seamen during the French Wars through correspondence written by and for Richard Greenhalgh of Bury. Among many other interesting insights, Helen brought out rather wonderfully the way that Greenhalgh’s tone changed markedly (from loving affection to huffy indignance) when his parents did not reply quickly enough for his liking. Helen was followed by a quite different view of personal correspondence from Cam Sharpe Jones, a researcher at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Cam’s paper explored the development of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s life in letters. Hooker was a geographical botanist and explorer who went on to succeed his father as director of the Botanical Gardens in the 1860s. It was fascinating to see the way that his attitude towards his own epistolary identity changed over time, and how he came to accept – and even embrace – the fact that his letters shifted from being private documents to public property as he himself gained a growing public profile. The final paper in Session One was an introduction to a great new online resource, ‘Writing Lives’ (www.writinglives.org), by Emily Cumming and Helen Rogers of Liverpool John Moores University. The website is bringing together some of the many fragments of historical autobiography that have lain hidden in public and private collections until now, and Emily and Helen were keen to stress that they are eager for people to contact them and to get involved with their own families’ stories.

Session Two (“Lives Under the Information State”) began with a paper from ‘In Their Own Write’, drawing some early conclusions from our work with MH12. The main conclusion was that, following the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, paupers quickly adjusted to the new regime and were even able to use the growing bureaucratic apparatus in their own favour when complaining about local officials and institutional regimes. This was a theme that was taken up by Kim Price in his paper on pauper complainers and prison petitioners. Kim also drew the conclusion that, contrary to established beliefs about institutional life in England in the 19th century, paupers, prisoners and those who fought on their behalf were not entirely without influence; or, at least, they certainly had the opportunity to voice their grievances. Sandwiched between these two papers was Laura Mair’s more optimistic reading of letters from ragged school leavers, which clearly demonstrated the depth of affection and gratitude that many pupils felt towards their old alumnus. Intriguingly, the session as a whole stimulated a brief but very interesting discussion (prompted by a question from the floor) about historians’ attitudes towards our institutional past, and whether we should generally be more ‘optimistic’ in our analysis of interactions between paupers, prisoners, poor pupils and those who were charged with their care.

Steve1
Steve King and the stitched workhouse letter of Lorina Bulwer

After the break, Session Three saw our speakers turn towards “Fragments of the Unusual”. This was an absolutely absorbing session in terms of the subjects of the papers, but also in the way that each of the three speakers presented their research in a fresh and innovative way. Steve King’s focus just a single letter, from Lorina Bulwer, an inmate in the Great Yarmouth workhouse: it just so happens that it was a letter that was stitched and embroidered on a colourful textile backing, and that it that ran to 4.3 metres (14 feet) long! Steve challenged the audience, not simply to see this as the work of a disturbed mind, but to see Lorina’s stitched letter in the wider context of workhouse complaint and protest more generally. Helen Rogers then took the floor again, and explored some of the fragments of biography and autobiography that have come down to us from a Victorian gaol, also in Great Yarmouth. Helen urged to us to look again at how we construct the lives of convicts and the poor, and the lessons we can learn from placing autobiographical writing alongside other sources. Finally, Emma Moreton from Coventry University demonstrated brilliantly some of the advantages of using corpus linguistics to analyse large bodies of lower class correspondence. Focusing on Irish migrant letters from 19th century America she showed that, through the conscientious use of tagging and data analysis, historians, linguists and others can gain huge insights into the shifting and contested meanings of basic epistolary terminology. Yet another chastening lesson for the Luddites!

Bridget1
Bridget Keown talks about WWI nurses’ reminiscences

The final session of the day focused on military lives reflected through the correspondence and reminiscences of active servicemen and women. Ruth Imeson Da Silva, from Nottinghamshire Archives, gave an incredibly affecting paper on the correspondence from two very different ‘Tommies’ during World War I. The affectionate, unassuming letters home from Private Charles Cobb were contrasted with the self-consciously heroic narratives constructed by the self-educated poet, William Streets, a miner who rose to the rank of Sergeant and whose work was published posthumously after the war. Despite their very different epistolic lives, the two men died tragically similar deaths on the Western Front, and those deaths are now memorialised in theirs’ and others’ wartime correspondence. Bridget Keown also looked at ego documents produced in response to the ‘Great War’, but her focus was on a hitherto neglected band of heroes: the nurses who looked after wounded soldiers behind the lines. Bridget brought out vividly, not only the stresses of nursing under the constant threat of death by attack, but also the terrible conditions that these women had to endure and the courage they brought to the role. She also demonstrated that serving nurses developed all the camaraderie and lasting friendships in adversity that the soldiers did, and it was really good to hear their story told at last through their own voices. Finally, Lorna Cahill Bannister returned to a theme explored earlier by Cam Sharpe Jones and Ruth Imeson Da Silva: that of the self-conscious creator of a personal narrative with an eye to posterity. Lorna demonstrated that, through the careful editing and abridgement of his diaries and letters, Major-General Sir Frederick Smith, who was in charge of veterinary services during the Second Boer War, not only sought to protect his own reputation, but settled a few personal and professional scores into the bargain. Once again, the boundaries between the private and the personal, in epistolary terms, was shown to be fluid and mutable.

All-in-all, it was a great day, showcasing some exciting new work in the fields of personal narratives, ego documents and epistolary relationships. The audience took a full part, coming up with some really interesting questions and contributing insightful observations. Our thanks go out to the speakers, and to everyone who came along and made it such a great success. Hopefully, it will herald the start of many new friendships and – who knows – maybe even some fruitful collaborative partnerships. We’re looking forward to the next one already!

Beer1
The obligatory late break-out session…

Disability and Independence: the Long View

PIP outline

In March 2018 the Daily Mirror reported that Government reforms to disability benefits had fallen into disrepute. Some 69% of all people who appealed against decisions not to award (or not to award at the full rate) Personal Independence Payments in the prior tax year had won their cases. Reforms had been launched to great fanfare in 2013, with these so-called ‘PIP’ payments superseding the former Disability Living Allowance. The latter allowance, the Government argued, had itself fallen into disrepute, with the process allowing hundreds of thousands of people to fake disability or at least its extent.

From 2013 onwards almost 1 million people had their disabilities and hence their allowances reassessed. Newspapers across the political spectrum reported negatively on the new ability/disability tests, with those able to make even the most basic exercise type movements suddenly deemed fit to work. Over 500,000 people found that their previous benefits were downgraded or stopped completely. The cases of some high profile benefit cheats, who claimed severe disability and then were found on holiday, working or even, in one case, laying on strip shows while dressed as Batman, provided some populist cover for the reforms.

Here in 2018, it has become clear that the tests of ability to work have been both harsh and incompetently administered, leading to the Daily Mirror headline, itself duplicated across the print and e-media from March through to May. This places the Government in a thorny position. On many measures, Britain is the most disabled country in Europe and the world. Epidemics of obesity, chronic conditions associated with ageing, diabetes and alcohol dependence have created a public and personal health crisis. Yet even allowing for this, it seems intrinsically unlikely that somewhere between 1 and 2 million people are genuinely too disabled to work. What, then, can politicians ‘do’ about disability?

For us at ITOW, the answer might be to look at the past to shape policies for the future. Many of the modern dilemmas of disability policy are familiar to us all: how to deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of those with the physical and mental impairments that emerge out of extreme old age; whether and how to define those with physical impairments as ‘able’ and thus to oblige them to find work; how to deal with funding shortfalls in the NHS as it struggles and fails to meet the spiralling costs of intervening in areas of mental and physical impairment; and questions over what the proper balance between state, voluntary and private actions should be on these and other issues. Modern policy-makers, fund-holders, charities and even disability pressure groups construct these questions as essentially ‘new’. In fact, they are not.

The modern narrative that those with mental, physical and sensory impairments must be enabled (and sometimes forced) into work as both a good in itself, and as a way to reduce the poverty that many people with impairments face, was part of the welfare wallpaper in the nineteenth-century. New tests for disability of the sort referred to above focus on where someone sits on a spectrum of ability rather than disability. This way of thinking about impairments was central to the relationship between ordinary people and the local state in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, applicants and officials shared a common language of degrees of ability. Here for instance is Sarah Giles. She wrote to the central poor law authorities from Northampton on 18 February 1837 and asked that they ‘stand as my last frend in this wurld’.

Giles explained that ‘I have not been able to walk since my accident Sir and have to be pushed around when I can’. But, she noted:

I am not nor dersabled as you might call it but I derpend on selling my little thyngs on the street and this gets me most of my part and with the kind help of my naybours and the indugunce of my landlord and no littel help from my Brother I can make do but now I have been ill these last wintur munths and I have not bin abul to git about in the snow and can not use the crutches or the wheel in these times and so I am beehind with all ands so will you please kindly show as a frend for just a month as I am less able that I may settle some littel deps and keep my head up here that I may once again do what I can without the asisternce of the Board here.

Giles had been paralysed in a fall down a disused quarry pit as a girl and we have records of the race to save her life at that time. As an adult of 34 years of age, she now applied for help from the Northampton Poor Law Union, clearly not understanding that she ought to have applied to the local relieving officer rather than the central authorities. Yet this accidental letter is important. Giles assumed that there was a shared understanding that her paralysis did not equate to disability. When the weather was good, and she was healthy, Giles could wheel or crutch herself around selling items from a basket on the street, and maintain independence with the help of friends and neighbours. She had, in other words, a degree of ability. Most of those with sensory or physical disability in the nineteenth-century constructed themselves in a similar way.

Our failure to build on historical knowledge like this is important. In the nineteenth century, keeping those with impairments out of full and long-term dependency on the State required a dynamic local partnership between the person with the impairment, their variously constructed communities and the welfare system. Officials were often called upon to act quickly and to use welfare payments flexibly in order to support people as they traversed a spectrum of ability and inability. They almost always acted in partnership with families and neighbours, and they carefully calibrated their actions in relation to the current state of ability of claimants. Where those with impairments worked and earned wages, this was not a bar to rapid or significant action by the welfare authorities. Only when someone had confined themselves to bed and thus withdrawn from the public world did the language of disability start to creep in.

Greenwich pensioner
Disabled Greenwich Pensioners (© Wellcome Image Library)

In this nineteenth-century context, where legal rights to receive relief as opposed to a legal right to apply for it were few, most of those with mental, physical or sensory impairments seem to have retained a moral right to favourable consideration. Local officials familiar with the stories of those who claimed welfare, could and did find it virtually impossible to erase moral rights even if they wanted to in the first place. The legal rights that can so easily be watered down in the face of budget constraints are, arguably, no substitute for the loss of such moral rights over time.

Now, as the threat of a new and substantial tide of impairment looms large, and reforms to disability welfare policy have (as the Daily Mirror reminds us so forcibly) failed , history has very much to teach us.

Further reading:

  • Borsay, A., Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005).
  • Croley, L., ‘A working distinction: Vagrants, beggars, and the labouring poor in mid-Victorian England’, Prose Studies, 18 (1995), 74-104.
  • Gulliver, M., ‘Insulting Jean Massieu: Debating Representational Control of Deaf People in Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain’, Social and Cultural History, 14 (2017), 321-42
  • King, S., ‘Constructing the disabled child in England, 1800-1860’, Family and Community History, 18 (2015), 56-89.
  • Phillips, G., The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c.1780-1930 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).