Poverty, Honesty and the Welfare State: A Reality Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Universal Credit: The New, New Poor Law?

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

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

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

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Gustave Doré, ‘Waifs and Strays’

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

Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work at Any Cost? Lessons from the Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oakum Picking, early-1900s

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

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

Further Reading

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

 

 

 

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

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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

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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