“REPTILE THIS IS TO GIVE YOU WARNING”: Anti-Vaccination Sentiment, 19th Century-Style

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Anonymous letter sent to the Keighley Vaccination Officer, John Gott, in 1882 (TNA MH 12/15177)

This month, ITOW project member Dr Sue Hawkins takes the long view on a subject hitting the headlines at the Conservative Party Conference: compulsory vaccination, and the strength of opposition to it.

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he was “looking very seriously” at making vaccination compulsory for state school pupils. In the last year the UK and several other European countries have lost their measles-free status and public health officials blame ‘anti-vaxxers’ for the declining vaccination rate, which has allowed measles once again to regain a foothold.  The anti-vaxxers spread their message through social media, urging parents to boycott vaccination of their children using, in extreme cases, aggressive and even frightening language. As one American anti-vaxxer tweeted recently:

If some sick psycho hated kids he might stick razor blades in Halloween candy. If he wanted to go big with spreading his ‘catalogue of horrors’ around he could stick needles with MMR into babies on the threshold of life.

In the US, the anti-vaccination movement has been so successful that public health bodies are once more in fear of measles epidemics, and since summer 2018 the MMR vaccine has been made compulsory in all states for enrollment of children in public (state) schools.

The anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the practice of vaccination itself, which began in a systematic way in the UK with the Vaccination Act of 1840. Following a major epidemic of smallpox in the late 1830s, the government was forced into action, passing the Act which established a system of free public vaccination against smallpox, to be administered by the Poor Law authorities and funded through the Poor Rate.[i] Although the scheme was open to all, it is unlikely that the better-off deigned to make use of it due to the stigma attached to the Poor Law, opting instead to pay their own medical practitioners to do the deed.

The public were suspicious and the level of vaccination uptake was disappointing. Many Boards of Guardians ignored the order, and many poor people refused to bring their children forward for vaccination. By 1853, after further outbreaks of the disease, it was decided that the only way to ensure all children were vaccinated was to make vaccination compulsory, and a new Act, the 1853 Vaccination Extension Act, was passed. This made it a legal requirement for all children to be vaccinated within three or four months of birth. It also mandated that each vaccinated child should return to the medical officer within eight days of the operation, for inspection and confirmation of the procedure’s success.

Although some recalcitrant parents were paraded through the courts and fined anything up to 20/- for their refusal to co-operate, the law had no real teeth and was often ignored, even by the authorities who were supposed to implement it. An extension to the Act in 1867 made provision for parents to be repeatedly fined for continuing to refuse to have their children “poisoned” in this way, and also provided incentives (by means of threats) for the authorities, who, through laziness or deliberate action, refused to comply with their obligations. By the end of the 1860s, the anti-vaccinators were organising into leagues and committees in order to fight the law, including the influential Anti-Vaccination League founded in Leicester in 1869.

Keighley, a small town in West Yorkshire, had a reputation for being vehemently anti-vaccination. In the mid-1870s seven of its guardians had been sent to gaol for a month for refusing to prosecute parents whose children were not vaccinated, and it was described in the newspapers as “one of the worst vaccinated towns in the UK” (Bradford Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1882). In the same year, an inspector was sent to Keighley to investigate the state of vaccination there. What he found appalled him, and he was particularly shocked by the letter above, which had been sent anonymously to the town’s Vaccination Officer, John Gott. It was just one example, he reported, of the type of “hate mail” John Gott had been receiving.

It is impossible to say who sent the letter. It was written in block capitals, probably to disguise the handwriting, which suggests it could have been a well-known member of the community whose hand would have been recognised. It could even have been one of the Guardians themselves: in addition to being gaoled, at least one had been before the magistrates charged with refusing to have his own children vaccinated. The spelling and vocabulary suggest it was sent by a reasonably literate person, while the scattering of colons and stops (which sometimes seem to indicate sentence breaks but sometimes do not) give the letter a feeling of barely suppressed anger. The language, however, makes that anger very clear.  The writer described Gott as a “reptile” and “a mean venomous, skulking toad”, who should be “shot for a nuisance when your flesh drops off your bones”. The writer was prepared to inflict that horrible death him or herself:  “You have been nearer your death than you imagine … There is a lot of us that have taken an oath to do for you”.

The letter alluded to several of the common prejudices which existed against vaccination. The references to “blood sucking vampires” and “wading through the blood of innocent children” might refer to the practice of taking fresh lymph from the pustules of vaccinated children for use in future vaccinations, which some parents found objectionable. The letter-writer also cited religious objections, demanding: “Do you think that God almighty has sent us into a world in an unfinished state”.  Echoing modern-day anti-vaxxers, who accuse ‘Big Pharma’ of making huge profits from vaccination, the writer accused Gott of doing his job solely for the money: “I hope that every pound you get will sink you a thousand miles farther into hell and heat it ten thousand times hotter”. In fact, Gott earned only £20 a year for his trouble. The letter is delightfully illustrated with images of vile death by several means (a pile of dynamite, a pistol and a dagger), a coffin with Gott’s name on it and finally a medicine bottle containing, presumably, the same “poison” he injected into his child victims. The message is clear!

There is an irony in Gott’s position, though. An Inspector from the Local Government Board interviewed Gott and reported back that his views “as to the necessity of vaccination are apparently not very pronounced … he regards the advantages of the operation from a very lukewarm standpoint”; and in fact his doubts must have been public knowledge as the letter-writer accused Gott of hypocrisy: “You do not believe the cursed system any more than I do”. This is an unusual position for an official whose only purpose was to enforce the law and, curiously, both his predecessors were also described as “violent anti-vaccinators”. The Inspector acknowledged that Gott was labouring under “overwhelming difficulties”, but he was hardly complimentary, describing Gott’s physical appearance as “being of defective physique with a narrow chest”, and as suffering from some pulmonary complaint. Perhaps it is not surprising to find that John Gott, under such stress and abuse, and already ill, died of bronchitis two years later (in 1884) at the relatively young age of 48. An obituary in the Bradford Telegraph described him as “a much-abused official” who was badgered by some guardians for not doing his job aggressively enough, but who was hampered from doing so by the “open hostility of the anti-vaccinators on the Board”.

Strangely, despite the volume of correspondence between Keighley Union officials and the central authorities about the “Vaccination Question”, as it came to be known (you can almost hear the sigh as it was introduced on agendas), there was no contribution from the poor whose children were (or were not) being vaccinated. No complaints of compulsion, or of difficulties in getting their children vaccinated, have been found in the central correspondence files or in any local newspapers. Given the very high numbers of unvaccinated children in Keighley it seems reasonable to assume that the poor joined in the revolt, taking the lead from their social superiors and simply refusing to comply with the law.

By 1898 the Government was relenting (slightly) and introduced “conscientious objection” as a reason for non-compliance. The compulsory element of the law was finally lifted in 1948, and vaccination against smallpox was stopped entirely in 1971, with the World Health Organisation declaring the virus completely eradicated in 1978. That journey from tentative steps towards vaccination, to the complete eradication of smallpox took nearly 150 years. A measles vaccine has been available for only 50 years, so a certain level of nervousness today about a re-emergence of measles epidemics is hardly surprising; and it is not hard to see similarities in argument between 19th century anti-vaccination activism and the modern-day anti-vaxxer outpourings on Twitter.

Notes

  • [i] It had been possible to vaccinate against small pox since the late 1700s, following William Jenner’s discovery that infection with cow pox, a mild form of the disease, could confer protection against its far more dangerous cousin. But its use was patchy and subject to great cynicism.

 

 

 

Sexual Abuse in the Workhouse

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The former workhouse at Nantwich, Cheshire (now an NHS admin building)

This week, in the second of our blogs on historic abuse in workhouses, Natalie Carter explores what the Poor Law Commissioners’ correspondence reveals about the sexual abuse and exploitation of women paupers by workhouse officials.

Workhouses have become one of the totemic symbols of poor relief in  the nineteenth century. They were constructed to overawe the poor and induce anxiety, dread and fear in much of the labouring population. That they restricted liberty, divided families and were intended to serve as a disciplinary tool over the labouring classes are well worn themes in the New Poor Law historiography. It is also notorious that various abuses were carried out in the workhouse, ranging from misappropriation of food to actual physical assault. We have already seen in previous blogs that many inmates were not afraid to write to complain to the authorities about the various abuses they witnessed or experienced in the workhouse.  However, one of the less documented aspects of workhouse life is the risk to women paupers of sexual abuse. As we at In Their Own Write (ITOW) explore the source material we are discovering disturbing reports of alleged sexual abuse by male workhouse staff towards female inmates. The following are three such examples.

Ann Hodgkinson was an inmate of the Nantwich workhouse. In 1851, she alleged that she was alone in the lying-in ward when the Reverend L J Wilson, union chaplain, indecently assaulted her.  She described how he pulled her up from her chair “stood behind & put his arm round on my breast, and then round my waist, and then under my Belly, and pressed me to him – I struggled, or I wrung myself from him, before which he tried to Kiss me” (MH 12/1018).  Another case concerns Mary Ann Chamberlin who, in 1862, told the Great Yarmouth guardians that she was pregnant by Mr Brownjohn, the schoolmaster of the workhouse.  She stated that one of her tasks as workhouse inmate was to take his freshly washed linen to his room.  While undertaking these duties she alleged that Brownjohn had tried on several occasions to “take liberties with her, and eventually on or about the first week of August 1861 had intercourse with her in his Bedroom” (MH 12/8639).

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The statement of Ann Hodgkinson, of Nantwich

Ann Birkbeck (who appeared in our Blog of 23 January 2019 – ‘Poverty, Honesty and the Welfare State: A Reality Check’) applied in July 1855 to the guardians of the Reeth Union for relief, being six or seven months pregnant with a child which she alleged belonged to William Hills, the workhouse master. She had discharged herself from the workhouse just three months earlier.  Birkbeck stated that she had been upstairs in the workhouse turning the beds down when the master came upstairs took hold of her by the waist and pulled her into one of the bedrooms.  She says that despite begging the master to leave her alone he pushed her to the bed and raped her.  She alleged that later the master offered her money not to tell anyone he was the father of the child or go to the guardians for relief (MH 12/14589/110).

All three of these cases, initially brought to the attention of the local boards of guardians by the women involved, went on to be investigated by the central poor law inspectorate.  These investigations produced a wealth of material including the reports of  individual inspectors and the statements made by accusers, accused and witnesses.  Statements such as these are full of the voices of the poor and are one of the key sources for our ITOW project.

In each of these cases we see how hard it was for the women to prove the truth of their statements.  It did not pass without comment that each of these women were claimed to be in some way “unchaste”, and this was used to undermine their credibility. Ann Hodgkinson had been pregnant with an illegitimate child by her cousin at the time of her alleged abuse; Mary Ann Chamberlin was a single woman who had three previous children and was described as having a previous lack of chastity; and Ann Birkbeck was, as we saw in our previous blog, considered by the local poor law authorities to be of bad character, having had two illegitimate children after the death of her husband.  More than this, however, the real decider in each case was the fact that there was no corroborative evidence for the abuses described, and so the poor law inspectors declared the cases unproved.  In the case of Mary Ann Chamberlin, this went against the personal conviction of John Walsham, the Poor Law Inspector, who was convinced that Brownjohn was guilty and believed that the board of guardians shared his conviction.  Walsham wrote in his report that he only had to “watch the bearing of the woman when she emphatically and tearfully charged the schoolmaster to his face with well knowing that she spoke the truth, and to contrast it with the aspect of the man himself when thus challenged, to feel persuaded that she had spoken the truth.”   Once again, though, there being no corroborative evidence and it being considered that there was some confusion in her statements under cross examination, he declared the case not proved.

These are just three of several cases we have found so far, and it is likely that many more lie hidden, waiting to be discovered. Moreover the cases coming to light are only the cases which were reported to the guardians or the central poor law authorities.  It is likely that many other cases of abuse went unrecorded as the victims would have been too scared to report their experiences.  At our project’s halfway point this a research subject we are actively pursuing.

That there should have been such abuses within the “total institution” environment of the workhouse should not be a surprise.  There is a contemporary resonance here to the growing awareness over the last few years of the abuses that have been taking place in various modern institutions, such as mental health hospitals; nursing homes, and prisons.  The female inmates who brought their cases to the boards of guardians must have known that it would be difficult to secure a verdict in their favour and, as John Walsham’s comments on Mary Ann Chamberlain’s case show, these inquiries could be very distressing for the women concerned, just as they are today. They would probably have been aware of earlier cases involving female inmates in similar circumstances, and may have seen detailed character investigations designed to undermine the alleged victim’s credibility through the sullying of their reputations. They would also have been aware that in the final analysis the contest was between the word of a lowly female pauper and that of a professional man.

Furthermore these were often men who could afford legal representation.  In the Birkbeck case, William Hills the workhouse master had a solicitor to represent him (as did others in our sample), something which a pauper could never have afforded. It must have taken some courage to stand up to these officers who had such a position of authority over them. Nonetheless, although the majority of the cases we have found so far were considered ‘not proved’, there were cases where the staff involved lost their positions all the same.  In the case of Ann Hodgkinson, even though the chaplain had not been proved guilty he was still asked to resign as it was felt that his position in the workhouse was untenable owing to the impression that many of the inmates had of him.  This is a recurring theme that we see in the records.  The long and detailed investigations, and the rumours that would have spread around the workhouse as a result, could damage the reputation of the staff involved to a point where they could no longer successfully carry out their duties.  For the women making these allegations of assaults these resignations, while not a definitive verdict of guilty, could still be seen as a positive result: at least the men concerned were no longer active in the workhouse.  Knowing that these small victories could be achievedwould undoubtedly have given other women the courage they needed to bring their cases forwards and make their voices heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Child Abuse: The Long View

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Beechwood Children’s Home, Nottingham

This month, we have two special blogs tackling the often difficult subject of the abuse of paupers in the workhouse. Today, Dr Carol Beardmore discusses the physical and mental abuse of pauper children in the context of recent inquiries into historical abuse… 

On the 31st of July this year, the Independent Inquiry for Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its report into historical abuse in residential and foster care homes across Nottinghamshire. All in all, 350 people gave evidence to the inquiry: the largest group in a single investigation that the IICSA has considered to date. It concluded that the abuse of children was widespread across the county during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It also concluded that victims were consistently failed by successive Nottinghamshire councils and by its Police force. Professor Alexis Jay who chairs the inquiry stated: ‘For decades, children who were in the care of the Nottinghamshire councils suffered appalling sexual and physical abuse, inflicted by those who should have nurtured and protected them’. She argued that, despite decades of evidence and any number of reviews which highlighted the problems of abuse, the council failed to learn the lessons from, or act on, those problems. From the late 1970s to the present some 16 residential staff and 10 foster carers have been convicted of the sexual abuse of the children in their care in Nottinghamshire. The hearings held by IICSA examined three key areas of interest: Beechwood Children’s home in Mapperley; foster care across the county; and harmful sexual behaviour between children in care. Beechwood came under particular scrutiny. It had at various times been an approved school, an observation centre, a remand home and a community home. Its reputation as a place where criminal and troubled children lived continued long after this function had ceased. The standard of care was described as ‘appalling’, with children being dragged across the room by their hair, stripped naked to stop them leaving, and forced to fight each other. One former resident stated: ‘It was a big place…a horrible place…there was nothing in there that was soft or homely’. This investigation took place, of course, against the backdrop of similar inquiries into historic abuse in Rochdale and Lambeth.

It has been argued that, in fact, Nottinghamshire is little different to any other county in Britain, and that the c.1000 allegations which have been made by more than 400 individuals simply demonstrates the extent of the problem overall. One thing is for certain: for those of us working on ITOW, stories of the abuse of children across the age range are all too familiar. Child sexual abuse is often a difficult crime to pin down in the nineteenth century because of the deep historical context. For example, the age of consent was only raised to 16 (from 13) in 1885. So, while we undoubtedly see cases of young girls becoming pregnant or being potentially abused prior to this, they were frequently of age in legal terms, and thus no crime was deemed to have been committed and little was written about them.

Unfortunately, cases of physical and mental abuse abound in MH12, however, and the voices of the children themselves are often heard (as in the Nottinghamshire inquiry) through  witness statements or depositions. For a child in the workhouse, just as at institutions like Beechwood, coming forward took great courage – especially knowing that the perpetrator was likely to remain in post when the investigator’s left, to continue the cycle of abuse.

There were those who advocated on these abused children’s behalf, though. Often, complaints were made by adults, including other workhouse inmates. For example an inmate of the Newcastle-under-Lyme workhouse wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1870 stating that ‘one of the boys here ran off last week to tell one of the guardians about the master treating him cruelly and got his hands cut to pieces with a cane when he got back’. At Newport, in May 1871, the central poor law authorities received a complaint to the effect that the workhouse school master had cruelly treated eight-year-old William Mahoney. At the inquiry which followed, Mahoney stated that:

Mr Bennett hit me in the face, knocked me down, and kicked me in the ribs, and then took me to the Greenhouse, and again beat me there. My nose bled much – He made me wash my nose in the water that came from the dung heap.

At the subsequent inquiry, other children lined up to give testimony on his behalf. John Palmer, who was 15, said ‘I saw Mr Bennett take hold of Mahoney & strike him with his fist … I was 10 yards off’. Mahoney’s thirteen year old sister on hearing of the attack on her brother absconded from the workhouse: this in itself was a considerable act of rebellion. Her treatment on her return, however, was indicative of the abusive nature in the workhouse as she was taken to the ‘bottom bed room’ and locked up by the Governess. Miss Hughes the Industrial Trainer then took her clothes and the child was kept in a state of nakedness for five days.

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Hackney Workhouse Union School

So far, the evidence from MH12 suggests that staff were rarely punished for their abusive treatment of children in the workhouse, with many simply being allowed to resign; but punishments did occur. Ella Gillespie, a nurse to the Hackney Union School, was accused of cruel and inhuman treatment towards the children in her care and prosecuted in 1894. Her catalogue of abuse verged on physical and mental torture and incorporated beatings, burning the children’s skin, withdrawal of food and water and the systematic disruption of the children’s sleep by forcing them to undertake nightly exercises. The evidence suggests that, much like Beechwood, this regime of abuse had been allowed to continue for many years. At the inquiry and trial that ensued, further incidents of her behaviour emerged which included banging heads against the walls, making children kneel on hot water pipes and whipping them while naked with stinging nettles.

Many of those who have followed the recent spate of harrowing IICSA inquiries have wondered just how the perpetrators were allowed to get away with it for so long. Though far from optimistic, the evidence from MH12 suggests that, in fact, such appalling treatment has been a systemic problem for Britain’s institutions for much much longer even than these investigations suggest. Highlighting the deep roots of historic child abuse, and calling out the failures of the constituted authorities to deal with it in the longue durée, may help us to create a climate of true reparation, and to look to a future where such things are simply not allowed to happen again.

 

The ‘Scandal’ of In-work Poverty Revisited

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A vague sense from discussions around the minimum wage that an increasingly large number of families remain in ‘poverty’ notwithstanding the fact that one or both parents is in work has been given a substantial empirical boost. Separate reports by the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2019 and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in June 2019 both confirm that stagnant wages, rising prices and a freeze on in work benefits have combined to leave millions in what they label ‘relative poverty’. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, noted that:

It’s one of the biggest social changes we’ve seen in the past 25 years. Poverty, long associated with being out of work and with old age, is now mostly a phenomenon experienced by people who are actually in work or who are living in a household where someone is in work. Back in the mid-1990s, just under 40 per cent of those in poverty, as measured against the semi-official definition of having less than 60 per cent of median income, lived in working households. Today nearly 60 per cent of those in poverty live in such a household. Of course, we can disagree about exactly what level of income constitutes a poverty line, so, if you prefer, we can just ask why it is that so many more of those towards the bottom of the income distribution now live in working households.

His comments are interesting on many levels, but for us at In Their Own Write what is most striking is the remarkably constrained timeline of the history of in-work poverty.

Johnson infers that before the mid-1990s the core of poverty was associated with old age and unemployment and he sees radical change since that point. This view is historically untenable. For much of the history of the welfare state from 1601 to 1929 and beyond, most welfare recipients worked at something and in-work poverty was the normal experience for a very significant proportion of the population. Even if Paul Johnson is right, and the later twentieth-century saw the rise of old age poverty – and there are many reasons to doubt this – the changes he traces post-1995 are merely the return to a status quo that has lasted many hundreds of years. Constructed in this manner, both the ‘problem’ of in-work benefits, and some of the potential alleviations of that situation, look different to the gloss reported above. In this sense, history really does matter.

At In Their Own Write, the intertwining of the benefit system and labour market architecture is something that is ubiquitous. Let us take, for example, the poor law union of Reeth in North Yorkshire. Reeth was a mixed rural and industrial union, and a significant proportion of its labour force was involved in mining activities. On 10 December 1847 the acting clerk for the union wrote to the poor law commissioners in relation to an informal enquiry they had made earlier in December. The Commission feared that Reeth was giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied poor in direct contravention of the principles of the act of 1834. The clerk reported the position of local guardians at length:

I forward you a list of the able bodied paupers to whom at the different periods therein mentioned they have administered out door relief under the following circumstances. The paupers therein mentioned are all, or  the very much greater majority of them Miners employed in the Lead Mines which in the Mountainous and moor Land Country in question afford to all but a very small proportion of the labouring population the only means of employment and subsistence; – The proprietors of these mines do not pay their Labourers stated wages by the week or month or by the piece, but, by what is styled amongst them trial bargains, that is one or two or a gang of men take of their employers a length of ground out of which they are to raise so much metal, at so much a bin or given quantity – three trials after the men have worked at them for probably 2, 3 and 4 months together (I have known cases of 6 months and longer) frequently turn out complete failures, and the men receive nothing for their labor in such cases having no other means of subsistence save the trifles earned by their wifes and larger children by knitting and occasional days at washing the metal[.] [I]t is manifestly impossible but that the men when after a long continued and apparently unsuccessful trial their credit at the small provision shops becomes exhausted, must apply to the union for assistance and it is almost impossible but that the Union must in such cases infringe the rule against out door relief to able bodied pay[ments] since the expense by bringing them and their families into [the] Workhouse rarely containing more than 20 Inmates would [be] ruinous as well to the Townships to which they respectively belong[,] as to the paupers themselves would thereby in all probability by being obliged to leave their working, lose any benefit they might derive from their long labor (TNA MH 12/14588).

 

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North Yorkshire Lead Miners, ca.1900

The sharp practices of employers, unremunerated labour, the inadequacy of wages and the precariousness of family economies because of the precariousness of work, are colourfully reported here and to all intents and purposes mirror the rhetoric surrounding the modern minimum wage and in-work poverty. The moral integrity of the people who could not make ends meet despite hard work, so much a feature of modern commentary, is also to be found here, with the acting clerk commenting that ‘The men themselves are an industrious and careful class of people and anxious so long as they can to avoid being burthersome to their Parishes[:] indeed I have known instances where any[thing] more than ‘bread’ alone was far beyond their expectation’. Equally, the union pointed to the lack of easy solutions, as do the IFS and DWP reports noted above. ‘The Board of Guardians’, their letter stated, ‘have long been fully alive to the desirableness of a change in the system of paying the Miners but they are utterly powerless to alter it.’

While allowing that the expenditure on such able-bodied men was reasonable, the ultimate solution envisaged by the central authorities also carries with it distinctively ‘modern’ undertones. Inspector Hawley wrote to his superiors that:

It is the custom in this part of the County for the proprietors of mines to let out the work to the miners upon (what they call) “trial bargains” which assist in the miner undertaking to look for ore at his own risk – if he is successful he sometimes [earns] good wages – if otherwise he is plunged into an utter state of destitution, and looks at his parish to support him till the next [spe]culation turns out more profitably – it is in face a game of [hazard] between the employers & their labourers and is the cause of constant distress of unsettled habits.

Hawley’s solution was to transfer the risk and costs of underemployment and inadequate wages on to the employers themselves:

The parish of Askengarthdale complain of the expense the man & his family are likely to cause the parish if they come into the Workhouse. This is precisely the fear which it is desirable to create, & it will cause the employers to find more constant and remunerative employment.

The current debate over the desirability and impact of companies adopting and then raising the living (as opposed to the minimum) wage resonates powerfully with this viewpoint.

Our corpus of letters and enquiries is replete with instance like this. In-work poverty – whether that work was full- or part-time – constituted a substantial core of both relative and absolute need in the period of the New Poor Law. The ‘new’ trend that the IFS and DWP report post-1995 is thus not new at all. It represents a return to the traditional overlap of work, wages and welfare. Looked at in this way, the solution to the ‘problem’ of in-work poverty might lie, not just in raising wages and insisting on a living wage, but in a much closer and more substantial understanding of the essential links between the welfare system and labour market architecture.

 

 

Re-imagining the Workhouse for the Welfare State: Thoughts on the Alston Report

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  • This month, we present a guest blog from our very own Professor Steve King of the University of Leicester, who gives us his personal perspective on the recently published Alston Report on poverty in the UK: 

Earlier this month, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, delivered a highly publicised and damning report on the way that national and local austerity had consigned a significant proportion of the British population to unending misery. We learned that 14 million of our fellow citizens were in poverty and that 1.5 million of them were destitute, defined by Alston as being unable to buy ‘basic essentials’. He ascribed this situation primarily to government cuts put in place, not just for reasons of fiscal austerity, but as a deliberate ideological measure to dissolve the bonds of citizenship and fellow feeling that had shaped welfare since Beveridge. He is not alone in feeling both that poverty is increasing, and that different shades of Government since the financial crash have meant it to increase. The argument would be familiar to many of the readers of the Journal of Social Policy, for instance, where much detailed and rather more nuanced work than Alston’s has appeared.

Readers of his report will of course make up their own minds on its value and accuracy. From my perspective, though, it is littered with factual, conceptual, methodological and philosophical errors, not least when it comes to defining destitution and the regionality of welfare/poverty problems. Above all, Alston demonstrates an extraordinary ignorance of the history of British welfare – not unlike the British politicians he takes to task!

Let us explore three aspects of that ignorance. First, Alston suggests that the cuts to welfare since the financial crash represent a drastic (and negative) reshaping of the relationship between the State and its citizens, a fundamental attack on the collective principles of Beveridge and others who framed the post-war welfare state. The remotest grasp of British welfare history would have led him to a more cautious and nuanced approach. By the early 1950s it was already clear that the financing of the National Health Service was, and was going to remain, extraordinarily painful. Since then, Britain has experienced perhaps nine periods when fundamental attacks were launched on welfare broadly defined, each of which was represented at the time as catastrophic and unprecedented, and a direct threat to the collective principles established not, as it happens, after 1945, but during the Liberal Welfare Reforms of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s personal take on those periods of welfare reform and austerity, the fact is that they happened. Had Alston grasped this basic point – that austerity was part of a long term post-1950s trend – then he may (arguably ought to, if he wanted to gain traction) have written his report with a different tone and sense.

Second, Alston fundamentally misunderstands the deep history of British welfare. Nowhere is this clearer than in his rather facile discussion of the drive to get people into work and the rise of working poverty. These trends he portrays as somehow ‘new’. In fact, the briefest discussion with a welfare historian on his two week trip around Britain would have revealed that the intersection of work and benefits has been central to the national welfare system since it was first developed for England and Wales in 1601. Such conclusions apply even more keenly to Scotland, which had its own welfare system and applied it with an eye more sharply focused on austerity before the 20th century. The United Kingdom has always had a residual welfare system linked to the need for everyone to work as hard and for as long as possible. Labour (notably Blair, Brown and Balls), Conservative and Coalition governments have always put work – whether it pays or not – at the heart of their welfare policies, as did the parishes and Unions that ran the welfare system between 1601 and 1929.

Finally, Alston claims that: ‘British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping’. The Department for Work and Pensions, he argues, ‘has been tasked with designing a digitised and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens’. We can (and should) debate whether the British welfare state has ever been compassionate, either in the post-war time-frame that Alston is confined by or in the deeper history of state welfare. I doubt that my father, grandparents and great grandparents, all of them poor working class people from immigrant stock, would have recognised such compassion. But we can also confront the hyperbole of the workhouse. Turned on its head and read against the rest of Alston’s report, his statement says: workhouses were a key component of a philosophical drive to smash the poor, to strip them of their dignity and power, and to force ordinary people into a sustained cycle of destitution. If, however, we reflect on recent writing on the New Poor Law, and in particular on the initial findings emerging from the In Their Own Write project, a very different picture emerges.

Plymouth workhouse ii
Plan of Plymouth Workhouse

There were plenty of workhouse scandals under the New Poor Law, though their number had almost certainly declined by the time Dickens was co-ordinating his attacks on the poor law to which Alston refers. We can find evidence of paupers – men, women and children – being mistreated, punished, and given poor food and inadequate clothing. Yet the surprising thing about the true history of the workhouse is not that we can find scandals, but that we do not find a lot more of them. If we believe Dickens – and Alston – then an ideological attack on the poor through the New Poor Law should have generated much more harshness. Here, then, are some useful correctives for Professor Alston:

  • Almost all welfare was paid to people in their own homes, who would not see the inside of a workhouse, much as we see today. If modern Governments really are trying to create a digitised and sanitised version of the workhouse and its regime, they have not chosen a great model given its subordinate place in the historical execution of welfare. Nor has Alston chosen a great reference point, either.
  • There is compelling evidence that workhouses rapidly became places where the sick, kinless, aged and abandoned were concentrated. These are not the people by-and-large that Alston was talking about in his report, not least because the aged have generally been insulated from the worst effects of the financial crash by the growth in the real value of their benefits.
  • There is equally compelling evidence that those who were resident in workhouses were not a sub-group of the poor squashed under the ideological yoke and related welfare practices of the state. They had agency: they could rebel, appeal, resort to the law. And, what is more, they did. As we hear more of their voices through In Their Own Write, we need to rethink the sense that workhouses and welfare more generally inevitably disempowered recipients and inmates. Modern benefits claimants and recipients are also not powerless, something that Alston fails to acknowledge in his hyperbole. A quick look at the way in which changes to disability benefit are being rolled back through coordinated advocacy and resort to the law, much as would have happened in the nineteenth century, would have shown this.
  • There is some evidence that workhouses were actively used by people who sought to construct an economy of making do (or ‘makeshifts,’ as historians prefer to call it). Parents might leave some of their children there while looking for work. Kin might put their sick relatives in the workhouse as a way of avoiding contagion, and thus wider unemployment in the family. And so the examples could multiply. Many benefit recipients in a modern sense also construct around them an economy of making do.
  • In the nineteenth century, the state, through its variously constituted central inspections, did not simply let localities punish the poor for their poverty. In most places and at most times, egregious practice was confronted. Alston is right to argue that in a modern sense obvious flaws in the welfare system have taken time to correct – the benefit delay in Universal credit for instance – but this has also been true throughout the political history of British welfare going back to 1601. To lambast modern Governments for something with a history this long is simply naïve.
  • Finally, and since Alston refers to Dickens, we need to confront the issue of public opinion. In the mid-nineteenth century Dickens was one (very small) part of an emerging sense that the New Poor Law in general and the workhouse in particular required reform. The welfare system needed to become more attuned to the fact that most of those captured by it were ‘deserving’, rather than benefit scroungers. Alston’s negative inferences regarding workhouses are simply taken out of this important context. Fast forward to today, and public opinion is decidedly not on the side of a more elastic and softer welfare system. We can be entertained by the outrage of Conservative Ministers about Alston and his report, but opinion polls are very clearly on their side – and they have been for a very long time! The sense that somehow we have moved on from an age of compassion is fundamentally misplaced.

Professor Alston’s report will no doubt be consigned to a box somewhere in Whitehall to gather dust. In this sense it is a missed opportunity. Perhaps another time he could add some welfare historians to his itinerary and we could, collectively, help him to understand modern welfare policy and the prospect of further welfare reform in its proper context.