The ‘Scandal’ of In-work Poverty Revisited

in-wor 1

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).

 

Grassington lead miners 2
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

Picture2

  • 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.

 

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)

 

 

 

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).

Life and Death in (and out) of the Victorian Workhouse

Copyright Ben Cavanna
Detail from a portrait of ‘Old Scotty’, a homeless beggar in London, by John Thomson, 1877 (© SWNS.com)

This week,  Conservative MP and former soldier Adam Holloway got into hot water when he suggested during a Parliamentary debate on homelessness that “sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the Army”.  Unsurprisingly, his comments were seized on in parts of the media, and he was widely castigated for his lack of sympathy and understanding. He hardly helped himself by going on to suggest that London homelessness was being driven by East European migrants, and that “begging is part of the problem”, because “you can…make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London” . On the face of it, his intervention seems to fit perfectly with official attitudes to homelessness going back to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 – an Act that, perhaps surprisingly, is still in force, and which states that:

every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself,

is liable to prosecution as a “rogue” or “vagabond”.

Yet, as Holloway himself acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, the problem of rough sleeping and rough sleepers has never been straightforward, and it isn’t one that responds well to simplistic solutions, whether martial or well-meaning (though the demonization of specific groups – rogues, vagabonds and foreigners, for example – is unlikely to help, either). We at ITOW were reminded of this when we came across the case of John Moss, which appears in the Axminster poor law correspondence for 1848 (MH12/2099).

Moss was a well-known figure around Axminster in the 1840s. He was described as “rather eccentric…but a quiet man”. He supported himself by begging, and roamed widely in the surrounding countryside; but he had no fixed address, and often found himself in the workhouse – once for a full twelve months. Although he seems to have been tolerated locally, he did fall foul of the Vagrancy Act now and then, and he was committed to the local gaol on more than one occasion. Sadly, his luck ran out in the winter of 1848, when he was found dead in an abandoned ‘tallet’ (a Devon term for a hayloft) near the village of Gittisham: according to the local paper he had lain there undiscovered for a more than a week.

At the inquest, it was reported that all he had on him was “a knife, clothes brush, a clean neckerchief, one shilling in silver and fifteen pence in coppers”. He also had a letter dated Ottery St. Mary, 23 January 1842 (six years before his death) and signed by “Elizabeth Moss”, and it was by this means that he was eventually identified. Shortly before he died, he had been given money and food by the Rev. J.T. Marker and others locally. It seems it was simple exposure to the cold that killed him: there were no signs of violence. He was “aged about 50”.

It would be easy to view this eccentric loner, in and out of the workhouse, as a victim of the system, with no fixed address and no proper support, begging for his bread and jailed for his pains. But scratch the surface of John Moss’s sad tale, and a slightly more complicated story comes into view; for Moss, it appears, was not entirely without resources to call on, despite his apparently down-at-heel existence. His father had been a local farmer, renting a property at £120 a year, and his brother was reportedly a surveyor “in tolerable circumstances”. He was described by Poor Law officials as a man “of respectable connexions”.

We have already seen that Moss used the Workhouse as a refuge when life outside  became too much – or, perhaps, when he wanted to avoid arrest for vagrancy. Who knows what drove him to choose the life he did? Were his ‘eccentricities’ more profound than that innocent term suggests? Was it a family rift that sent him on the tramp, or perhaps an emotional crisis? (What of that letter from the mysterious Elizabeth, the only intimate possession he had on him when he died?) Or had he simply had enough of institutional life? We know enough about workhouse tramp wards (Orwell’s ‘Spikes’) to suggest that any life outside might just be preferable.

Whatever the reasons behind John Moss’s mendicant lifestyle, it does seem to illustrate the central point made by MP Adam Holloway in his Commons speech this week – a point that was largely lost in the furore about his less subtle pronouncements. “The overriding majority” of those who were ‘genuinely’ homeless, he said:

[have] some sort of mental health issue, which is compounded by living on the streets and by drug and alcohol addiction…we should start treating [homeless]people as individuals rather than lumping them all together and suggesting that everyone has the same need.

John Moss was one such individual, and though his needs were periodically met in the workhouse and by the community at large, sadly this was not enough to save him in the end.

vagabondiana
‘Beggars leaving Town for their Work-house’, From J.T. Smith, Vagabondiana (1817)