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 (©

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.

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



Women, the New Poor Law and the Long Road to Emancipation

Baroness Burdett-Coutts, by York & Son, after Francis Henry Hart, for Elliott & Fry (1882) © National Portrait Gallery Collection, London, Reproduced under Creative Commons License 3.0

This week’s blog is a little off the beaten track for In Their Own Write. Rather than the lives of paupers, it looks at the issue of women’s fight for emancipation and equal treatment by the state and under the law. No doubt by now everyone is aware that this year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which, for the first time enfranchised women over the age of 30 and paved the way for all women to get the vote. The Act was the culmination of more than 50 years of committed protest and agitation by Suffragettes and Suffragists, often involving hardship and considerable danger. But in this special anniversary year, and with the growing #MeToo movement demonstrating just how much further women have to go to achieve real parity, it is worth reflecting that disenfranchisement is just one of the many personal and legal obstacles faced by women throughout history.

In particular, as Steven King has demonstrated elsewhere, despite their hard work on behalf of the poor behind the scenes in the nineteenth-century, it took a very long time for women to gain the right to actually hold public office under the New Poor Law (King, 2006). Other than the usual property qualifications, there was nothing in the original legislation which officially disbarred women from standing as Guardians in their local unions. But the question of whether or not this could actually happen in practice was hotly debated, and the official view was summarised by the Poor Law Commission in 1850 when it stated that: “The objections to the appointment of a female [guardian]…are so manifest, that the board cannot readily suppose that the question will become one of practical importance in the administration of the Poor laws” (Brown, 1875: 240). Yet, despite this trenchant view, it only took a few years for a serious challenge to be mounted.

In 1869, the name of Miss (later Baroness) Angela Burdett-Coutts appeared on the nomination forms for the West Ward of the Bethnal Green Union. As far as we know, this was the first time it had happened under the New Poor Law. Unsurprisingly, the union moved swiftly into action, and alongside her name on the voting forms the brief note was added: “It is the opinion of the [Union] Clerk that Miss Angela Burdett Coutts is not qualified to serve as Guardian, being a female” (TNA MH12/6859).

Handbill 2 - detail
Baroness Burdett Coutts’ entry on the voting form for Guardians of the Poor, Bethnal Green West Ward, 1869 (MH12/6859, reproduced courtesy of The National Archives)

Yet despite the official view, Burdett Coutts polled fifth out of nine candidates; and as such she had been elected by the ratepayers to serve as the first woman guardian of the poor in Britain: a sensation was brewing, history was about to be made!

Unfortunately, despite the bold move of the ratepayers in electing her, they never got the chance to fight for Burdett Coutts’ right to actually sit on the Board. It transpired after the election that she had been nominated without her knowledge, and in the event she never actually served. Those who have mentioned this footnote in the history of women’s emancipation in their work have accepted the official view that she refused to take her place precisely because she had not been consulted over her nomination. But the correspondence of the Poor Law Board (TNA MH12/6859&6860) makes it clear that she was kept fully informed of the situation following her election, and there are indications that she was willing to serve as a Guardian had the local Ratepayers’ Association (which had nominated her in the first place) agreed to it.

Sadly, the Poor Law Board made it clear that, had she attempted to do so, this would have prompted a costly law suit which the ratepayers were unable (and, presumably, the fabulously wealthy Baroness was unwilling) to enter into. As Robert Atkins, the secretary of the Ratepayers’ Association, wrote to the Board: “Law is proverbially a very expensive article; and Bethnal Green is proverbially very poor. It seems almost like a mockery to refer the ratepayers of Bethnal Green to a court of Law; where justice is kept in deep wells, and none but those with long purses may draw therefrom” (TNA MH12/6860).

In the event, it took another six years before a female Guardian of the Poor would take her place in Britain. Her name was Martha Merrington, and she served on the Board of the Kensington Union (Richardson, 2013: 97). The name of Baroness Burdett Coutts’ did not, after all, go down in history as one of the key emancipators of her age. But amidst all the celebrations of what has been achieved since women first gained the vote 100 years ago, and all the soul-searching over how far we have really come in the struggle for parity, perhaps we should spare a thought for an unheralded, though slightly reluctant, servant in the fight for female emancipation: Angela Georgina, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

Further Reading

  • W.A. Brown (ed.), The Poor Law Magazine and Parochial Journal (Edinburgh, 1875), 240
  • S.A. King, Women, Welfare and Local Politics, 1880-1920: ‘We Might be Trusted’ (Brighton, 2006)
  • S. Richardson, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (New York/Oxford, 2013)