‘Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse…

Christmas day sims 1905

We’re all familiar with it in some form or another: either George Sims’s original lament against the cold, hard world of Victorian welfare or Robert Weston and Bert Lee’s parody, where “dangerous Dan McGrew / was fighting to save the pudding / from a lady that’s known as Lou”. But whichever version of the popular song comes to mind there’s no doubt that Christmas in the workhouse is one of the most enduring sentimental tropes of Victorian popular culture, a potent mix of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, a Dickensian meat-feast of mawkishness and melodrama. But peel back the pathos for a moment and there is a surprising amount in Sims’s original lament that chimes with the real experience of workhouse paupers. From the festive decorations, to the seasonal (and exceptional) fare, and even the image of local dignitaries, including Guardians, serving at table, the scene could have been taken from real life, as attested by the Bradford Observer in 1848:

The various rooms in the workhouse were decorated with sprigs of laurel and holly, which gave the interior quite a cheerful appearance…Dinner was placed on the tables at two o’clock, when grace was sung. The dinner was served up in a manner which reflected great credit on the master and matron. Some 100lbs of roast beef, of first rate quality, had been provided, with potatoes, plenty of excellent plum pudding, and a barrel of good ale. The inmates appeared delighted, as well they might, with this unusual fare, and ample justice they did it. The Rev. Dr. Burnet, Mr. C. Rhodes, Mr. Wagstaff, Mr. Tetley, and other gentlemen were present to witness the interesting scene, and to wait upon the inmates.

Yet the real point of Sims’s lament was, of course, to show the underlying harshness of the New Poor Law and the lurid condescension of the workhouse feast. His hero is an elderly man who refuses to eat “the food of villains / whose hands are foul and red” because, as we soon discover, his wife died exactly 12 months prior to the feast. She was, he tells us, “starved in a filthy den” because the relieving officer refused to give him food, only offering them the refuge of the workhouse. This his wife refused, saying “Bide the Christmas here, John / we’ve never had one apart / I think I can bear the hunger / the other would break my heart”. Thereafter, she slipped away and died of hunger, steadfastly refusing to be parted from her husband by the workhouse rules. Here, too, we find plenty of evidence to support the darker side of Sims’s vision.

In January 1844, for example, John Houghton, Surgeon, wrote that he had visited Mary Ducie in Dudley Union. She was, he said, “in a very low and debilitated state lying on a few rags on…a small bedstead and covered with a few ragged clothes”. He contacted the relieving officer who, having initially allowed a few provisions, thereafter refused anything for her, even on application from Houghton. He then wrote that “on the 25th I asked her mother why she did not drink some milk as I ordered her. She said she had not the means of buying any. On Xmas day her husband said they should have had nothing to eat had not the neighbours given them some potatoes and a little bit of beef”. We don’t  know whether Ducie died as a result of what the doctor called “want”, but the last time he saw her he described her as being in a “hopeless state” (MH12/13959).

John Tarby of Ditchampton offers us an another broad parallel with Sims’s account. In 1842, he was:

in my 70th year and have for upwards of 50 years contributed to the necessities of the the Poor – “The Beggar which I am now myself” – and to all other claims of Church and State, and the reply was conveyed by a direct refusal accompanied with an order to go into the House. That such was never contemplated by the Poor Law Amendment Act needs no comment and I therefore call on You in your Official Capacity to pervert this order – That such may not be a precedent in this Neighbourhood and that you may timely interfere is my prayer (MH12/13892).

Tarby was wrong, of course; there never was any stipulation that the elderly must be relieved outside the workhouse, although it was a common misconception among the poor that this was the case.

In many ways, it seems that Sims’s doggerel was a surprisingly accurate account of the cruelties of the poor law at Christmas. Yet, as is so often the case, things are not quite as straightforward as they first appear. For one thing, Sims was writing in the 1870s when the pressure of public opinion had forced many boards of guardians to treat the elderly poor with much more consideration. The vast majority were, in fact, relieved in their own homes, and workhouses increasingly provided shared accommodation so that those who came in as aged couples could continue to live together. For another, Mary Ducie’s case forces us to look again at the issue of institutional care for the sick and elderly more generally. Ducie’s case was a desperate one, as the surgeon made clear; she and her family had nothing but rags, they lived in destitution and had no way of keeping life and soul together. In this, they provide a direct parallel with Sims’s bereaved hero. Yet in cases like this it is quite possible to view the workhouse as a refuge in times of extremis, as many Victorians certainly did. No matter how unhomely its welcome, it guaranteed warmth, lodging and sufficient food; and, for those who needed it, it also guaranteed the services of a medical officer and, increasingly by the 1870s and 80s, the attention of professional nursing and care staff.

Which aspect of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse” we choose to focus on depends on the lens through which we view it, of course. But in the spirit of Dickens’ most heartwarming denouements – of which we will, no doubt, be served a double helping over the next few days – let us indulge ourselves on Christmas eve. Take yourself back to the Bradford workhouse in 1848; smell the cinnamon and pipe-smoke and hear the hearty cheers and contented murmurings of old and young alike. God bless us, everyone, from Tiny Tim and the ITOW project staff!

After all had eaten to their heart’s content, grace was again sung…Apples and oranges were then distributed among the children, a supply of tobacco was given to those who smoked, and a modicum of snuff to the snuff takers, while those who preferred it received 3d. in money instead. At five o’clock the inmates were again assembled, when spiced cake and cheese were served out, the women having tea and the men a pint of good ale as an accompaniment, and afterwards a glass of punch. ‘Health and long life to the Mayor’ was drunk with a sincerity and warmth of feeling rarely to be met with at a civic feast.

  • A special festive thank you goes out to all our wonderful volunteers, whose time and dedication over the past two years has made the whole thing possible. We raise a glass of something mulled to you at Christmas!

 

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

Picture1
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.

 

 

 

Historic Child Abuse: The Long View

Beechwood
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.

Hackney
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

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.

 

 

Cold Hearts and Red Tape: Public Opinion and the New Poor Law

Ironside 1

What did contemporaries really think about the New Poor Law? It may seem a strange question given what we know about early protests against its adoption, about the resentment that was directed towards workhouses (those ‘Pauper Bastilles’), and about the many accounts of scandals and maladministration that litter the mid-Victorian press. But excavating the real feelings of contemporaries towards the poor law system overall is a surprisingly tricky business. On the one hand, it is hardly controversial to suggest that tales of workhouse cruelty, sexual predation and the incompetence of officials fed a growing appetite for sensationalism in the mid-Victorian press, and provided a rich vein of ‘scandals’ that newspapers and periodicals were only too happy to mine. On the other, shifting sentiment towards, but also among, the poor meant that pauperism, however blameless, carried a heavy burden of shame in Victorian England, so that paupers themselves rarely voiced their feelings in open forums.

It is also becoming clear in our work on letters written by, and on behalf of, paupers to the central authorities in London that even these were highly strategic documents. Just as under the Old Poor Law (and, often, in common with those sensational accounts in the papers) paupers rarely, if ever, passed judgement on the poor law or the workhouse system per se, instead concentrating their energies on specific instances of malpractice, maladministration and the contravention of rules and regulations. This means that their attitudes to the overarching framework of poor law policy – and those of the public at large – tend to get lost in the thicket of comment and condemnation relating to its day-to-day practice and administration.

Occasionally, however, we do find examples in MH12 of individuals who were prepared to cut through the detail and shine a light on the principles that underpinned the New Poor Law, and Isaac Ironside’s letters from Sheffield are a fine example of this. Ironside could hardly be described as an ordinary member of the public; in fact, he was in possession of a very large and sharp-bladed axe which he ground to considerable effect in mid-Victorian Yorkshire. He was a Chartist and Owenite socialist and, by the 1850s, he had risen to a position of considerable influence on Sheffield City Council. He was instrumental in establishing Sheffield’s Mechanics’ Institute and its Hall of Science, the first of its kind in England. Nonetheless, when Ironside wrote to the Poor Law Board on behalf of William Hodgson of Barnsley, he did so as a private citizen and an advocate for a poor man who found himself in a difficult, though far from uncommon, situation.

Hodgson was a widower who had been left with six children and suffered considerable ill health. His youngest child, an infant, was being cared for by Hodgson’s sister who received two shillings a week in financial support from her parish. Between March and May 1850, however, Ironside was moved to write three letters on their behalf because the Board of Guardians had stopped the child’s relief, and his aunt – Emma Mitchell – was unable to continue his care without it. She and Hodgson found themselves in an impossible situation, wanting to do their best for the child but lacking the means to do so. Ironside’s first letter was a polite enquiry, asking whether the Board could use its influence to get the child’s relief reinstated. His second was a response to the replies of both the Board and the local guardians, in which he assured them again that neither Hodgson nor his sister were able to provide for the child without assistance, and explained that Mitchell was now looking after two of her brother’s children, because their father had taken a turn for the worse.

But it is Ironside’s third letter that really catches the eye. By this time his patience with the local and national administrators had run out. He had witnessed first-hand the obfuscation and pettifoggery of the local Board of Guardians and the high-handed unwillingness of the Poor Law Commissioners to hold them to account, and he had also seen the devastating impact their actions had had on Hodgson and his family. Not a man to mince his words, Ironside’s final letter is a masterpiece of passionate polemic and it gives us a brief insight into how the ‘system’ of the New Poor Law was viewed – by some sections of mid-Victorian society, at least.  It also has a surprising resonance for the welfare politics of our own era, and in its clarity of thought and expression it deserves to be quoted in full.

My Lords & Gentlemen,

I duly received yours of the 23rd ult in reply to mine of the 18th ult. Poor Mrs Mitchell comes to me and I am forced to see that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”! She wept bitterly this morning, and said she feared her brother would not live many days and then, said she, “he will be out of their way; they will have finished him”. She heard a few days ago that he was very ill; unattended except by his poor neighbours who were in his house expecting his death. She has 2 of his children as I have before informed you and she still provides [for] herself and them and struggles, but it is very hard.

You may not be aware that I hate the centralizing tendency of the legislation with a most perfect hatred. I do not believe in Malthus nor do I wish to see the poor people starved to death by law. This case is not likely to lessen my hatred. If I could see any thing like moral responsibility on behalf of the central authorities, I should be inclined to view centralization with more favour. But there is nothing of the kind. Stump orators make perfect laws, and legal responsibility is all that is ever thought of. For instance you have acted legally, I suppose, in this case, Lorimer [a local poor law official] would no doubt say the same, ditto the Board of Guardians at Barnsley etc. My first letter to Lorimer [was] on the 18th Jany. My first to you was on the 1st of March, the poor wretch starving all the time – more than 16 weeks. You breakfast every morning and transact your business with the perfect consciousness that you will also dine in due course. Not so the poor who have not sufficient interest to get an appeal to you. Those who have discover what a task they undertake. Carlyle is not far wrong in his description of what has to be done in Downing St.

Good Heavens how I shudder at the cold hearted official red tapism which governs this country.

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