“I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper”: Overcoming the challenges of ‘communications inequality’

Patrick O’Flaherty was desperate. He had a respectable trade as a piano tuner, but something had gone terribly wrong, and in 1866 he found himself destitute in Manchester. With nowhere else to turn he wrote this plea for help on the reverse of a flyer advertising his services: “any Broken Food which would Appease Hunger, Or some small Pecuniary Aid which would enable him to return to Ireland” (MH 12/6059/52432). His plea tugs at the heart strings, but the fact that it is written on the back of flyer which recalls better times makes it doubly distressing. The flyer, with no comments attached by the Poor Law Board, was unceremoniously stuck onto the last page of the 1866 volume of correspondence from the Manchester Union. This sad little note, written on a scrap of paper, raises many questions about paupers and their access to writing materials.

Today, without access to a computer and the web it can be almost impossible to engage with services of many kinds. Lockdown has exposed vulnerable groups who have struggled with daily life in the ‘new normal’ through lack of access to the web: shielded people (usually in the older generations) with no experience of online systems have struggled to secure grocery deliveries; locked-down disadvantaged children have had no access to online teaching. But back in the nineteenth century when paper was the most common form of communication, were things so very different? If you could not read or write, or could not afford writing materials or postal costs, how then did you engage with a burgeoning central authority? If you were a pauper with a complaint, how easy was it to put pen to paper and communicate that grievance to the Poor Law Commissioners in London?

The growing numbers of pauper letters (from both the old and the new poor law) show that paupers were indeed able and willing to write about their complaints. But there are clues in the letters from In Their Own Write which suggest that some struggled when they were obliged to communicate (perhaps for the first time) with the central authorities. They worried about the quality of paper they used, about using pencils rather than ink, and also complained vociferously about being denied access to either by unscrupulous workhouse masters.

James Barnett clearly had paper in his possession when he was in the workhouse in Sheffield, but it was removed from him as a form of punishment over a dispute about picking oakum. He wrote that “everything belonging to me…my writing paper, and the medications were taken away” (MH 12/15488/84438). He wrote a second time, after the Master had told him it was against the law for paupers to write to the central authority:

the Master came in…telling me the grosly absurd tale that the local Government’s orders were that no inmate must write to them…After [the letter was] read by the Guardians…it was given me back, with the very unnecessary and unsolicited leave…to finish it. Having no ink for that purpose, and having been forbidden to borrow any, I am compelled to use a substitute;

which explains why his letter was written in pencil (MH 12/15488/84933).

Such claims of the withholding of writing materials from paupers are seen time and again in the complaints made to the central authorities, although curiously the writers never explained how they finally managed to obtain paper to make their complaint!

Joseph Brentnall, an inmate from Basford in Nottinghamshire, also complained that he was refused access to paper or pens. His letter from 1886 appears to have been written on lined paper cut out of a notebook. He went on to say that inmates had been told that writing would do them no good, as all letters sent to London would come straight back to the workhouse officials, and reported that the Master had told him that if a pauper: “Write[s] to london to find a friend he finds his enmey in sted…because the Poor law has not got any power to interfere with the guardians and the[y] can du as the[y] like”. Brentnall obviously ignored the warning, as he included details of it in his letter of complaint to the Commissioners (MH 12/9251/6568).

Perhaps surprisingly, Harriet French was able to borrow writing paper and ink from the Master of Linton Workhouse in order to write a letter accusing him of assaulting her. Less surprisingly, however, when giving evidence against to the inquiry that followed, she explained that: “When I got the pen and ink I wrote to my father to complain of what had happened…but the letter never reached [him]”. The Master had given Harriet the wherewithal to write her letter, but also ensured that it would never reach its destination (MH 12/672/35311).

We do not know what sort of writing paper the Master gave to Harriet French, but it may even have been headed Union paper. We have come across examples of pauper letters on Union-headed paper elsewhere. In 1872, for example, George Hall’s letter was among a number that were sent that year from Poplar on Union-headed paper. None of the writers explained how it had come into their possession: it is possible they had taken it without permission, or (like Harriet) that it had been given to them by the Master. There is a delicious irony in paupers using the official paper of the institution they were complaining about when writing their concerns, and perhaps it is an irony that was not lost on them (MH 12/7692/71837).

Some correspondents seemed genuinely concerned about the poor quality of their writing paper and the impact that might have on the outcome of their cases. A distraught former teacher in Gainsborough was beside himself with embarrassment. Now unemployed, W.S. Shay had applied for outdoor relief, only to be told by the Board of Guardians that he must go into the very Workhouse where he had once been the schoolmaster. His shame was compounded by the lack of suitable writing material on which to make his plea: “Please excuse this paper,” he wrote, “I have no better” (MH 12/6710/37157).

George Briggs wrote a long and rambling letter to the Poor Law Board from Great Yarmouth in which he described the challenges he faced in writing to them: “I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper as I had no alternative and my Hand [is] paralysed…it has been quite a Task to get [through] this letter” (MH 12/8635/34809). The paper Briggs used appears quite inoffensive and his handwriting significantly more legible than many we have seen in the project. Nevertheless, Briggs himself clearly feared that the quality of his paper would somehow diminish his appeal for justice.

In 1869 Joseph Sinker, in Birmingham Workhouse, was worried that his argument was not persuasive enough, but also that his use of a lead pencil might diminish it still further. In an extraordinarily long letter, he expressed his determination to make a coherent argument. “You will perhaps be surprised that after I had written about ten or eleven pages, I then read the whole of what I have wrote, thinking over the various clauses whether there was a unity in the connecting portions”. In fact, Sinker’s final letter ran to over 20 pages of closely-written text, presented as an origami of folds and a chaotic arrangements of pages. At the end of it he apologised for using a pencil, explaining: “I can write quicker with lead pencil and I must state [there is] not much ink for use of paupers” (MH 12/13317/6616). In most cases, the only feasible avenue open to paupers to complain to the central authorities was in writing, but limited access to writing materials could present almost insurmountable challenges and paupers were obliged to use whatever was at hand. Patrick O’Flaherty’s trade flyer at the beginning of this blog is good example of this, but there are others.

James Pickett’s letter demonstrates many of the challenges paupers faced once they had decided to write to the central authority. His letter is written on several scraps of paper. It is grammatically challenging to the point that it is difficult to follow, the spelling reflects his East End background and his handwriting is almost indecipherable. In a way, it reflects well on the clerks in London that they even attempted to read letters such as this, and indeed in some cases they actually transcribed the least legible ones into the record to make the job of responding to them easier.

One of the most unexpected examples of writing paper came from Richard Wyatt in Bethnal Green. Wyatt was a serial letter writer to the Local Government Board in the 1890s, and although most of his letters were written on unremarkable paper his letter of October 1900 certainly catches the eye. It was written on note paper decoratively embossed at the top with forget-me-nots – perhaps an odd choice for a man described elsewhere as an habitual criminal, and one that sits rather uncomfortably alongside the content of a letter in which Wyatt complains about the disgraceful treatment of ‘imbecile’ patients in Bethnal Green Infirmary, and the “scandalous doings of the attendants” (MH 12/6897/121036).

In surveying the thousands of letters in this project it has become clear that paupers used a wide variety of writing materials, and no little ingenuity. Sometimes the paper was foolscap, sometimes small notepaper; occasionally it was lined or blue, and in some cases letters were written on whatever scraps came to hand. Some of the paper was so thin it was akin to tracing paper; and in one case, at least, it was thick and shiny, more reminiscent of old-fashioned toilet paper than Basildon Bond!  What the letters from In Their Own Write clearly demonstrate, however, is that this nineteenth-century, socially disadvantaged group was able to overcome the numerous challenges that letter-writing presented; and by using their ingenuity they were, perhaps, better able to engage with central authorities than many digitally excluded communities in the 21st century.

“Drunk, Drunk, Drunken Bich”: The Crime (and occasional merits) of Anonymity

1842 attack workhouse stockport
Illustrated London News, 1842

In a previous post (‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper Style’), we talked about the potential hazards to paupers of complaining openly about their treatment under the New Poor Law, particularly those who were resident in the workhouse. They could be – and, they claimed, often were – subject to severe reprisals for bringing injustices, cruelty and misdemeanours to light. In fact, it is a constant source of amazement to us that so many wrote to the Poor Law Commission under their own names, given the fact that they were, by definition, economically dependent on the very officials they sought to bring to account. The vast majority of the letters from paupers that we’ve found in the MH12 collection carried their own names, and many workhouse inmates wrote again and again to highlight poor treatment and injustice, very often giving details into the bargain of the physical and material cost to themselves of doing so.

One of the problems for pauper letter-writers was that the Commissioners in London quickly decided, after 1834, that they would not respond to anonymous letters – presumably in order to discourage criticism of the system without accountability. When such letters arrived, they were quickly annotated by officials with comments like “Anonymous, and not worth noticing” (MH12/6847, original ref. 25188/1856), or “I presume that as the communication is anonymous nothing further need be done” (MH12/3408, original ref. 46590/1869). This meant that, in order for their concerns to be taken seriously, paupers knew that they simply had to identify themselves; and, given that the first response of the Commissioners was to forward a copy of the letter to the local guardians for their comments, it is easy to see how this system could be abused.

As all this suggests, however, a minority of letters were sent anonymously, and there are reasons why this should be so above and beyond the threat of reprisals. Sometimes, the subject of a complaint was so serious that paupers – and particularly workhouse inmates – simply did not feel that the risk of identifying themselves was worth taking. In 1866, for example, a letter was sent to Sir George Gray, the Home Secretary, from an inmate at Bethnal Green urging “an inquest on Mrs. Follett who was starved to death in my Ward”. The unnamed author noted that “We sent a Letter the other day to the Police Station, but she is took away and no inquest”, and concluded, darkly: “but it will come out” (MH12/6852, original ref. 13543/1866). On other occasions, anonymity allowed paupers to dispense with the usual niceties and give vent to their frustration in the most uncompromising terms. So it was that an unnamed inmate of Basford workhouse, in Nottinghamshire, wrote to inform the Poor Law Board that “misis Johnson [the Matron is] allways drunk She puts a Botle in her Pockit She gets drunk and falls doun stears [and] makes her Self a Black eyes”. The writer went on to threten that “if thear is not sumthink dun sune we shall Write to the house of lords”, and finished with a flourish: “drunk drunk drunk”, he (or she) wrote with gusto, “drunk drunken Bich” (MH12/9248, original ref. 31594/1862).

Letters like this demonstrate the kind of visceral language that is more familiar from anonymous threatening letters in the 18th and 19th centuries than from the usual petitionary appeals we’re used to in MH12. It is part threat, part cathartic outpouring; and it is difficult to know which of these functions gave the writer the most satisfaction. The element of catharsis is clearly evident, too, in a series of letters that were sent from the workhouse in Cardiff, in 1855. Their target was the new master and matron, Mr and Mrs John, and the first letter was pithy and to the point: “take [heed] John”, it stated, “there his a bullet redy for you and the old chair man and…your wife[.] one of you shall die” (MH12/16250, original ref. 47409/1855). Seven further letters were sent to gentlemen in the town, appealing for them to look into the master’s conduct, and each threatened some form of violent revenge if nothing was done. “We broke one window yesterday”, read one, “and by my God if there is no alteration before this week is out the old house and they shall be burned in their beds”; “Our hearts is trembling within our bodies”, read another, “for to burn or poison the set” (MH12/18250,original ref. 48915/1855).

Rebecca & Daughters Punch v.5 p.5
From Punch, 1843

The precise grievances of the writer(s) are less important to us here than the form and tone of these letters (in fact, the general accusation was that the pauper inmates were starved while the master and his family lived in luxury). In particular, they are very reminiscent of the threatening letters that were sent during the Rebecca Riots in rural Wales between 1839 and 1843. Although Rebecca is generally described as a movement against turnpike tolls, it also led to protests against many other things, including, significantly, the treatment of the poor. As the Guardians pointed out in relation to the letters sent at Cardiff, there was very little apprehension that the writer(s) would actually carry out their threats. Nonetheless, they took them seriously enough to request that a police officer be sent from London to discover the author(s), so that they might be “punished as an example to others” (MH12/18250, original ref. 47409/1855). At least in part, this may have been because they felt Rebecca’s breath on their shoulder when they read them.

The one thing letters like this demonstrate is that, despite the general tone of respectability and conventional politeness that characterises most pauper letters in MH12, when they donned the cloak of anonymity paupers were also quite prepared to drop the mantle of compliance and subservience. Sometimes, when direct action was not an option, epistolary anonymity, and the consequent disregard of the authorities, seems to have been a price worth paying for the opportunity to vent all that simmering frustration and anger directly. I wonder if we haven’t all felt that impulse from time to time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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Paupers, Politics and the Power of the Pen

Lobby queue ii

In this strange period of plebiscites and referenda, the air is thick with the cries of professional lobbyists and consultancy firms keen to leverage influence with politicians and take advantage of unprecedented uncertainty. According to Public Affairs News (an industry website) Indyref was a ‘lobbyist’s dream’; and The Conversation (an academic discussion forum) points out that Brexit has shifted the centre of gravity for British lobbyists away from Brussels and back towards London. All this, it is claimed, has created a bonanza for the ‘big beasts’ of political influence who prowl Holyrood and Westminster Green on behalf of their powerful clients in business and industry. Yet it is a curious irony that the ‘people’s vote’ should have led to a situation where the people themselves feel increasingly marginalised from the negotiations going on in their name. So what about those ordinary citizens who aren’t part of the billion-pound lobbying industry? How do they make their voices heard above the cacophony of political noise?

This is something that has been preoccupying us at ITOW recently. The deeper we dig into the correspondence that circulated between paupers and the Poor Law Commissioners at Whitehall during the nineteenth century, the clearer it becomes that the complaints and appeals for redress sometimes built, over time and through many letters, into something like a deliberate campaign for change in the way that the commissioners’ rules and regulations were being applied locally. Thomas Gould, who appeared in last October’s blog (see ‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style’), was one such campaigner, writing ten letters and almost 11,000 words of complaint between August 1853 and October 1859. John Rutherford was another, writing four letters and 5,000 words in a flurry of activity at the end of 1885. Like other examples of ‘pauper lobbyists’ who wrote from the workhouse, these writers complained that they suffered greatly for their campaigning activities, being subject to reprisals and persecution at the hands of the workhouse officers; and both also complained of the unwillingness (or perhaps the inability) of the Poor Law Commissioners to force local officers to mend their ways.

There was another outlet for paupers to voice their concerns and frustrations when they felt their complaints had fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall, however. That outlet was the ‘court of public opinion’, and there were those who made very good use of it. John RutherfordRutherford, for example, published an important first-person account of his experiences in the Poplar workhouse while he was still a pauper. It was titled Indoor Paupers, by ‘One of Them’, and was recently republished by Peter Higginbotham, of workhouses.org.uk fame. Rutherford’s was a vivid account of quotidian life inside the workhouse, but it was also a powerful indictment of the workhouse regime, where paupers were ‘not esteemed as human beings…but as creatures of a far inferior order’. His solution to the abuses he observed was that Boards of Guardians (who oversaw relief of the poor locally) should be drawn from a much wider section of society, and in particular that they should contain ‘a fair proportion of working men’. He reasoned that ‘men who have relatives and former comrades in the house would undoubtedly keep a sharp eye on abuses likely to pain their friends’, and went on to state that ‘Guardians of this stamp would extinguish at once the insolence of Jacks in office, and the corruption and depredation’ of other officials.

Of course, Rutherford was not the first to publicise the deficiencies, and even the cruelties, of the Victorian workhouse. By the 1880s, he was adding to a long tradition of pamphleteers, journalists and fiction writers who sought to influence the ‘court of public opinion’, the most famous of whom was, of course, Charles Dickens. But as a pauper himself, he was uniquely placed to make his observations, and through his letters and his short published book, it is possible to see the mechanics of popular influence at work in the context of the New Poor Law.

Rutherford began his correspondence to the commissioners by minutely detailing the abuses he had encountered as an inmate. In his second letter, he again urged the Local Government Board to investigate, still believing them to be ignorant of the true state of Poplar workhouse. In his third letter, his impatience was starting to show, and he wrote that ‘the longer such charges remain univestigated the more favourable…the situation for the accused’. By the time of his fourth and final letter, Rutherford had become totally disillusioned with the Poor Law Commissioners as a channel for redress, and had decided that if his allegations were ‘unworthy of the notice of your Honourable Board until forced upon it by Public Opinion, I shall not trouble you again’ (MH 12/7698). Instead, he appealed directly to the public through his book – and, even though it is highly unlikely that either his published or unpublished work had any direct influence on local poor law policy, it is intriguing to note that his suggestion of widening the franchise for elected guardians was something that came to pass only a decade or so after his exposé was published.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear in our work that Rutherford and Thomas Gould were at one end of a scale of paupers and others who, collectively, did have an influence on the trajectory of workhouse policy in the later years of the New Poor Law. They did so through the many thousands of letters they sent to the commissioners, and through appeals to the wider ‘court of public opinion’ in the press. In these turbulent times when political influence has been so successfully professionalised, and the levers of power seem ever more remote from ordinary citizens, it’s worth bearing in mind that if workhouse paupers could make those levers move, however slowly, in the right direction, then surely there is hope for the rest of us.