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

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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.

Yet 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

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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.

Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style

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Like it or not, there is something about the word ‘whistleblower’ that makes me slightly uneasy. It takes me straight back to schooldays, to casual bullying and the threats of what would happen if I ratted or snitched on my mates.  Even though I took those warnings to heart (‘what goes on in the chemistry cupboard, stays in the chemistry cupboard!’) the thing I feel most uneasy about is that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to them, to go boldly up to the teacher in front of the class and dob them in it: god knows, they deserved it. Thankfully, whistleblowers are nowadays not always the subject of furtive threats, behind-the-hand comments and a lot worse besides: in some circles, at least, standing up to systemic abuse and malpractice is something to be supported and even celebrated.

Did you know, for example, that in England there is now a National Guardian for the NHS, Dr. Henrietta Hughes, whose responsibility it is to provide ‘leadership, training and advice for Freedom to Speak Up Guardians based in all NHS trusts’ (https://www.cqc.org.uk/national-guardians-office/content/national-guardians-office). Her aim, and the aim of the office which she heads up, is to ‘lead cultural change in the NHS so that speaking up becomes business as usual’. Disturbingly, of the 7,000 cases that were raised with ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardians’ in her first year in office, 361 (more than five per cent) were from staff members who alleged that they had been targeted by their employers for the very act of whistleblowing.

Here at ITOW, this puts us very much in mind of those who raised concerns about their own treatment, and that of many others around them, in nineteenth century workhouses. They, too, were whistleblowers of a sort, and they wrote in large numbers to the Commissioners for the Poor Law at Whitehall to complain of everything from the state of the food and the punitive work regime, to personal assaults by staff members and much worse besides. Many letters came from paupers who sought only personal redress, but there were those who took it on themselves to speak for the majority, directly challenging the authority of those who meted out poor treatment such as workhouse masters, medical officers, matrons and schoolmasters. At the extreme end of the spectrum was a small group of paupers who dedicated their entire lives (or, at least, that part of it they spent in the workhouse) to bettering the condition of their fellow paupers, and who not only blew the lid on poor treatment in workhouses but pointed the finger at the Boards of Guardians who were supposed to oversee them.

Thomas Gould was one such crusader. Formerly a businessman, like many others at the time he found himself destitute and unable to fend for himself in old age. At 72, he had already been in the Poplar workhouse for two years when he first wrote to the Commissioners in 1853 to complain of the ‘unnecessary harshness and tyranny’ that was ‘exercised over the quiet orderly aged and afflicted poor’ (MH12/7683). His list of grievances was long, from the oakum picking that the elderly and sick poor were forced to undertake (‘being from 6.a.m. to 6.p.m.’), to the short measures and poor food they endured at mealtimes. He accused the workhouse master of bullying and peculation, and of using workhouse provisions to clothe and fatten his own large family. Overall, Gould complained of a ‘want of system…and a want of classification,’ so that ‘all are huddled together. The young and the old the blind the lame and diseased’.

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Illustration for ‘Just Starve Us’, a comic song published in 1843 (original in the British Library, shelfmark h.1260.(1.), reproduced under creative commons license)

By the time of his third letter, in 1855, he complained of being ‘perpetually annoyed and insulted by the master and matron[,] by the Guardians and I may say by many of the inmates’ who sought to curry favour with them, for speaking out (MH12/7684). But he was not a man to be deterred. Despite a campaign of persecution against him, which included being taken before the magistrates for petty (and imaginary) offences and being deprived of the liberty to occasionally leave the workhouse, something routinely allowed to all other elderly inmates, Gould wrote a further eight letters over the next six years. In total, he wrote over 11,000 words of detailed, specific complaint. He named names, and listed many instances of embezzlement, cruelty (to himself and others), sexual misconduct and sundry breaches of the rules.

It is hard to know whether Gould’s tireless campaign really changed things for the better for the paupers of Poplar. The Poor Law Board always responded to his letters, and at least two small-scale inquiries were instigated as a result of his persistence. He himself believed that he had brought about a three-month suspension and a substantial fine for the workhouse master; but he also admitted that ‘upon the return of the Master to his former position, matters then droped again into their former miss rule, and so have continued’. In the end, we can only admire the persistence of a man who had nothing much to gain from his role as self-appointed watchman, and, while he remained a pauper in the workhouse, very much to lose; a man whose only motive was to fulfil ‘a duty which we owe to the Laws of my country, to your Honourable Board, to the poor, and to myself’. May we all have the courage to be a bit more Thomas Gould.