This week, in the second of our blogs on historic abuse in workhouses, Natalie Carter explores what the Poor Law Commissioners’ correspondence reveals about the sexual abuse and exploitation of women paupers by workhouse officials.
Workhouses have become one of the totemic symbols of poor relief in the nineteenth century. They were constructed to overawe the poor and induce anxiety, dread and fear in much of the labouring population. That they restricted liberty, divided families and were intended to serve as a disciplinary tool over the labouring classes are well worn themes in the New Poor Law historiography. It is also notorious that various abuses were carried out in the workhouse, ranging from misappropriation of food to actual physical assault. We have already seen in previous blogs that many inmates were not afraid to write to complain to the authorities about the various abuses they witnessed or experienced in the workhouse. However, one of the less documented aspects of workhouse life is the risk to women paupers of sexual abuse. As we at In Their Own Write (ITOW) explore the source material we are discovering disturbing reports of alleged sexual abuse by male workhouse staff towards female inmates. The following are three such examples.
Ann Hodgkinson was an inmate of the Nantwich workhouse. In 1851, she alleged that she was alone in the lying-in ward when the Reverend L J Wilson, union chaplain, indecently assaulted her. She described how he pulled her up from her chair “stood behind & put his arm round on my breast, and then round my waist, and then under my Belly, and pressed me to him – I struggled, or I wrung myself from him, before which he tried to Kiss me” (MH 12/1018). Another case concerns Mary Ann Chamberlin who, in 1862, told the Great Yarmouth guardians that she was pregnant by Mr Brownjohn, the schoolmaster of the workhouse. She stated that one of her tasks as workhouse inmate was to take his freshly washed linen to his room. While undertaking these duties she alleged that Brownjohn had tried on several occasions to “take liberties with her, and eventually on or about the first week of August 1861 had intercourse with her in his Bedroom” (MH 12/8639).
Ann Birkbeck (who appeared in our Blog of 23 January 2019 – ‘Poverty, Honesty and the Welfare State: A Reality Check’) applied in July 1855 to the guardians of the Reeth Union for relief, being six or seven months pregnant with a child which she alleged belonged to William Hills, the workhouse master. She had discharged herself from the workhouse just three months earlier. Birkbeck stated that she had been upstairs in the workhouse turning the beds down when the master came upstairs took hold of her by the waist and pulled her into one of the bedrooms. She says that despite begging the master to leave her alone he pushed her to the bed and raped her. She alleged that later the master offered her money not to tell anyone he was the father of the child or go to the guardians for relief (MH 12/14589/110).
All three of these cases, initially brought to the attention of the local boards of guardians by the women involved, went on to be investigated by the central poor law inspectorate. These investigations produced a wealth of material including the reports of individual inspectors and the statements made by accusers, accused and witnesses. Statements such as these are full of the voices of the poor and are one of the key sources for our ITOW project.
In each of these cases we see how hard it was for the women to prove the truth of their statements. It did not pass without comment that each of these women were claimed to be in some way “unchaste”, and this was used to undermine their credibility. Ann Hodgkinson had been pregnant with an illegitimate child by her cousin at the time of her alleged abuse; Mary Ann Chamberlin was a single woman who had three previous children and was described as having a previous lack of chastity; and Ann Birkbeck was, as we saw in our previous blog, considered by the local poor law authorities to be of bad character, having had two illegitimate children after the death of her husband. More than this, however, the real decider in each case was the fact that there was no corroborative evidence for the abuses described, and so the poor law inspectors declared the cases unproved. In the case of Mary Ann Chamberlin, this went against the personal conviction of John Walsham, the Poor Law Inspector, who was convinced that Brownjohn was guilty and believed that the board of guardians shared his conviction. Walsham wrote in his report that he only had to “watch the bearing of the woman when she emphatically and tearfully charged the schoolmaster to his face with well knowing that she spoke the truth, and to contrast it with the aspect of the man himself when thus challenged, to feel persuaded that she had spoken the truth.” Once again, though, there being no corroborative evidence and it being considered that there was some confusion in her statements under cross examination, he declared the case not proved.
These are just three of several cases we have found so far, and it is likely that many more lie hidden, waiting to be discovered. Moreover the cases coming to light are only the cases which were reported to the guardians or the central poor law authorities. It is likely that many other cases of abuse went unrecorded as the victims would have been too scared to report their experiences. At our project’s halfway point this a research subject we are actively pursuing.
That there should have been such abuses within the “total institution” environment of the workhouse should not be a surprise. There is a contemporary resonance here to the growing awareness over the last few years of the abuses that have been taking place in various modern institutions, such as mental health hospitals; nursing homes, and prisons. The female inmates who brought their cases to the boards of guardians must have known that it would be difficult to secure a verdict in their favour and, as John Walsham’s comments on Mary Ann Chamberlain’s case show, these inquiries could be very distressing for the women concerned, just as they are today. They would probably have been aware of earlier cases involving female inmates in similar circumstances, and may have seen detailed character investigations designed to undermine the alleged victim’s credibility through the sullying of their reputations. They would also have been aware that in the final analysis the contest was between the word of a lowly female pauper and that of a professional man.
Furthermore these were often men who could afford legal representation. In the Birkbeck case, William Hills the workhouse master had a solicitor to represent him (as did others in our sample), something which a pauper could never have afforded. It must have taken some courage to stand up to these officers who had such a position of authority over them. Nonetheless, although the majority of the cases we have found so far were considered ‘not proved’, there were cases where the staff involved lost their positions all the same. In the case of Ann Hodgkinson, even though the chaplain had not been proved guilty he was still asked to resign as it was felt that his position in the workhouse was untenable owing to the impression that many of the inmates had of him. This is a recurring theme that we see in the records. The long and detailed investigations, and the rumours that would have spread around the workhouse as a result, could damage the reputation of the staff involved to a point where they could no longer successfully carry out their duties. For the women making these allegations of assaults these resignations, while not a definitive verdict of guilty, could still be seen as a positive result: at least the men concerned were no longer active in the workhouse. Knowing that these small victories could be achievedwould undoubtedly have given other women the courage they needed to bring their cases forwards and make their voices heard.
Issues surrounding the care of those with mental illnesses are never far from the news. Rob Behrens, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, set out in a recent article in The Guardian details of a report highlighting serious inadequacies in care for mental health patients. He claimed that “[m]any European ombudsman organisations consider poor treatment of mental health patients, such as lack of care, the loss of liberty and the absence of the right to appeal, primarily in terms of human rights violations”. At the same time an inquiry commissioned by Theresa May into the “flawed” Mental Health Act found neglect and discrimination in the system. Rethink Mental Illness found that many people who had been sectioned “felt imprisoned [and] not cared for, because they had minimal involvement in their care and their choices were disregarded … [and felt] a complete loss of any sense of control over their lives” (The Guardian, 21/3/2018 & 1/5/2018).
Accounts of poor people who suffered under a variety of mental health problems in the nineteenth century are regularly found in the collections that form the basis of our project. The administration of pauper lunatics in the nineteenth century was closely linked with the administration of the poor law. Although the debates leading up to the New Poor Law focused on the able-bodied poor, only around 13-17% of workhouse inmates were of this class between 1848 and 1870 (Bartlett, 1999: 40), and the workhouse regularly became the home of many of those who suffered from mental illnesses. Between 1842 and 1890 around 25% of poor people identified as insane were institutionalised in the workhouse (Bartlett, 1999: 44). However, rather than taking the statistical view, this blog takes advantage of the research we have undertaken so far into pauper letters.
William Hunter was an inmate of the Rye Poor Law Union workhouse where, in 1852, he was 36 years and described as having been of “unsound mind” for 10 years. His case is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because we can see through his writing his fluctuating mental state, from times of serious mental distress, where his writing becomes fractured, to periods of lucidity. The first letter he wrote was anonymous, signed simply an “Inhabitant of Rye”. Handwriting comparisons with later letters and some further detection allow us to confirm, though, that this was from Hunter. In this letter he wrote about himself in the third person. The letter is not completely illegible but it is fairly incoherent and indicative of a troubled mind, prompting someone at the Poor Law Board to write on the reverse that “This letter seems quite unworthy of notice I can make nothing of it”. From what we can make out, Hunter had recently been discharged from Haydock Lodge Lunatic Asylum and had, at one point, been a schoolmaster. Having failed to find employment, he wrote of a conspiracy to get him back in the workhouse.
Hunter’s handwriting contains several idiosyncrasies which mean we can see that he was also writing on behalf of, or using the name of, another pauper inmate, Henry Clark. Two letters were sent in Clark’s name which complained about Mr Banks the medical officer, a bad case of the “Itch” going around the workhouse, and the withdrawal of Clark’s special diet. These letters are somewhat rambling and not always easy to make sense of, but they are basically coherent and were clearly written in a more lucid time. The Poor Law Board took notice of the letters attributed to Clark and they asked the Rye guardians for their observations. It seems that similar letters of complaint had already been received, and the guardians had already made an investigation into cases of the Itch. Intriguingly, they gave no indication that they recognised the involvement of Hunter in these letters.
Eventually we find a long letter signed by William Hunter himself. This is a forceful letter and certainly no less coherent than those signed ‘Henry Clark’. Having been refused liberty to “go and see My Uncle Humphrey of New Romney,” he repeated his demand and was eventually given his clothes, although he was refused shoes. In the end he took a pair from one of the other paupers which were too small for him and caused his feet to be badly blistered. He also complained that the food in the workhouse was being unevenly weighed, and grandly claimed that “[t]hey cannot Blind my Eyes as I Know the rules in these Houses and also the Laws with regard to the treatment of the poor both in the Workhouse and out just the same as the Schoolboy [Knows] A.B. C.” He went on to complain about the incompetence of the guardians, and ended his letter:
I Hope My Lord you will excuse any harsh words in this letter for I will not mince my words [to]ward the parties or Eat Mince Pie for them … perhape if your Lordship was in my situation and had suffered as I have done your Lordship tongue would be Blaker toward the parties than the Pen and Ink which write this [to] you
This letter was referred back to the guardians by the Board for its observations and their reply gives us a real insight into Hunter’s predicament. He had been moved seven years previously from the workhouse to Haydock lodge Lunatic Asylum, “for care and treatment in consequence of the disordered state of his Mind: he remained there nearly three years and was then discharged – being sufficiently recovered – and returned home to Rye.” He had been given out-relief for a “considerable time,” but due to his destitution and “evident tendency to relapse into his former mental condition” he was ordered back to the workhouse and put in the infirm ward. The Clerk finished by writing that Hunter:
has frequently addressed Letters to the Guardians of an abusive and incoherent description and also has written similar Letters for other Paupers. Of the evident untrue statements made at various times in the Letters written by Hunter the Guardians have long been convinced and at the Meeting of the Board on the 1st inst an opinion was expressed that his Letters are not worthy of Credit.
Although it is undoubtedly true that parts of some of Hunter’s letters were “abusive and incoherent,” we can also see that even in his anonymised letter (his most confused) there were statements of truth, such as the details of his release from Haydock Lodge. In the same letter Hunter mentions that he had been a schoolmaster, and we know from some earlier correspondence (and that of the Guardians) that he had indeed briefly been a schoolmaster at the workhouse before he became ill. Crucially, when writing more coherently under another name his complaints were taken seriously and investigated as having some merit; yet his letters were quickly dismissed by the guardians when they were identified as coming from Hunter himself, on the grounds that he was a known ‘lunatic’.
So, to return to Rob Behrens’ recent report, one feels that Hunter would instantly have recognised its findings in relation to the loss of liberty, absence of right to appeal, and mentally ill patients’ loss of control over their own lives. In some fundamental ways, Hunter’s case shows us that the care of those suffering from mental illness has moved on very little since the nineteenth century.
- P. Bartlett, The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1999)
- C.A. Smith, ‘Living with Insanity: Narratives of Poverty, Pauperism and Sickness in Asylum Records, 1840-1876’ in Gestrich, Hurren and King (eds.), Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor (London, 2012), 117-142