“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DREADFUL INUNDATION IN SHEFFIELD: FEARFUL DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY AND LIFE…

So ran the headline in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 12 March 1864. Overnight a catastrophe had struck, one of the biggest man-made disasters in British history. The story of the bursting of the Bradfield dam has a particular resonance today, with the memory of events at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire fresh in our minds.

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On the Sheffield flood, Samuel Harrison, a local journalist and editor, wrote that:

“On Friday, March 11, 1864 at exactly midnight, a calamity, appalling and almost unparalleled, occurred along the course of the river Loxley, and the banks of the Don, where it passes through the town of Sheffield. An overwhelming flood swept down from an enormous reservoir at Bradfield carrying away houses, mills, bridges, and manufactories, destroying property estimated at half a million sterling in value, and causing the loss of about two hundred and forty human lives.”

A new reservoir constructed in the hills seven miles to the north west of Sheffield had burst when the dam holding the water back failed. A huge volume of water cascaded down the valley of the river Loxley, destroying everything in its path until it joined the waters of the river Don which runs through the centre of Sheffield. Much was written about the flood at the time: it was reported in newspapers around the country, and was the focus of major inquiries – particularly into the culpability of the Bradfield Waterworks Company, which owned the reservoir. But the role of the Workhouse, its inmates and the Master and Matron, in the story of “Great Inundation” is not so well known.

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Map showing location of the workhouse. Blue shading represents the extent of flooding in the vicinity of the workhouse. (Source: http://www.arcgis.com/apps/StorytellingSwipe/)

The problem was that Sheffield Workhouse was located close to the banks of the Don and found itself right in the path of the flood. The inmates were completely unaware of impending disaster when they went to bed on the Friday evening: the workhouse was locked up for night and the inmates were already “tucked up”. The Master, James Wescoe, reported to the Board of Guardians several days after the event that the initial alarm was raised by a young inmate who looked after the boiler. (MH 12/15478/10364)

George (who Samuel Harrison later described as an “imbecile” inmate) had been in the boiler house when he first became aware of water rushing in. So frightened was he that he climbed onto the roof of the boiler house as the waters rose. From here, according to Wescoe, he shouted and whistled to raise the alarm. Harrison’s account is not so flattering: in his telling, George got on top of the boiler house for his own personal safety, and lacking the sense to raise the alarm, he sat there “whistling for his own comfort”. Whatever the reason for George’s actions, he awoke the Master and the Matron (Miss Rebecca Day) from their slumbers, and they immediately sprang into action.

On seeing the extent of the flooding, they decided to leave the women inmates where they were on the upper floors (locking them in to avoid confusion and panic, according to Harrison) and selected “a score” of able-bodied men to help evacuate the ground floor rooms. The men were sent across the flooded yards to rooms which housed sick children and women with venereal disease. “In these rooms”, reported Wescoe, “the water had arisen to the beds but happily no lives were lost”. Harrison’s report, though, described a more frantic scene:

The task of these men was one of great peril, as they had to wade through the water, which was not only exceedingly cold, but also a considerable depth. When the men reached the sick wards they found such of the women and children as were able to get up, standing or kneeling on their beds in a state of the greatest alarm. The men carried the women and children, who had nothing on but their night dresses, through water to the upper rooms of the female hospital. There were many narrow escapes; but happily no lives were lost.

Many others in the flood area were not so lucky.

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Ball Street Bridge, which was situated just upstream from the Workhouse, was badly hit as the flood waters careered past it, destroying its structure and the sides of houses and factories which lined the river bank.

By 3am, the bodies of the drowned were being brought to the Workhouse and “continued arriving during the whole of the day and every succeeding day during the ensuing week”. In total, 124 bodies were taken there. According to the Sheffield Telegraph (19 March 1864), they presented “a distressingly appalling sight”. One journalist’s description conveys the horror of the scene:

Forms of strong men are there…Their arms were twisted in strange shapes – many of them were fearfully cut and disfigured…We have seen and been familiar with death…under many different circumstances, but anything so fearfully sickening as the long rows of dead bodies lying side by side at the Workhouse we have never seen before, and trust we may never see again.

No workhouse inmates died, thanks to the quick thinking of the Master and Matron, but much damage was done to the buildings, and more particularly to the stores. Wescoe’s report detailed the extent of losses sustained including large quantities of dietary supplies, such as 10 hundredweight of suet, 15 stones of meat and 70 gallons of beer.  Clothing and bedding was also lost or damaged beyond repair. In total the Master estimated that goods to the value of £110 8 shillings 8 ½d had been destroyed.

Wescoe concluded his report with high praise for the Matron. The workhouse cellars, yards and ground floor rooms had all been flooded and as the water receded it left behind a stinking slime of mud and sewage: the Workhouse had been doubly inundated, with flood water from the river and by overflowing sewers. But by the time of writing his report (12 days after the event) the Workhouse was habitable again thanks to the efforts of Miss Day, which he acknowledged in no uncertain terms: “I can bear witness generally as to the great energy & cleverness of the excellent matron subsequent to the night of flood”. He also praised the Guardians who assisted him in “some of the saddest and heaviest portion of my duties for 3 or 4 successive days”.  He admitted that without their support “I should have been utterly unable to cope with the difficulties of my situation during this trying time”. No mention was made of the impact on the inmates, however.

On 14 March (the Monday after the catastrophe) John Manwaring, Poor Law Inspector at Doncaster, visited the neighbouring unions to see if there was anything they could do to facilitate “proper administration of relief in cases of destitution caused by the calamity, or whether they can afford any assistance…for the purpose of alleviating the distress arising from this lamentable catastrophe” in Sheffield and the surrounding area. (MH 12/15478 9099/A) His first call was on the guardians of the Wortley Union which included the location of the reservoir within its boundaries, and was one of the most badly affected areas.  The fact that he reported that the Guardians at Wortley did not think they would be faced with “an excess” of applications in consequence of the flood because work was plentiful and men could earn good weekly wages suggests that was little concern about the distress caused by the flood for many of the poor who had lost everything.

In a similar vein, the Sheffield Guardians reported that “We are now doing nicely as regards applications for relief”, but they worried that they might be subject to criticism by the Poor Law Board, because “On Tuesday and Wednesday last we were threatened with a great pressure and we were obliged to give relief freely and without the usual precaution by enquiries etc.” (MH 12/15478/9766). The clerk sought to allay the Board’s fears that this may get out of control, by reassuring them that trade was good, men generally were in work and the poor people could “look about and help themselves”. Later, the Guardians confirmed that they had given un-sanctioned relief in 221 cases, at a total of £55  and one shilling. The Poor Law Board wrote back briefly, stating that it sanctioned these payments under the circumstances. (MH 12/15478/13268) The Relieving Officers had been tasked with ensuring no-one had been overlooked and were confidant this was the case. “On the whole”, he concluded, “I hope we shall get over the fearful disaster, & as the funds of the Union are affected, pretty well”. (MH 12/15478)

At their meeting of 23 March, the Sheffield Board of Guardians entered into the minutes a note of thanks for the able and efficient manner with which the Master and Matron had carried out their onerous duties in dealing with the recent inundations. (MH 12/15478/11031) The Poor Law Board responded by thanking the Guardians for forwarding their Minute and concurring with the sentiment it expressed – although it appears that this is as far as their close interest went. Although early estimates put the death toll at ca.240, it is probable that over 250 people died as a result of Sheffield’s “Great Inundation”. Nonetheless, the workhouse was cleaned and fit for use again in a matter of days, and it was reported that everything in Sheffield’s Poor Law organisation was back to normal. One suspects, however, that the emotional scars took a lot longer to heal.

    • Our thanks to Dr Sue Hawkins, ITOW’s Record Specialist, for this account of the “Sheffield Inundation” of 1864!

 

 

“…my little money is wholly spent for medical attendance during my extreme affliction…”: Social Care under the New Poor Law

Age UK

The charity Age UK recently reported that at least 74,000 older people across England have either died or will die while waiting for care between the 2017 general election and the one in just over a week’s time. This equates to some 81 people dying each day, or three people every hour. During the same period around 1.7 million requests were made by older people for care support, but which led to no care service interventions; that’s around 2,000 futile claims a day. Only a couple of weeks ago the King’s Fund questioned whether the policy statements and manifestos of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives make for happy reading around social care in the run-up to the 2019 election. It made nuanced criticisms of all of the three parties’ proposals but claim major differences between competing offers of money (which all of them make to differing degrees) as well as policy initiatives, with the Liberal Democrats suggesting a convention on future health and care funding, the Conservatives proposing cross-party talks with a red line that older people should not need to sell their homes to pay for care, and Labour proposing free personal care for those over 65 with lifetime costs capped.

Here at ITOW we see the long “historical tail” of demands for social care made by elderly English and Welsh paupers and other poor people as they set out the case for their social care needs. Our survey of the poor law union correspondence held at The National Archives (TNA) has found significant numbers of letters from people who variously termed themselves as elderly, old, or more descriptively via phrases such as “at my time of life”.  We find their concerns of what we would call ‘social care’ rather fresh, and their words and phrases strike a contemporary resonance with current debates.

For example, Daniel Rush wrote from Bethnal Green to the Poor Law Board in August 1851 and described himself as a silk weaver now “Past Labour”. He was 71 years old and his wife was 68 years old. They both wound silk and had earned four to five shilling a week. However, at the time of writing, “trade being bad”, they were earning only three shillings a week. This being the case Daniel applied to the Bethnal Green union for relief but instead was offered ‘the house’. Daniel and his wife turned up at the workhouse, but in his words “they insisted in Sepratin me from my Wife Wich I have had 49 years or turn us out, and soner then We Would be seperated We Will Perish for Want”. He asked the Board to “take my Case into your Most seirous Consideration to alow me som little Relief or not be separated in the Poor house” (TNA MH 12/6846). This desire of the elderly poor, for assistance which would allow them to live at home while they were able, is a constant theme in the corpus of pauper letters we have found. We find another example in the letter of Thomas Lane who wrote from Llantwit Fardre near Cardiff, to the Poor Law Board in April 1859. Thomas complained on behalf of his wife and himself who were both in their seventies. The couple suffered from poor health and had occasionally had their outdoor relief stopped. However, any stoppage of their money was usually done with a weeks’ notice and they were able to make their case at the local board of guardians to have their relief started again. This time, though, their relief had been stopped with no notice at all and they had been given an order for the workhouse instead. Thomas thought this was unjust, and he asked the Board to investigate and find out why their relief had been curtailed (MH 12/16254).

 

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letter from John Ward, Stockport, to the Poor Law Board, 2 July 1866 (TNA MH 12/1151, Reproduced by Permission of The National Archives)

Again, James Ward of Stockport in Cheshire wrote to the Poor Law Board in July 1866 calling attention to the plight of his wife and himself who he described as “aged persons”. He asked the Board to “enterfere in our behalf and stop us from being oppressed in the Manner we are”. He said that he was physically capable of undertaking odd jobs but that his wife was entirely “helpless, having lost the use of her left side by a Paralytic stroke which has entirely distorted her and rendered her entirely unable to help herself. She cannot do the least thing but I have to attend on her and look after her [wants]”. The local poor law authorities had allowed the couple two shillings a week since the wife had her stroke but then reduced it to one shilling and sixpence and later still stopped their relief altogether. The local authorities offered to find him work at three shillings a week and to put his wife in the workhouse while he was employed, but he asked the Board:

how can I leave my Poor wife by herself for a Day together? how can I part with her at my age – who would care for and help her as I do?

Furthermore, he claimed that she was frightened to be left by herself. He asked the Board not to see them separated, and having lived together so long he prayed that they would be allowed to “die together at our home” (MH 12/1151).

A reluctance to enter the workhouse by the elderly is common in the correspondence. When George Gould, in the Witney Poor Law Union, wrote to the Poor Law Board in May 1862 he referred to himself as an infirm pauper of 71 years. He had been engaged as a farmer’s servant but had then received a kick from a horse which rendered him disabled and not capable of any work. He stated that his “labor is now almost done; my little money is wholly spent for medical attendance during my extreme affliction, and I subsist now by begging a scanty pittance daily”. He had made application for relief locally but the only offer he received was an order for the workhouse which, “in consequence of my advanced age of Seventy one years, and my Infirmities”, he refused, preferring outdoor assistance. He asked the Board to quickly reconsider his case “as I am utterly destitute” (MH 12/9761).

These are only four letters taken from the thousands of paupers’ and poor persons’ letters we have found thus far in the Commissioners’ correspondence. They speak to us directly about issues of social care from the mid-nineteenth century: the expenditure of previous income during illness or infirmity, the fears of individuals of leaving their homes and their loved ones, and the reductions and sometimes cessation of regular welfare funding which allowed ordinary people a degree of independent and semi-secure living. They speak about past years as workers, labourers or as parents or spouses. In doing so the rhetoric they deploy speaks clearly to the issues of dignity, respectability and family love. Much of this is mirrored in Age UK’s recent assessment of the state of social care in the here and now:

Good care, provided by kind and committed people, enriches lives and makes it possible to have dignity and hope… It is appalling that one and a half million older people in our country now have some unmet need for care, one in seven of the entire older population.  This is a shameful statistic, and older people are developing new unmet needs for care every day.

It gives us pause for thought, too, that these sentiments would have been entirely familiar to people like Rush, Lane, Ward and Gould 160 years ago.

Jacob Rees Mogg: Hon. Member for the 1850s

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Jacob Rees Mogg looking suitable, as usual

Sometimes, in politics, a name comes to signify far more than the views, accomplishments or even actions of its inhabitant. Think, for example, of Mao and Stalin; but think also of Margaret Thatcher and Hugh Gaitskell. All these figures gave rise to ‘isms’ that were well understood ideologically, but also had an important cultural resonance. Of all the players currently strutting the modern political stage, it is hard to think of anyone more likely to give rise to an ‘ism’ than Jacob Rees Mogg. Adored by the Tory right and despised in equal measure by the left, the centre and just about everyone else (except hard Brexiteers, that is) Rees Mogg stands head and shoulders above his Parliamentary colleagues simply because actually seems to stand for something. He is a traditionalist, a High Tory with a pedigree and a property portfolio to match. He is socially conservative, a committed Catholic, unafraid to speak his mind on controversial issues like same-sex marriage and abortion (he’s a fundamentalist on that one), and he consciously traces his political lineage back to the free trade Toryism of Robert Peel.

Yet scratch the surface of JRM’s impeccable Thatcherite pedigree and cracks start to appear. His admiration for Peel’s libertarian economic views is tempered by an equal regard for Disraeli’s one-nation social policies. He believes that politics should be used to “make people’s lives better” and he concedes that, sometimes, this requires state intervention. He opposes capital punishment, and has spoken out against the withdrawal of ‘due process’ for British jihadists abroad. Hardly the stuff of populist clickbait, these. By all accounts, he also takes his political duties extremely seriously. Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge his old-fashioned work ethic, his willingness to travel across the country in order to speak to local associations, and, of course, his independence of mind. He simply refuses to tow the party line, and if (as many believe) he is a ruthless careerist, he seems to be going about it in a very strange way.

Yet even these factors do not entirely explain the political phenomenon that is JRM. Of course, there is that inflexible attitude to Brexit. But beyond this, there also seems to be a secret ingredient, an X-factor that no-one else on the political scene has. It is a kind of cheery, effortless anachronism; a double-breasted, Eton-prepped infallibility that resonates with certain sections of the public as much as it does with Tory stalwarts. Quite simply, he has the aura of one who was born to rule, and many voters seem to believe it as much as he does. Where Boris Johnson head butted his way to the Tory leadership like a punk John Bull, it feels like Rees Mogg will sail serenely in at his appointed time and dock at Number 10 with the minimum of fuss. So how are we to account for this heady mix of effortless entitlement, independence of mind, and a strong commitment to public duty? There’s Eton, of course, and Oxford’s clubby conservatism; but in these he is very little different to much of the Conservative front bench. If we dig a little deeper, it seems that Rees Mogg’s studied historicism, his old-fashioned approach to privilege and public duty, have much stronger roots than even he might have suspected. For deep in the correspondence of the Poor Law Commissioners at The National Archives, it turns out that his forebears had the kind of county pedigree that young Jacob might have dreamed of as he plotted his way to the top.

The story begins with the Reverend John Rees, a Welshman who married well. His wife was Mary Mogg Wooldridge, the only child of William Wooldridge and Mary Mogg, and the heir to Cholwell House in North Somerset. On marrying, in 1805, John Rees assumed a portion of his wife’s name by royal license, according to the wishes of her maternal grandfather, and thus the Rees Mogg dynasty was born. John and Mary had two sons: John Jr., born in 1806, and William, born in 1815. Both were educated at Charterhouse (the alma mater of Jacob’s own father, William), and both went on to become successful solicitors and pillars of the local county set. John was a Captain in the North Somerset Yeoman Cavalry, Secretary to the local Society for the Protection of Property, and a Steward of the Somersetshire Society. William, too, did his bit, presiding at the annual dinner of the Writhlington District Agricultural Society, only a stone’s throw from Jacob’s childhood home at Ston Easton. In later life, William was also the Chairman of the local Board of Guardians; but his, and his family’s, association with this particular aspect of paternalistic public service began much earlier; at the very beginning of the New Poor Law, in fact.

In the minutes of the first meeting of the Clutton Board of Guardians in 1836, it was reported that Henry Hodges Mogg had been appointed temporary Clerk until a permanent, salaried, replacement could be found. Within a fortnight, the post had been filled by John Rees Mogg, Henry Hodges’ nephew – who would later become his son-in-law, as well. John occupied the position of Clerk to the Guardians for at least eighteen years, when the remaining correspondence from Clutton Union to the Poor Law Commissioners unfortunately ends. There is nothing remarkable about John’s appointment as a union clerk: as we have seen, he was an up-and-coming county solicitor, and men with legal training were often chosen for this complex administrative role. Surprisingly, however, John was soon joined in the position by William, his brother, who became joint Clerk to the Board in 1837 and continued to serve with him until at least 1854. As far as one can tell from their correspondence, the  brothers were extremely conscientious and diligent in their work. Indeed, the Poor Law Board was persuaded to acquiesce to this unusual (though not unique) arrangement on the advice of the Assistant Commissioner, who stated that “there will be no alteration in salary, and as [John Rees] Mogg is a valuable officer, he has no hesitation in recommending the appointment”. Later, the Commissioners specifically wrote to the brothers to thank them for the care with which they prepared the various annual returns relating to paupers and union finance.

The Rees Moggs were not, however, against challenging the authority of the Commissioners, albeit gently. More than once, they requested permission to use union funds to reimburse extraordinary expenses incurred by the guardians – something that was against the explicit policies of the Commissioners themselves. When rebuffed, they used all their legal training to find a form of words that might persuade the Commissioners, though usually to little effect. Only once did they express anything like open dissent to the constituted authorities, however. In 1846, they forwarded “a parcel containing the extract of the Applications and Report Books of the Relieving Officers…as required”, but went on to observe, rather testily, that:

We trust that we shall not be called upon again for a document of so lengthy a nature, for it is obvious that while preparing such the Officers of the Union engaged on it, must in a great deal neglect their ordinary duties.

The response of the Commissioners is instructive, and it seems to demonstrate just how much they valued the brothers’ long and dedicated service. Rather than adopt the imperious tone with which they met most instances of defiance or complaint, they wrote that “the Commissioners desire to express their regret at the trouble you have had in preparing the Return in question”, merely emphasising that it “is called for by the House of Commons”.

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William Rees Mogg, Jacob’s great great grandfather, in old age at Cholwell House

As already mentioned, William went on to become the Chairman of the Board of Guardians as well as a very wealthy landowner and industrialist in his own right; and John was a member of Glastonbury Town Council from 1875 until his death in 1880. In particular, the elder son’s commitment to local civic duty was a strong theme in his death notices, where it was stated that “he always used his sound good sense, education and abilities, to the furtherance of the interests of the town generally”. Indeed, at his funeral, “every respect was paid to [his] memory”, with “most of the tradespeople and inhabitants” closing their shops and drawing their blinds as the funeral cortege passed by.

Intriguingly, neither brother went on to pursue a career in national politics. JRM’s father, William (famed editor of the Times), put this down to a lack of ambition, or perhaps the absence of suitable connections, neither of which could possibly be leveled at the current Rees Mogg. Nonetheless, it is clear that both were paragons of Victorian public service and Christian moral duty, and in this they seem to have handed down to their great great grandson and nephew a ready-made template for his own persona and a set of social and political beliefs that fit him as well as his double-breasted suit and polka dot tie. Not for nothing did Esquire magazine describe him as “a verbose, seemingly genteel caricature of a benevolent workhouse owner”*. Fortunately for JRM, it is also a persona that seems to chime with large swathes of the Conservative public. He is an anachronism, but he is their anachronism: step forward, the Honourable Member for the 1850s.

* We assume that by “workhouse owner”, the writer for Esquire really meant one of the Guardians who were in charge of its administration; for as every popular journalist surely knows, Victorian workhouses were civic institutions and not privately run.

Note

  • The story behind John and William Rees Mogg’s service as Clerks to the Clutton Union Board of Guardians can be found at The National Archives: MH 12/10320 to 10324. Other details about John, William and the Victorian Rees Moggs were gleaned from a search of the British Library’s online newspaper collection: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/.

 

 

Sexual Abuse in the Workhouse

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The former workhouse at Nantwich, Cheshire (now an NHS admin building)

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).

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The statement of Ann Hodgkinson, of Nantwich

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.