“Oh never mind, you are going to Paddy’s Land”: Echoes of Windrush in the 19th century English Poor Law

Looking through the material discovered by the In Their Own Write project team, a group of letters from Stockport Union resonated with the recently dramatised story of Anthony Bryan, a member of the Windrush generation who, in 2016, came very close to being deported to Jamaica, a place he had not set foot in for 50 years. (“Sitting in Limbo”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08g29ff/sitting-in-limbo).

Viewed in this context, one item in the Stockport letters stands out. It is a newspaper clipping, dated 27 April 1848, from The Freeman’s Journal (a Dublin newspaper) sent by the Irish poor law officials to the Commissioners in London. Under the intriguing headline, “Important – Transmission of English Paupers to Ireland” it outlined the shocking case of Mary Anne Henley, a resident in the Dublin workhouse. Mary Anne was no regular pauper inmate, but had been removed to Dublin by the Board of Guardians in Stockport.

Newspaper
From The Freeman’s Journal, 27 April 1848

Mary Anne claimed she had been removed to Ireland entirely against her own wishes. She was, she insisted, an English woman born in Liverpool to English parents, although her father had Irish ancestry.  She was 19 at the time of her removal and had been working steadily “earning her own bread” since the age of 9. In 1858 she was living in Stockport and earning enough not only to support herself but to send money to her widowed father who still had a large family of younger children to support.  Some weeks before her removal, she had been struck down with fever and having no-one locally to look after her (her father lived in Glossop) she was forced to go into the Fever Hospital. It was here she came to the attention of the authorities. Once recovered Mary Anne planned to go to her father to convalesce before returning to her job in Stockport, but instead two men from the Stockport Workhouse arrived, “took charge of me” and carted her off to the workhouse. There Mary Anne told officials repeatedly that she should not be in the workhouse and would return home, but the response she received was “Oh never mind, you are going to Paddy’s Land”. An inmate who witnessed the scene told officials, “it was a pity to send that poor Lass to Ireland … she was crying her eyes out at being sent away to a Strange country”.  Poor Mary Anne – this was probably her first encounter with officials of any kind; she had little grasp of her rights, although it was clear she had a sneaking suspicion that what was happening was illegal. Further argument fell on deaf ears. “Neither I or any of my family have ever received any kind of relief,” she told one of the Relieving Officers, “you have no right to send me away”. But she was forcibly removed from the workhouse, the men threatening to handcuff her if she resisted; she was taken to the railway station at Stockport, transferred by train to Liverpool and from there to the Irish packet bound for Dublin. Four or five men guarded Mary Anne, and a number of other paupers in a similar situation, along the whole journey to prevent escape. On the boat she was given a 4lb loaf and nothing else; she had just two pennies to her name. Once in Dublin and destitute and with no friends in the city she was obliged to go to the workhouse, which is where she made this statement. All she wanted to do was to go home and return to her job in the mill (TNA MH 12/1142/14249 and 20338).

One of the Dublin officials declared that the central authorities in London should “not permit the unfortunate English poor to be thrown thus upon the guardians of this country” and that they ought to take steps to prevent such cases from occurring. It was observed that “the number [of such cases] … latterly was greatly on the increase. There were double the number this year than last”.

Steam packet
Dublin to Liverpool steam packets readying to leave Dublin, from The Illustrated London News, May 1851

In removing Mary Anne to Ireland, the Stockport Guardians were treading a thin line with respect to the law. The 1846 Poor Removal Act was supposed to protect the poor against removal if they could convince two magistrates that, among other things, they had lived continuously in the parish for at least 5 years.  But the law left many loopholes for Guardians to exploit in their efforts to remove unwanted ‘burdens’ from their ratepayers. By her own admission Mary Anne had lived in Stockport for only 12 months prior to be being taken ill, so the 1846 Act provided her with little protection and the Guardians may have been within their rights to remove her either to Liverpool (where she was born), or perhaps to Glossop where her father lived. Why they decided to send her to Ireland where she had no connection was never explained.

Mary Anne was probably inadvertently caught up in a deliberate strategy on the part of the Stockport Guardians to clear Irish paupers from their books. In the same year four other controversial cases of pauper removals to Ireland, all of whom had been resident in Stockport for many years, were brought to the attention of the Poor Law Commissioners. Some were better informed than Mary Anne and quoted the law back at the Union officials, but to no avail. In the case of Patrick Egan, three times the magistrates upheld his objection to his removal, but the Union went ahead anyway and he was removed along with his three younger children to Dublin, leaving his two older, working-age children to fend for themselves (TNA MH 12/1142/9038).

The Stockport Guardians were not alone in taking these peremptory (and possibly illegal) actions. Mary Gibbons, a resident in Tynemouth for 12 years, went before magistrates in 1860 after applying for relief and was told she must be removed to Ireland. She stated she was born at sea, but as her mother had been born in Ireland the magistrate told her she must find her mother’s parish and be removed there. She was subsequently sent to the workhouse in Belfast with her two children. The Belfast Guardians were less than pleased and complained to the London authorities, who also seemed displeased by the removal. The Tynemouth Guardians were instructed to investigate. Unfortunately the outcome was not recorded in this case (TNA MH 12/9161/33725).

In 1858, the Bradford Union was accused of devising its own rules for removability. Clearly outraged, W.F. Black wrote that: “The Guardians are determined … to pass to a country they may have forgotten and where they may be unknown all Irish who seek relief, regardless of the number of years they have lived here” (TNA MH 12/14729/11842). In 1847, Stephen Power, a victim of Bradford’s local rules, was sent to Dublin despite having lived in Bradford for 18 years. The Relieving Officer made things quite clear: “he threatened to send me to the parish in which I was born in Ireland [and] said he would send all the Irish home no matter how long they had lived in Bradford” (TNA MH 12/14726/4937).

Age was no barrier.  Francis Dowling was 72 in 1858 when he was removed from Stockport to Dublin, despite having lived in Stockport for 15 years, paid rates and earned the right to vote for the town council. The Stockport magistrates ignored these qualifying characteristics; he was Irish-born and should go back to Ireland, a place he not seen for 45 years. Poor Patrick Ryan, a 10-year-old boy, was shipped back to Ireland alone by the Merthyr Tydfil Guardians. An orphan, born in Ireland but sent to Merthyr to live with his Aunt, Patrick found himself in the Merthyr workhouse in 1858 and then on a steamer to Waterford. “No person had charge of me” during the journey, he testified, except a young girl of 14 who was also being removed to Ireland. On arrival he was incarcerated in the Waterford Workhouse (TNA MH 12/16331/34617).

There are many more examples of Irish (and supposedly Irish) removals from all over the English and Welsh Poor Law system. The Guardians were taking advantage of the poorly drafted Act to deal with the burden placed on them (as they saw it) by the large influx of Irish migrants in the mid-century. The constant refrain that the victims of removal had no connection with Ireland appeared to elicit little sympathy: they were ruthlessly separated from friends and family and sent into the unknown.

It is hard not to see parallels with the experiences of the Windrush generation. Geographically, Ireland may not be as remote from mainland Britain as the West Indies, but in nineteenth-century terms it was a huge distance. It is hard to imagine the distress caused to people (as young as 10 and as old as 80) uprooted with little or no warning from familiar places and unceremoniously dumped with no means of support in a strange country.

“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.

Harrisonii

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.

Mapii
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.

view from ball street bridgeii

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).

 

Paul image 2
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

JRM top hat ii
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”.

Wm Rees Mogg sr ii
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/.