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

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What did contemporaries really think about the New Poor Law? It may seem a strange question given what we know about early protests against its adoption, about the resentment that was directed towards workhouses (those ‘Pauper Bastilles’), and about the many accounts of scandals and maladministration that litter the mid-Victorian press. But excavating the real feelings of contemporaries towards the poor law system overall is a surprisingly tricky business. On the one hand, it is hardly controversial to suggest that tales of workhouse cruelty, sexual predation and the incompetence of officials fed a growing appetite for sensationalism in the mid-Victorian press, and provided a rich vein of ‘scandals’ that newspapers and periodicals were only too happy to mine. On the other, shifting sentiment towards, but also among, the poor meant that pauperism, however blameless, carried a heavy burden of shame in Victorian England, so that paupers themselves rarely voiced their feelings in open forums.

Yet it is also becoming clear in our work on letters written by, and on behalf of, paupers to the central authorities in London that even these were highly strategic documents. Just as under the Old Poor Law (and, often, in common with those sensational accounts in the papers) paupers rarely, if ever, passed judgement on the poor law or the workhouse system per se, instead concentrating their energies on specific instances of malpractice, maladministration and the contravention of rules and regulations. This means that their attitudes to the overarching framework of poor law policy – and those of the public at large – tend to get lost in the thicket of comment and condemnation relating to its day-to-day practice and administration.

Occasionally, however, we do find examples in MH12 of individuals who were prepared to cut through the detail and shine a light on the principles that underpinned the New Poor Law, and Isaac Ironside’s letters from Sheffield are a fine example of this. Ironside could hardly be described as an ordinary member of the public; in fact, he was in possession of a very large and sharp-bladed axe which he ground to considerable effect in mid-Victorian Yorkshire. He was a Chartist and Owenite socialist and, by the 1850s, he had risen to a position of considerable influence on Sheffield City Council. He was instrumental in establishing Sheffield’s Mechanics’ Institute and its Hall of Science, the first of its kind in England. Nonetheless, when Ironside wrote to the Poor Law Board on behalf of William Hodgson of Barnsley, he did so as a private citizen and an advocate for a poor man who found himself in a difficult, though far from uncommon, situation.

Hodgson was a widower who had been left with six children and suffered considerable ill health. His youngest child, an infant, was being cared for by Hodgson’s sister who received two shillings a week in financial support from her parish. Between March and May 1850, however, Ironside was moved to write three letters on their behalf because the Board of Guardians had stopped the child’s relief, and his aunt – Emma Mitchell – was unable to continue his care without it. She and Hodgson found themselves in an impossible situation, wanting to do their best for the child but lacking the means to do so. Ironside’s first letter was a polite enquiry, asking whether the Board could use its influence to get the child’s relief reinstated. His second was a response to the replies of both the Board and the local guardians, in which he assured them again that neither Hodgson nor his sister were able to provide for the child without assistance, and explained that Mitchell was now looking after two of her brother’s children, because their father had taken a turn for the worse.

But it is Ironside’s third letter that really catches the eye. By this time his patience with the local and national administrators had run out. He had witnessed first-hand the obfuscation and pettifoggery of the local Board of Guardians and the high-handed unwillingness of the Poor Law Commissioners to hold them to account, and he had also seen the devastating impact their actions had had on Hodgson and his family. Not a man to mince his words, Ironside’s final letter is a masterpiece of passionate polemic and it gives us a brief insight into how the ‘system’ of the New Poor Law was viewed – by some sections of mid-Victorian society, at least.  It also has a surprising resonance for the welfare politics of our own era, and in its clarity of thought and expression it deserves to be quoted in full.

My Lords & Gentlemen,

I duly received yours of the 23rd ult in reply to mine of the 18th ult. Poor Mrs Mitchell comes to me and I am forced to see that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”! She wept bitterly this morning, and said she feared her brother would not live many days and then, said she, “he will be out of their way; they will have finished him”. She heard a few days ago that he was very ill; unattended except by his poor neighbours who were in his house expecting his death. She has 2 of his children as I have before informed you and she still provides [for] herself and them and struggles, but it is very hard.

You may not be aware that I hate the centralizing tendency of the legislation with a most perfect hatred. I do not believe in Malthus nor do I wish to see the poor people starved to death by law. This case is not likely to lessen my hatred. If I could see any thing like moral responsibility on behalf of the central authorities, I should be inclined to view centralization with more favour. But there is nothing of the kind. Stump orators make perfect laws, and legal responsibility is all that is ever thought of. For instance you have acted legally, I suppose, in this case, Lorimer [a local poor law official] would no doubt say the same, ditto the Board of Guardians at Barnsley etc. My first letter to Lorimer [was] on the 18th Jany. My first to you was on the 1st of March, the poor wretch starving all the time – more than 16 weeks. You breakfast every morning and transact your business with the perfect consciousness that you will also dine in due course. Not so the poor who have not sufficient interest to get an appeal to you. Those who have discover what a task they undertake. Carlyle is not far wrong in his description of what has to be done in Downing St.

Good Heavens how I shudder at the cold hearted official red tapism which governs this country.

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Universal Credit: The New, New Poor Law?

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The UK’s stance on poverty has recently come under the scrutiny of the United Nations, who argue that austerity measures have inflicted huge misery on the poorest in society. The number of those who live in poverty has reached 14 million, with 1.4 million of these being classed as destitute (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46236642). The misery of many families has been exacerbated by the move to Universal Credit, the government’s new benefits system. Under this system a single monthly payment is made to people out of work and replaces many of the old benefits which were paid separately, such as housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, income jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. When a claimant makes the transition to the new scheme, new assessments are necessary, regardless of any previous decisions which were made. People who in the past have been classed as unable to work are now being classified as fit for employment, and as a result many people’s benefits have been cut. As an indication of a system in turmoil, more than fifty per cent of those who appeal against their decision win.

In June, the New Statesman published Alex Tiffin’s Universal Credit diary, entitled ‘With six days to go, I have nothing left’ (New Statesman online, 11 June 2018). In it, Tiffin highlights one of the biggest problems with the new system: the time it takes to process the first payment. In his case, it took a whole seven weeks, and even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledges that it will take at least five weeks for most claimants. That means five weeks with no food, and no money for electricity, transport costs, rent and other essential services. It also means that claimants are in arrears from the very start, yet some essential payments, such as rent, of course, are almost always demanded up-front. The DWP’s solution to this conundrum is to offer advance payments which are then clawed back from an already inadequate monthly sum. Tiffin literally begged for his repayments to be reduced, but to no avail. His diary reveals the reality of poverty in twenty-first century Britain: he lives in the rural Highlands, so ‘extra’ services like broadband are absolutely essential, especially as he needs to check into his Universal Credit Account regularly or face losing it. He confronts a daily decision whether or not to switch off the heating and lie in bed to keep warm; to feed himself adequately he resorts to parcels from a local church-run foodbank.

The language of Alex Tiffin’s diary mirrors that of many of the paupers under the New Poor Law, who were often disabled or too unwell to work, and who faced similar decisions about whether to feed themselves or their children, whether to buy food or fuel for the fire.  George Briggs, an inmate of the workhouse at Great Yarmouth, wrote in 1853, ‘I suffer so much from Cold and as to food & Clothing are so miserably scant it past endurance with me I cannot bear it’; and he finished, ominously: ‘please God [I] prefer Death [rather] than remain here’. Another pauper, Frances Land, argued that the workhouse food was so inadequate that women in the laundry would ‘stand at the tub faint and hungry’. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that is being used once again by Britain’s neediest, thanks to Universal Credit. A manager for West Everton Community Council, for example, described it as ‘the slow killer, that’s what we call it round these parts’, and she went on to say that ‘it feels like they are trying every way possible to kill the poor’ (Huffington Post, 23 September 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk).

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Gustave Doré, ‘Waifs and Strays’

In many ways, the language behind Universal Credit is reminiscent of Samuel Smiles’ theories of self-help and perseverance. The government argues that the aim is to represent conditions closest to being in work, so that those in poverty learn to manage their money better; but, of course, the levels of ‘pay’ under Universal Credit are far below those of any remunerative employment (‘less eligibility’, anyone?). The system places a responsibility for paying rent and other housing costs on to individuals who, by definition, have no money and no credit, and then blames them for getting into arrears.  In other words, it all starts to feel like a new New Poor Law, and the discussions around it are very familiar to those who know anything about the original version. The aim is to ‘control spending’, to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits, and to ‘simplify’ the system by enforcing a bewildering array of bureaucratic checks and balances through which the poor have to navigate an uncertain path. Under the old New Poor law, it is clear that many paupers learned to work with the system as best they could, and there is every reason to believe that this will be the case with Universal Credit, too. But for every pauper who made it work for them, of course, there were others who fell victim to a harsh and uncaring system. Is this what is in store for Britain’s poor in the twenty first century?