Re-imagining the Workhouse for the Welfare State: Thoughts on the Alston Report

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  • This month, we present a guest blog from our very own Professor Steve King of the University of Leicester, who gives us his personal perspective on the recently published Alston Report on poverty in the UK: 

Earlier this month, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, delivered a highly publicised and damning report on the way that national and local austerity had consigned a significant proportion of the British population to unending misery. We learned that 14 million of our fellow citizens were in poverty and that 1.5 million of them were destitute, defined by Alston as being unable to buy ‘basic essentials’. He ascribed this situation primarily to government cuts put in place, not just for reasons of fiscal austerity, but as a deliberate ideological measure to dissolve the bonds of citizenship and fellow feeling that had shaped welfare since Beveridge. He is not alone in feeling both that poverty is increasing, and that different shades of Government since the financial crash have meant it to increase. The argument would be familiar to many of the readers of the Journal of Social Policy, for instance, where much detailed and rather more nuanced work than Alston’s has appeared.

Readers of his report will of course make up their own minds on its value and accuracy. From my perspective, though, it is littered with factual, conceptual, methodological and philosophical errors, not least when it comes to defining destitution and the regionality of welfare/poverty problems. Above all, Alston demonstrates an extraordinary ignorance of the history of British welfare – not unlike the British politicians he takes to task!

Let us explore three aspects of that ignorance. First, Alston suggests that the cuts to welfare since the financial crash represent a drastic (and negative) reshaping of the relationship between the State and its citizens, a fundamental attack on the collective principles of Beveridge and others who framed the post-war welfare state. The remotest grasp of British welfare history would have led him to a more cautious and nuanced approach. By the early 1950s it was already clear that the financing of the National Health Service was, and was going to remain, extraordinarily painful. Since then, Britain has experienced perhaps nine periods when fundamental attacks were launched on welfare broadly defined, each of which was represented at the time as catastrophic and unprecedented, and a direct threat to the collective principles established not, as it happens, after 1945, but during the Liberal Welfare Reforms of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s personal take on those periods of welfare reform and austerity, the fact is that they happened. Had Alston grasped this basic point – that austerity was part of a long term post-1950s trend – then he may (arguably ought to, if he wanted to gain traction) have written his report with a different tone and sense.

Second, Alston fundamentally misunderstands the deep history of British welfare. Nowhere is this clearer than in his rather facile discussion of the drive to get people into work and the rise of working poverty. These trends he portrays as somehow ‘new’. In fact, the briefest discussion with a welfare historian on his two week trip around Britain would have revealed that the intersection of work and benefits has been central to the national welfare system since it was first developed for England and Wales in 1601. Such conclusions apply even more keenly to Scotland, which had its own welfare system and applied it with an eye more sharply focused on austerity before the 20th century. The United Kingdom has always had a residual welfare system linked to the need for everyone to work as hard and for as long as possible. Labour (notably Blair, Brown and Balls), Conservative and Coalition governments have always put work – whether it pays or not – at the heart of their welfare policies, as did the parishes and Unions that ran the welfare system between 1601 and 1929.

Finally, Alston claims that: ‘British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping’. The Department for Work and Pensions, he argues, ‘has been tasked with designing a digitised and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens’. We can (and should) debate whether the British welfare state has ever been compassionate, either in the post-war time-frame that Alston is confined by or in the deeper history of state welfare. I doubt that my father, grandparents and great grandparents, all of them poor working class people from immigrant stock, would have recognised such compassion. But we can also confront the hyperbole of the workhouse. Turned on its head and read against the rest of Alston’s report, his statement says: workhouses were a key component of a philosophical drive to smash the poor, to strip them of their dignity and power, and to force ordinary people into a sustained cycle of destitution. If, however, we reflect on recent writing on the New Poor Law, and in particular on the initial findings emerging from the In Their Own Write project, a very different picture emerges.

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Plan of Plymouth Workhouse

There were plenty of workhouse scandals under the New Poor Law, though their number had almost certainly declined by the time Dickens was co-ordinating his attacks on the poor law to which Alston refers. We can find evidence of paupers – men, women and children – being mistreated, punished, and given poor food and inadequate clothing. Yet the surprising thing about the true history of the workhouse is not that we can find scandals, but that we do not find a lot more of them. If we believe Dickens – and Alston – then an ideological attack on the poor through the New Poor Law should have generated much more harshness. Here, then, are some useful correctives for Professor Alston:

  • Almost all welfare was paid to people in their own homes, who would not see the inside of a workhouse, much as we see today. If modern Governments really are trying to create a digitised and sanitised version of the workhouse and its regime, they have not chosen a great model given its subordinate place in the historical execution of welfare. Nor has Alston chosen a great reference point, either.
  • There is compelling evidence that workhouses rapidly became places where the sick, kinless, aged and abandoned were concentrated. These are not the people by-and-large that Alston was talking about in his report, not least because the aged have generally been insulated from the worst effects of the financial crash by the growth in the real value of their benefits.
  • There is equally compelling evidence that those who were resident in workhouses were not a sub-group of the poor squashed under the ideological yoke and related welfare practices of the state. They had agency: they could rebel, appeal, resort to the law. And, what is more, they did. As we hear more of their voices through In Their Own Write, we need to rethink the sense that workhouses and welfare more generally inevitably disempowered recipients and inmates. Modern benefits claimants and recipients are also not powerless, something that Alston fails to acknowledge in his hyperbole. A quick look at the way in which changes to disability benefit are being rolled back through coordinated advocacy and resort to the law, much as would have happened in the nineteenth century, would have shown this.
  • There is some evidence that workhouses were actively used by people who sought to construct an economy of making do (or ‘makeshifts,’ as historians prefer to call it). Parents might leave some of their children there while looking for work. Kin might put their sick relatives in the workhouse as a way of avoiding contagion, and thus wider unemployment in the family. And so the examples could multiply. Many benefit recipients in a modern sense also construct around them an economy of making do.
  • In the nineteenth century, the state, through its variously constituted central inspections, did not simply let localities punish the poor for their poverty. In most places and at most times, egregious practice was confronted. Alston is right to argue that in a modern sense obvious flaws in the welfare system have taken time to correct – the benefit delay in Universal credit for instance – but this has also been true throughout the political history of British welfare going back to 1601. To lambast modern Governments for something with a history this long is simply naïve.
  • Finally, and since Alston refers to Dickens, we need to confront the issue of public opinion. In the mid-nineteenth century Dickens was one (very small) part of an emerging sense that the New Poor Law in general and the workhouse in particular required reform. The welfare system needed to become more attuned to the fact that most of those captured by it were ‘deserving’, rather than benefit scroungers. Alston’s negative inferences regarding workhouses are simply taken out of this important context. Fast forward to today, and public opinion is decidedly not on the side of a more elastic and softer welfare system. We can be entertained by the outrage of Conservative Ministers about Alston and his report, but opinion polls are very clearly on their side – and they have been for a very long time! The sense that somehow we have moved on from an age of compassion is fundamentally misplaced.

Professor Alston’s report will no doubt be consigned to a box somewhere in Whitehall to gather dust. In this sense it is a missed opportunity. Perhaps another time he could add some welfare historians to his itinerary and we could, collectively, help him to understand modern welfare policy and the prospect of further welfare reform in its proper context.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

My Lords & Gentlemen,

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

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

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

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Paupers, Politics and the Power of the Pen

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In this strange period of plebiscites and referenda, the air is thick with the cries of professional lobbyists and consultancy firms keen to leverage influence with politicians and take advantage of unprecedented uncertainty. According to Public Affairs News (an industry website) Indyref was a ‘lobbyist’s dream’; and The Conversation (an academic discussion forum) points out that Brexit has shifted the centre of gravity for British lobbyists away from Brussels and back towards London. All this, it is claimed, has created a bonanza for the ‘big beasts’ of political influence who prowl Holyrood and Westminster Green on behalf of their powerful clients in business and industry. Yet it is a curious irony that the ‘people’s vote’ should have led to a situation where the people themselves feel increasingly marginalised from the negotiations going on in their name. So what about those ordinary citizens who aren’t part of the billion-pound lobbying industry? How do they make their voices heard above the cacophony of political noise?

This is something that has been preoccupying us at ITOW recently. The deeper we dig into the correspondence that circulated between paupers and the Poor Law Commissioners at Whitehall during the nineteenth century, the clearer it becomes that the complaints and appeals for redress sometimes built, over time and through many letters, into something like a deliberate campaign for change in the way that the commissioners’ rules and regulations were being applied locally. Thomas Gould, who appeared in last October’s blog (see ‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style’), was one such campaigner, writing ten letters and almost 11,000 words of complaint between August 1853 and October 1859. John Rutherford was another, writing four letters and 5,000 words in a flurry of activity at the end of 1885. Like other examples of ‘pauper lobbyists’ who wrote from the workhouse, these writers complained that they suffered greatly for their campaigning activities, being subject to reprisals and persecution at the hands of the workhouse officers; and both also complained of the unwillingness (or perhaps the inability) of the Poor Law Commissioners to force local officers to mend their ways.

There was another outlet for paupers to voice their concerns and frustrations when they felt their complaints had fallen on deaf ears in Whitehall, however. That outlet was the ‘court of public opinion’, and there were those who made very good use of it. John RutherfordRutherford, for example, published an important first-person account of his experiences in the Poplar workhouse while he was still a pauper. It was titled Indoor Paupers, by ‘One of Them’, and was recently republished by Peter Higginbotham, of workhouses.org.uk fame. Rutherford’s was a vivid account of quotidian life inside the workhouse, but it was also a powerful indictment of the workhouse regime, where paupers were ‘not esteemed as human beings…but as creatures of a far inferior order’. His solution to the abuses he observed was that Boards of Guardians (who oversaw relief of the poor locally) should be drawn from a much wider section of society, and in particular that they should contain ‘a fair proportion of working men’. He reasoned that ‘men who have relatives and former comrades in the house would undoubtedly keep a sharp eye on abuses likely to pain their friends’, and went on to state that ‘Guardians of this stamp would extinguish at once the insolence of Jacks in office, and the corruption and depredation’ of other officials.

Of course, Rutherford was not the first to publicise the deficiencies, and even the cruelties, of the Victorian workhouse. By the 1880s, he was adding to a long tradition of pamphleteers, journalists and fiction writers who sought to influence the ‘court of public opinion’, the most famous of whom was, of course, Charles Dickens. But as a pauper himself, he was uniquely placed to make his observations, and through his letters and his short published book, it is possible to see the mechanics of popular influence at work in the context of the New Poor Law.

Rutherford began his correspondence to the commissioners by minutely detailing the abuses he had encountered as an inmate. In his second letter, he again urged the Local Government Board to investigate, still believing them to be ignorant of the true state of Poplar workhouse. In his third letter, his impatience was starting to show, and he wrote that ‘the longer such charges remain univestigated the more favourable…the situation for the accused’. By the time of his fourth and final letter, Rutherford had become totally disillusioned with the Poor Law Commissioners as a channel for redress, and had decided that if his allegations were ‘unworthy of the notice of your Honourable Board until forced upon it by Public Opinion, I shall not trouble you again’ (MH 12/7698). Instead, he appealed directly to the public through his book – and, even though it is highly unlikely that either his published or unpublished work had any direct influence on local poor law policy, it is intriguing to note that his suggestion of widening the franchise for elected guardians was something that came to pass only a decade or so after his exposé was published.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear in our work that Rutherford and Thomas Gould were at one end of a scale of paupers and others who, collectively, did have an influence on the trajectory of workhouse policy in the later years of the New Poor Law. They did so through the many thousands of letters they sent to the commissioners, and through appeals to the wider ‘court of public opinion’ in the press. In these turbulent times when political influence has been so successfully professionalised, and the levers of power seem ever more remote from ordinary citizens, it’s worth bearing in mind that if workhouse paupers could make those levers move, however slowly, in the right direction, then surely there is hope for the rest of us.