Taking the Long View of Contagion, Compassion and Community Response

Temporary Spanis Flue hospital 1918 ii
Temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918

In these unsettling times it might seem as though history has little comfort to offer us. When we look back for reassurance, we tend to light on the scale of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the horrors of the Black Death, or the ravages of smallpox through the ages. Yet despite the hardships and, for some, personal tragedies that have followed in the wake of Covid-19 it is important to maintain a sense of perspective, and one way we can do this is by recognising just how resilient and resourceful we are, and always have been, in the face of epidemics and communicable diseases. From the early modern period onwards, we have built on empirical observations and experimental science to understand the best ways to mitigate and even halt the spread of deadly diseases; but, individually and collectively, we also have a rich history of compassion and public spiritedness when  it comes to protecting vulnerable groups and supporting those most affected by epidemics. Nowhere are all these tendencies clearer than in the stories that emerge from the correspondence to the Poor Law Commissioners across the 19th century.

Hampstead Smallpox Hospital ii
A Ward in the Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, 1871

In 1893, for example, Charles Wills, the medical officer of health for the Southwell Rural Sanitary Authority, wrote to the Local Government Board that a case of smallpox had been discovered at the union workhouse. The affected man, Henry Jackson, had tramped from Manchester (where he was believed to have picked up the disease) and arrived on the 27 January. The authorities swiftly determined that he had shared the vagrant ward that night with a further 18 men, and this was communicated to the Local Government Board with an account (as far as possible) of their ongoing movements. The ward was then closed, and Jackson was placed in isolation with another male inmate to act as his nurse. His companion was chosen specifically because he had previously survived the disease and was therefore assumed to be immune. The Guardians took further measures to stop the spread of the disease by vaccinating or re-vaccinating all inmates over the age of 10 who would allow it. As a result of their swift action, Jackson’s was the only recorded case on this occasion: he seems to have recovered by late March, and his ‘key worker’, Robert Rushton, who nursed him for a full seven weeks, was later given a guinea by the Guardians as a reward for his efforts, which enabled him to discharge himself from the workhouse. In a postscript to the case, the Medical Officer, Charles Wills, wrote that there were many isolated cases of smallpox in Derbyshire and Yorkshire at the time, and that it was bound to be exported to neighbouring districts. In response, he proposed that some semi-detached cottages should be built on property adjacent to the workhouse in order to improve facilities for isolation if it reached Southwell again (it is not known whether the Board chose to act on his recommendation in this instance)  (TNA MH 12/8544, 9547).

If all of this sounds remarkably familiar, then it’s hardly surprising: the very fact that epidemics were a constant threat before the refinements of modern medicine meant that rapid responses and empirical methods of containment were at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and many of the public health measures that were instigated from the 1830s onwards were, of course, specifically aimed at achieving this outcome. Crucially, the newly centralised and bureaucratised structures of the poor law were an ideal forum for applying these measures. So it was that when Richard Pugh, the clerk to the Watford Union, reported in 1849 that there had been a fatal case of cholera in the town, the Guardians were well placed to put in train a series of measures to ensure that it was checked at source. These included a house-to-house visitation of infected localities, and when a case was discovered in the Workhouse Infirmary it involved daily testing and examination of all workhouse inmates to ensure that timely treatment could be applied as soon as symptoms manifested themselves (TNA MH 13/197).

Indeed, large parts of daily workhouse practice were specifically aimed at stopping the encroachment of communicable diseases from gaining a foothold in these institutions, and from spreading more widely if detected. The oft-noted practice of removing a person’s clothes for ‘purification’ (usually by boiling) when they were admitted and replacing them with workhouse dress was done for precisely this reason. It is a subject that has often caused controversy in the literature, because contemporaries, and most historians, have chosen to interpret it simply as a way of enforcing a degrading uniform; but, in fact, it was a very effective way of checking the spread of disease. As the president of the Poor Law Board explained to Parliament in 1849, “the rule now in force [was] introduced on considerations suggested by the necessity of securing cleanliness,” and he added that “by enforcing it, the cleanliness and health of the establishments [has] been very materially promoted” (Bath Chronicle, 28 June 1849). When common sense measures such as these were not followed, paupers themselves were the first to complain. In 1867, for example, J. Smith, an inmate at Bethnal Green workhouse, wrote that the nurses from the sick wards were carrying their dirty washing through the day rooms, which were used predominantly by elderly and infirm inmates, and that this laundry was likely to be contaminated from contact with infected patients. He complained that it was a practice which was “injurious to health and not to be tolerated,” and he suggested that the only reason nurses were not allowed to go the “proper way” to the laundry was because the Master was fearful lest his own children “should catch a disease, as they would have to pass his apartments” (TNA MH 12/6854).

This focus on the workhouse poor brings us back full circle to the situation we face today with Covid-19. Thankfully, here in Britain, as in many countries where it has made such rapid progress, things have begun to stabilise and, though obviously still of great concern, the overall number of cases and deaths seems to have plateaued. One of the areas of increasing anxiety, however, relates to care home residents, and we still have little understanding of just how devastating it will turn out to be for the institutional care sector as a whole. Clearly, many of the practical measures outlined above were specifically designed to protect workhouse populations from mass outbreaks. But the authorities were also acutely aware that other measures that we are now becoming all-too familiar with could make a crucial difference in preventing institutional tipping-points. So, for example, when Widow Granger, a resident at Barnet workhouse, asked permission to go out and visit her dangerously ill granddaughter, the Guardians “refused [her request] in consequence of the complaint being the small pox” (G. Gear (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Woodcock: Master of the Barnet Union Workhouse 1836-38 (Herts. Record Society, 2008), p.98). This entry tells us that Widow Granger would, under normal circumstances, most likely have been allowed out on compassionate grounds; something that, in itself, challenges many of the standard narratives about workhouse life. But it also tells us that officials in the 19th century were constantly grappling with the competing needs – emotional, psychological and medical – of those under their charge in exactly the same way as those who are currently trying to manage the spread of Covid-19 in care homes. The question of how to protect the physical welfare of vulnerable residents, while ensuring that they are not denied the life-affirming contact and support of loved ones, is clearly not a new one.

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented for most of us: but alongside the uncertainty and inevitable anxiety that comes with a situation like this, we also have the opportunity to reflect on the great sacrifices that ordinary people – from key workers to coordinators, and from community volunteers to self-isolaters – are making for the public good. It is, perhaps, some comfort to know that we have such deep reserves of selflessness and rapid response to draw on. This last example, from the Board of Guardians’ Minutes of Mitford and Launditch Union in Norfolk during the last great epidemic of smallpox in 1871, is a wonderful case in point (TNA MH 12/8484).

The attention of the Guardians was particularly directed to the case of William Cory, of Great Dunham, Labourer, who, with his Wife and family of six children, had recently been deprived of their usual Harvest earnings by reason of the state of Quarantine imposed upon them, for 5 or 6 weeks, in consequence of the existence of Small Pox in a Cottage adjoining his Dwelling house and under the same roof: And it being shewn to the satisfaction of the Guardians that this insulation of Cory and his family has tended to prevent the spread of the disease but that he had thereby incurred a loss of Five pounds and upwards, it is unanimously resolved that he be allowed the sum of Five Pounds, either under the provisions of the Sanitary Acts, or by way of gratuity under the special circumstances as the Local Government Board may approve.

 

 

 

 

“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.

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!

 

 

‘Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse…

Christmas day sims 1905

We’re all familiar with it in some form or another: either George Sims’s original lament against the cold, hard world of Victorian welfare or Robert Weston and Bert Lee’s parody, where “dangerous Dan McGrew / was fighting to save the pudding / from a lady that’s known as Lou”. But whichever version of the popular song comes to mind there’s no doubt that Christmas in the workhouse is one of the most enduring sentimental tropes of Victorian popular culture, a potent mix of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, a Dickensian meat-feast of mawkishness and melodrama. But peel back the pathos for a moment and there is a surprising amount in Sims’s original lament that chimes with the real experience of workhouse paupers. From the festive decorations, to the seasonal (and exceptional) fare, and even the image of local dignitaries, including Guardians, serving at table, the scene could have been taken from real life, as attested by the Bradford Observer in 1848:

The various rooms in the workhouse were decorated with sprigs of laurel and holly, which gave the interior quite a cheerful appearance…Dinner was placed on the tables at two o’clock, when grace was sung. The dinner was served up in a manner which reflected great credit on the master and matron. Some 100lbs of roast beef, of first rate quality, had been provided, with potatoes, plenty of excellent plum pudding, and a barrel of good ale. The inmates appeared delighted, as well they might, with this unusual fare, and ample justice they did it. The Rev. Dr. Burnet, Mr. C. Rhodes, Mr. Wagstaff, Mr. Tetley, and other gentlemen were present to witness the interesting scene, and to wait upon the inmates.

Yet the real point of Sims’s lament was, of course, to show the underlying harshness of the New Poor Law and the lurid condescension of the workhouse feast. His hero is an elderly man who refuses to eat “the food of villains / whose hands are foul and red” because, as we soon discover, his wife died exactly 12 months prior to the feast. She was, he tells us, “starved in a filthy den” because the relieving officer refused to give him food, only offering them the refuge of the workhouse. This his wife refused, saying “Bide the Christmas here, John / we’ve never had one apart / I think I can bear the hunger / the other would break my heart”. Thereafter, she slipped away and died of hunger, steadfastly refusing to be parted from her husband by the workhouse rules. Here, too, we find plenty of evidence to support the darker side of Sims’s vision.

In January 1844, for example, John Houghton, Surgeon, wrote that he had visited Mary Ducie in Dudley Union. She was, he said, “in a very low and debilitated state lying on a few rags on…a small bedstead and covered with a few ragged clothes”. He contacted the relieving officer who, having initially allowed a few provisions, thereafter refused anything for her, even on application from Houghton. He then wrote that “on the 25th I asked her mother why she did not drink some milk as I ordered her. She said she had not the means of buying any. On Xmas day her husband said they should have had nothing to eat had not the neighbours given them some potatoes and a little bit of beef”. We don’t  know whether Ducie died as a result of what the doctor called “want”, but the last time he saw her he described her as being in a “hopeless state” (MH12/13959).

John Tarby of Ditchampton offers us an another broad parallel with Sims’s account. In 1842, he was:

in my 70th year and have for upwards of 50 years contributed to the necessities of the the Poor – “The Beggar which I am now myself” – and to all other claims of Church and State, and the reply was conveyed by a direct refusal accompanied with an order to go into the House. That such was never contemplated by the Poor Law Amendment Act needs no comment and I therefore call on You in your Official Capacity to pervert this order – That such may not be a precedent in this Neighbourhood and that you may timely interfere is my prayer (MH12/13892).

Tarby was wrong, of course; there never was any stipulation that the elderly must be relieved outside the workhouse, although it was a common misconception among the poor that this was the case.

In many ways, it seems that Sims’s doggerel was a surprisingly accurate account of the cruelties of the poor law at Christmas. Yet, as is so often the case, things are not quite as straightforward as they first appear. For one thing, Sims was writing in the 1870s when the pressure of public opinion had forced many boards of guardians to treat the elderly poor with much more consideration. The vast majority were, in fact, relieved in their own homes, and workhouses increasingly provided shared accommodation so that those who came in as aged couples could continue to live together. For another, Mary Ducie’s case forces us to look again at the issue of institutional care for the sick and elderly more generally. Ducie’s case was a desperate one, as the surgeon made clear; she and her family had nothing but rags, they lived in destitution and had no way of keeping life and soul together. In this, they provide a direct parallel with Sims’s bereaved hero. Yet in cases like this it is quite possible to view the workhouse as a refuge in times of extremis, as many Victorians certainly did. No matter how unhomely its welcome, it guaranteed warmth, lodging and sufficient food; and, for those who needed it, it also guaranteed the services of a medical officer and, increasingly by the 1870s and 80s, the attention of professional nursing and care staff.

Which aspect of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse” we choose to focus on depends on the lens through which we view it, of course. But in the spirit of Dickens’ most heartwarming denouements – of which we will, no doubt, be served a double helping over the next few days – let us indulge ourselves on Christmas eve. Take yourself back to the Bradford workhouse in 1848; smell the cinnamon and pipe-smoke and hear the hearty cheers and contented murmurings of old and young alike. God bless us, everyone, from Tiny Tim and the ITOW project staff!

After all had eaten to their heart’s content, grace was again sung…Apples and oranges were then distributed among the children, a supply of tobacco was given to those who smoked, and a modicum of snuff to the snuff takers, while those who preferred it received 3d. in money instead. At five o’clock the inmates were again assembled, when spiced cake and cheese were served out, the women having tea and the men a pint of good ale as an accompaniment, and afterwards a glass of punch. ‘Health and long life to the Mayor’ was drunk with a sincerity and warmth of feeling rarely to be met with at a civic feast.

  • A special festive thank you goes out to all our wonderful volunteers, whose time and dedication over the past two years has made the whole thing possible. We raise a glass of something mulled to you at Christmas!

 

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.

Plymouth workhouse ii
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.