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).
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.