‘It’s Not Fair’: Natural justice and the New Poor Law

This month, we have a guest blog from Sarah Bradley, one of our volunteer transcribers, who reflects on the language of ‘natural justice’ in pauper letters.

‘She’s got more than me.’  ‘Why can’t I go out with my friends?’  ‘It’s not fair!’ It’s the cry of children everywhere.  And while, as adults, we might (sometimes) be more restrained, our sense of natural justice remains.  The refrain ‘I have paid my taxes all my life’, is not uncommon these days when people feel they are being ignored or penalised by the ‘system’.  Googling the phrase results in many stories from people who feel their contributions to society (through taxes and national insurance) should guarantee them access to services in their later years. More recently, we find the word ‘fairness’ cropping up regularly in relation to coronavirus. While the constraints of the initial lockdown were widely accepted as reasonable in such exceptional circumstances there is less unanimity on how to deal with the second wave, and debate continues on how to achieve a ‘fair’ balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. This sense of fairness or moral justice underpins the relationship between the citizen and the state.  

People in the past were, of course, no different and it is inevitable that many of the letters written to the central poor law authorities by paupers or their advocates (and uncovered by In Their Own Write) were complaints of unfairness in the system or the way that it operated. The authors of these letters varied in how they reacted to those perceived injustices. Some focussed on their legal rights. In September 1853, for example, George Hancock of the Chelsea Poor Law Union, annoyed that he was unable to put his request for leave of absence to the guardians in person, wrote to say:  ‘I have always heard that every pauper had the right to request an interview … and if no such right exists, where is the protection for any pauper, and how can any grievances he may have be Known, and what chance of redress? I think upon further consideration you will find you have made a mistake in this’ (MH12/6991/33091). Others were whistleblowers, complaining about self-evident abuses (something we dealt with back in 2018). An anonymous writer, in a long letter of complaint about the Nantwich workhouse, for example, wrote in March 1839 that there ‘is as good meat took to that house ever was Butchered But when it is cooked wonderful to tell it is all vains and Grissells’ (MH12/1013/2467c). But some people wrote because, quite simply, they felt that the way they had been treated was just not fair.

George Ellis, aged 74, was so convinced of his case that in 1862 he wrote to the Poor Law Board twice. His first letter, written in March, was referred back to the Basford Guardians, who gave him a month’s worth of bread, but then in May, ‘I was compelled to aply (having no work) on Friday last, & the Relieving officer has given me an order for the House which I consider unreasonable at my time of life’ (MH12/9248/17853).

Eighty-five year old Mary Chester also felt that the elderly had earned the right to be treated reasonably. In June 1862, she wrote expressing moral outrage at the way she had been treated by the Basford Poor Law Union:

Left a widow in the year 1830 with a family of five children with hard labour and hard living I Brought them up in an honest way without any Assistance from the parish I Am now worn out with old age and quite infirm not able to labour [I] have applied to the Board of guardians Basford for Relief but they refused – Gentlemen My days cannot be many have lived among my family to age of three score and fifteen and now to be parted from my children to die in a Union perhaps not one Relative to close My Aged Eyes would … quickly bring My Grey locks with Sorrow to the grave I have 4 children living but neither of them have the Means of Keeping Me without Relief my family are labourers with families (MH12/9248/23894).

Mary Chester’s Letter

In April 1866, another elderly man, James Pickett, also thought ‘it hard to be forst to go in the workhouse’, as ‘I Ham A very old man’.  Echoing the modern-day lament, he explained that he had ‘Paid Rate and Taskes’ and quoted his service at sea as an able seaman in ‘his ma nav’ (His Majesty’s Navy) on the ‘Bellephlion’ (HMS Bellerophon?), and the ‘ARey C H Ne’ (HMS Arachne?) (MH12/6879/37356). Both Chester and Pickett implied that  their treatment was not only unfair, but also morally unjust, both having contributed as citizens by paying taxes, serving in the armed forces or, in Chester’s case, bringing up future citizens under extremely challenging circumstances.

Timothy Hoyle of the Keighley Union asked the Central Authority to intervene on his behalf, not on grounds of age, but of ill-heath, explaining, ‘I have now been out of employment a long time through want of work and in consequence I have been employed by the Guardians … at Out Door Labour’. He went on to explain that ‘I am now in an emaciated and broken up state of health … [but] The Board have lately employed me in Breaking stones on the Highway and I find that unless I can Secure a change of employment I shall very soon be unable to work at anything’ (MH12/15161/25542). The annotations on his letter indicate that the central authorities were not anxious to intervene. Typically, a copy of a pauper’s letter was sent to the guardians ‘for their observations’, but their response to  Ellis suggests that this was likely to be a fruitless exercise: ‘It rests with the Gs to decide in what way relief shall be given – & … the Bd cannot further interfere’ (MH12/9248/17853). The same response is often annotated on letters from paupers.

It is notable that much of this correspondence comes from individuals who were supposed to have been protected under the New Poor Law. The workhouse system was intended to be a deterrent to the able-bodied, prohibiting (in theory at least) outdoor relief being given to them in the community.  As Edward Twisleton, an Assistant Commissioner, explained in a letter of 24 April 1841 which was quoted in the 7th Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, ‘The chief object of our exertions is to diminish (without harshness to the aged and infirm) the evil of pauperism among the labouring classes.’ George Ellis, Mary Chester, James Pickett and Timothy Hoyle  were all either aged or infirm, and on first sight it does indeed seem harsh treatment to have forced them into the workhouse or to break stones when they became destitute.

On first reading, these writers present themselves as supplicants: ‘The Petition of Timothy Hoyle, a Pauper belonging to Keighley … Humbly Sheweth that your Petitioner is a very poor man’ (MH12/15161/25542). They open and close politely: ‘I humbly Beg I shall incur your displeasure taking the liberty of Soliciting you it is necessity urges me’,  and ‘Gentlemen if you will Condescend to intercede with the guardians of Basford for out door Relief for the Aged widow’ (MH12/9248/23894). But on closer inspection it is clear that they are not the pleas of people who are ready to accept their fate quietly. These are all individuals who have already sought justice from the Guardians and who, failing to find it, have felt compelled to take their complaints further. They explain why they deserve, or have earned, better treatment (‘I Brought [my children] up in an honest way without any Assistance from the parish’, and ‘I consider [the workhouse] unreasonable at my time of life’). Their letters are carefully worded to elicit sympathy, certainly, but also to persuade the Commissioners to do what is morally right. Hoyle closes: ‘I therefore trust you will have the Kindness to make inquiry into my distressing case … By doing this you would confer a lasting benefit upon your Petitioner’; while  Pickett emphasises that, ‘I ham vere Pore … Gentleman I Ham A very old man’. Most poetically of all, Mary Chester pleads that, ’now to be parted from my children to die in a Union … would … quickly bring My Grey locks with Sorrow to the grave’. 

The authors of these letters were not campaigners or whistleblowers. There is no indication that they wanted to change the system. They were simply ordinary people who considered that they had a right to be treated according to the precepts of natural justice, and they were prepared to demand that right.

“I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper”: Overcoming the challenges of ‘communications inequality’

Patrick O’Flaherty was desperate. He had a respectable trade as a piano tuner, but something had gone terribly wrong, and in 1866 he found himself destitute in Manchester. With nowhere else to turn he wrote this plea for help on the reverse of a flyer advertising his services: “any Broken Food which would Appease Hunger, Or some small Pecuniary Aid which would enable him to return to Ireland” (MH 12/6059/52432). His plea tugs at the heart strings, but the fact that it is written on the back of flyer which recalls better times makes it doubly distressing. The flyer, with no comments attached by the Poor Law Board, was unceremoniously stuck onto the last page of the 1866 volume of correspondence from the Manchester Union. This sad little note, written on a scrap of paper, raises many questions about paupers and their access to writing materials.

Today, without access to a computer and the web it can be almost impossible to engage with services of many kinds. Lockdown has exposed vulnerable groups who have struggled with daily life in the ‘new normal’ through lack of access to the web: shielded people (usually in the older generations) with no experience of online systems have struggled to secure grocery deliveries; locked-down disadvantaged children have had no access to online teaching. But back in the nineteenth century when paper was the most common form of communication, were things so very different? If you could not read or write, or could not afford writing materials or postal costs, how then did you engage with a burgeoning central authority? If you were a pauper with a complaint, how easy was it to put pen to paper and communicate that grievance to the Poor Law Commissioners in London?

The growing numbers of pauper letters (from both the old and the new poor law) show that paupers were indeed able and willing to write about their complaints. But there are clues in the letters from In Their Own Write which suggest that some struggled when they were obliged to communicate (perhaps for the first time) with the central authorities. They worried about the quality of paper they used, about using pencils rather than ink, and also complained vociferously about being denied access to either by unscrupulous workhouse masters.

James Barnett clearly had paper in his possession when he was in the workhouse in Sheffield, but it was removed from him as a form of punishment over a dispute about picking oakum. He wrote that “everything belonging to me…my writing paper, and the medications were taken away” (MH 12/15488/84438). He wrote a second time, after the Master had told him it was against the law for paupers to write to the central authority:

the Master came in…telling me the grosly absurd tale that the local Government’s orders were that no inmate must write to them…After [the letter was] read by the Guardians…it was given me back, with the very unnecessary and unsolicited leave…to finish it. Having no ink for that purpose, and having been forbidden to borrow any, I am compelled to use a substitute;

which explains why his letter was written in pencil (MH 12/15488/84933).

Such claims of the withholding of writing materials from paupers are seen time and again in the complaints made to the central authorities, although curiously the writers never explained how they finally managed to obtain paper to make their complaint!

Joseph Brentnall, an inmate from Basford in Nottinghamshire, also complained that he was refused access to paper or pens. His letter from 1886 appears to have been written on lined paper cut out of a notebook. He went on to say that inmates had been told that writing would do them no good, as all letters sent to London would come straight back to the workhouse officials, and reported that the Master had told him that if a pauper: “Write[s] to london to find a friend he finds his enmey in sted…because the Poor law has not got any power to interfere with the guardians and the[y] can du as the[y] like”. Brentnall obviously ignored the warning, as he included details of it in his letter of complaint to the Commissioners (MH 12/9251/6568).

Perhaps surprisingly, Harriet French was able to borrow writing paper and ink from the Master of Linton Workhouse in order to write a letter accusing him of assaulting her. Less surprisingly, however, when giving evidence against to the inquiry that followed, she explained that: “When I got the pen and ink I wrote to my father to complain of what had happened…but the letter never reached [him]”. The Master had given Harriet the wherewithal to write her letter, but also ensured that it would never reach its destination (MH 12/672/35311).

We do not know what sort of writing paper the Master gave to Harriet French, but it may even have been headed Union paper. We have come across examples of pauper letters on Union-headed paper elsewhere. In 1872, for example, George Hall’s letter was among a number that were sent that year from Poplar on Union-headed paper. None of the writers explained how it had come into their possession: it is possible they had taken it without permission, or (like Harriet) that it had been given to them by the Master. There is a delicious irony in paupers using the official paper of the institution they were complaining about when writing their concerns, and perhaps it is an irony that was not lost on them (MH 12/7692/71837).

Some correspondents seemed genuinely concerned about the poor quality of their writing paper and the impact that might have on the outcome of their cases. A distraught former teacher in Gainsborough was beside himself with embarrassment. Now unemployed, W.S. Shay had applied for outdoor relief, only to be told by the Board of Guardians that he must go into the very Workhouse where he had once been the schoolmaster. His shame was compounded by the lack of suitable writing material on which to make his plea: “Please excuse this paper,” he wrote, “I have no better” (MH 12/6710/37157).

George Briggs wrote a long and rambling letter to the Poor Law Board from Great Yarmouth in which he described the challenges he faced in writing to them: “I hope Sir you will excuse the bad Paper as I had no alternative and my Hand [is] paralysed…it has been quite a Task to get [through] this letter” (MH 12/8635/34809). The paper Briggs used appears quite inoffensive and his handwriting significantly more legible than many we have seen in the project. Nevertheless, Briggs himself clearly feared that the quality of his paper would somehow diminish his appeal for justice.

In 1869 Joseph Sinker, in Birmingham Workhouse, was worried that his argument was not persuasive enough, but also that his use of a lead pencil might diminish it still further. In an extraordinarily long letter, he expressed his determination to make a coherent argument. “You will perhaps be surprised that after I had written about ten or eleven pages, I then read the whole of what I have wrote, thinking over the various clauses whether there was a unity in the connecting portions”. In fact, Sinker’s final letter ran to over 20 pages of closely-written text, presented as an origami of folds and a chaotic arrangements of pages. At the end of it he apologised for using a pencil, explaining: “I can write quicker with lead pencil and I must state [there is] not much ink for use of paupers” (MH 12/13317/6616). In most cases, the only feasible avenue open to paupers to complain to the central authorities was in writing, but limited access to writing materials could present almost insurmountable challenges and paupers were obliged to use whatever was at hand. Patrick O’Flaherty’s trade flyer at the beginning of this blog is good example of this, but there are others.

James Pickett’s letter demonstrates many of the challenges paupers faced once they had decided to write to the central authority. His letter is written on several scraps of paper. It is grammatically challenging to the point that it is difficult to follow, the spelling reflects his East End background and his handwriting is almost indecipherable. In a way, it reflects well on the clerks in London that they even attempted to read letters such as this, and indeed in some cases they actually transcribed the least legible ones into the record to make the job of responding to them easier.

One of the most unexpected examples of writing paper came from Richard Wyatt in Bethnal Green. Wyatt was a serial letter writer to the Local Government Board in the 1890s, and although most of his letters were written on unremarkable paper his letter of October 1900 certainly catches the eye. It was written on note paper decoratively embossed at the top with forget-me-nots – perhaps an odd choice for a man described elsewhere as an habitual criminal, and one that sits rather uncomfortably alongside the content of a letter in which Wyatt complains about the disgraceful treatment of ‘imbecile’ patients in Bethnal Green Infirmary, and the “scandalous doings of the attendants” (MH 12/6897/121036).

In surveying the thousands of letters in this project it has become clear that paupers used a wide variety of writing materials, and no little ingenuity. Sometimes the paper was foolscap, sometimes small notepaper; occasionally it was lined or blue, and in some cases letters were written on whatever scraps came to hand. Some of the paper was so thin it was akin to tracing paper; and in one case, at least, it was thick and shiny, more reminiscent of old-fashioned toilet paper than Basildon Bond!  What the letters from In Their Own Write clearly demonstrate, however, is that this nineteenth-century, socially disadvantaged group was able to overcome the numerous challenges that letter-writing presented; and by using their ingenuity they were, perhaps, better able to engage with central authorities than many digitally excluded communities in the 21st century.

“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.























“…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.

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

Ironside 1

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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