“…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).

 

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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

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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

Lobby queue ii

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.