“…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.

The ‘Scandal’ of In-work Poverty Revisited

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A vague sense from discussions around the minimum wage that an increasingly large number of families remain in ‘poverty’ notwithstanding the fact that one or both parents is in work has been given a substantial empirical boost. Separate reports by the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2019 and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in June 2019 both confirm that stagnant wages, rising prices and a freeze on in work benefits have combined to leave millions in what they label ‘relative poverty’. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, noted that:

It’s one of the biggest social changes we’ve seen in the past 25 years. Poverty, long associated with being out of work and with old age, is now mostly a phenomenon experienced by people who are actually in work or who are living in a household where someone is in work. Back in the mid-1990s, just under 40 per cent of those in poverty, as measured against the semi-official definition of having less than 60 per cent of median income, lived in working households. Today nearly 60 per cent of those in poverty live in such a household. Of course, we can disagree about exactly what level of income constitutes a poverty line, so, if you prefer, we can just ask why it is that so many more of those towards the bottom of the income distribution now live in working households.

His comments are interesting on many levels, but for us at In Their Own Write what is most striking is the remarkably constrained timeline of the history of in-work poverty.

Johnson infers that before the mid-1990s the core of poverty was associated with old age and unemployment and he sees radical change since that point. This view is historically untenable. For much of the history of the welfare state from 1601 to 1929 and beyond, most welfare recipients worked at something and in-work poverty was the normal experience for a very significant proportion of the population. Even if Paul Johnson is right, and the later twentieth-century saw the rise of old age poverty – and there are many reasons to doubt this – the changes he traces post-1995 are merely the return to a status quo that has lasted many hundreds of years. Constructed in this manner, both the ‘problem’ of in-work benefits, and some of the potential alleviations of that situation, look different to the gloss reported above. In this sense, history really does matter.

At In Their Own Write, the intertwining of the benefit system and labour market architecture is something that is ubiquitous. Let us take, for example, the poor law union of Reeth in North Yorkshire. Reeth was a mixed rural and industrial union, and a significant proportion of its labour force was involved in mining activities. On 10 December 1847 the acting clerk for the union wrote to the poor law commissioners in relation to an informal enquiry they had made earlier in December. The Commission feared that Reeth was giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied poor in direct contravention of the principles of the act of 1834. The clerk reported the position of local guardians at length:

I forward you a list of the able bodied paupers to whom at the different periods therein mentioned they have administered out door relief under the following circumstances. The paupers therein mentioned are all, or  the very much greater majority of them Miners employed in the Lead Mines which in the Mountainous and moor Land Country in question afford to all but a very small proportion of the labouring population the only means of employment and subsistence; – The proprietors of these mines do not pay their Labourers stated wages by the week or month or by the piece, but, by what is styled amongst them trial bargains, that is one or two or a gang of men take of their employers a length of ground out of which they are to raise so much metal, at so much a bin or given quantity – three trials after the men have worked at them for probably 2, 3 and 4 months together (I have known cases of 6 months and longer) frequently turn out complete failures, and the men receive nothing for their labor in such cases having no other means of subsistence save the trifles earned by their wifes and larger children by knitting and occasional days at washing the metal[.] [I]t is manifestly impossible but that the men when after a long continued and apparently unsuccessful trial their credit at the small provision shops becomes exhausted, must apply to the union for assistance and it is almost impossible but that the Union must in such cases infringe the rule against out door relief to able bodied pay[ments] since the expense by bringing them and their families into [the] Workhouse rarely containing more than 20 Inmates would [be] ruinous as well to the Townships to which they respectively belong[,] as to the paupers themselves would thereby in all probability by being obliged to leave their working, lose any benefit they might derive from their long labor (TNA MH 12/14588).

 

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North Yorkshire Lead Miners, ca.1900

The sharp practices of employers, unremunerated labour, the inadequacy of wages and the precariousness of family economies because of the precariousness of work, are colourfully reported here and to all intents and purposes mirror the rhetoric surrounding the modern minimum wage and in-work poverty. The moral integrity of the people who could not make ends meet despite hard work, so much a feature of modern commentary, is also to be found here, with the acting clerk commenting that ‘The men themselves are an industrious and careful class of people and anxious so long as they can to avoid being burthersome to their Parishes[:] indeed I have known instances where any[thing] more than ‘bread’ alone was far beyond their expectation’. Equally, the union pointed to the lack of easy solutions, as do the IFS and DWP reports noted above. ‘The Board of Guardians’, their letter stated, ‘have long been fully alive to the desirableness of a change in the system of paying the Miners but they are utterly powerless to alter it.’

While allowing that the expenditure on such able-bodied men was reasonable, the ultimate solution envisaged by the central authorities also carries with it distinctively ‘modern’ undertones. Inspector Hawley wrote to his superiors that:

It is the custom in this part of the County for the proprietors of mines to let out the work to the miners upon (what they call) “trial bargains” which assist in the miner undertaking to look for ore at his own risk – if he is successful he sometimes [earns] good wages – if otherwise he is plunged into an utter state of destitution, and looks at his parish to support him till the next [spe]culation turns out more profitably – it is in face a game of [hazard] between the employers & their labourers and is the cause of constant distress of unsettled habits.

Hawley’s solution was to transfer the risk and costs of underemployment and inadequate wages on to the employers themselves:

The parish of Askengarthdale complain of the expense the man & his family are likely to cause the parish if they come into the Workhouse. This is precisely the fear which it is desirable to create, & it will cause the employers to find more constant and remunerative employment.

The current debate over the desirability and impact of companies adopting and then raising the living (as opposed to the minimum) wage resonates powerfully with this viewpoint.

Our corpus of letters and enquiries is replete with instance like this. In-work poverty – whether that work was full- or part-time – constituted a substantial core of both relative and absolute need in the period of the New Poor Law. The ‘new’ trend that the IFS and DWP report post-1995 is thus not new at all. It represents a return to the traditional overlap of work, wages and welfare. Looked at in this way, the solution to the ‘problem’ of in-work poverty might lie, not just in raising wages and insisting on a living wage, but in a much closer and more substantial understanding of the essential links between the welfare system and labour market architecture.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plan of Plymouth Workhouse

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

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

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