‘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.

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.

Holding Power to Account, Pauper-Style

Picture1

Like it or not, there is something about the word ‘whistleblower’ that makes me slightly uneasy. It takes me straight back to schooldays, to casual bullying and the threats of what would happen if I ratted or snitched on my mates.  Even though I took those warnings to heart (‘what goes on in the chemistry cupboard, stays in the chemistry cupboard!’) the thing I feel most uneasy about is that I didn’t have the courage to stand up to them, to go boldly up to the teacher in front of the class and dob them in it: god knows, they deserved it. Thankfully, whistleblowers are nowadays not always the subject of furtive threats, behind-the-hand comments and a lot worse besides: in some circles, at least, standing up to systemic abuse and malpractice is something to be supported and even celebrated.

Did you know, for example, that in England there is now a National Guardian for the NHS, Dr. Henrietta Hughes, whose responsibility it is to provide ‘leadership, training and advice for Freedom to Speak Up Guardians based in all NHS trusts’ (https://www.cqc.org.uk/national-guardians-office/content/national-guardians-office). Her aim, and the aim of the office which she heads up, is to ‘lead cultural change in the NHS so that speaking up becomes business as usual’. Disturbingly, of the 7,000 cases that were raised with ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardians’ in her first year in office, 361 (more than five per cent) were from staff members who alleged that they had been targeted by their employers for the very act of whistleblowing.

Here at ITOW, this puts us very much in mind of those who raised concerns about their own treatment, and that of many others around them, in nineteenth century workhouses. They, too, were whistleblowers of a sort, and they wrote in large numbers to the Commissioners for the Poor Law at Whitehall to complain of everything from the state of the food and the punitive work regime, to personal assaults by staff members and much worse besides. Many letters came from paupers who sought only personal redress, but there were those who took it on themselves to speak for the majority, directly challenging the authority of those who meted out poor treatment such as workhouse masters, medical officers, matrons and schoolmasters. At the extreme end of the spectrum was a small group of paupers who dedicated their entire lives (or, at least, that part of it they spent in the workhouse) to bettering the condition of their fellow paupers, and who not only blew the lid on poor treatment in workhouses but pointed the finger at the Boards of Guardians who were supposed to oversee them.

Thomas Gould was one such crusader. Formerly a businessman, like many others at the time he found himself destitute and unable to fend for himself in old age. At 72, he had already been in the Poplar workhouse for two years when he first wrote to the Commissioners in 1853 to complain of the ‘unnecessary harshness and tyranny’ that was ‘exercised over the quiet orderly aged and afflicted poor’ (MH12/7683). His list of grievances was long, from the oakum picking that the elderly and sick poor were forced to undertake (‘being from 6.a.m. to 6.p.m.’), to the short measures and poor food they endured at mealtimes. He accused the workhouse master of bullying and peculation, and of using workhouse provisions to clothe and fatten his own large family. Overall, Gould complained of a ‘want of system…and a want of classification,’ so that ‘all are huddled together. The young and the old the blind the lame and diseased’.

auber d f e comic B20048 73
Illustration for ‘Just Starve Us’, a comic song published in 1843 (original in the British Library, shelfmark h.1260.(1.), reproduced under creative commons license)

By the time of his third letter, in 1855, he complained of being ‘perpetually annoyed and insulted by the master and matron[,] by the Guardians and I may say by many of the inmates’ who sought to curry favour with them, for speaking out (MH12/7684). But he was not a man to be deterred. Despite a campaign of persecution against him, which included being taken before the magistrates for petty (and imaginary) offences and being deprived of the liberty to occasionally leave the workhouse, something routinely allowed to all other elderly inmates, Gould wrote a further eight letters over the next six years. In total, he wrote over 11,000 words of detailed, specific complaint. He named names, and listed many instances of embezzlement, cruelty (to himself and others), sexual misconduct and sundry breaches of the rules.

It is hard to know whether Gould’s tireless campaign really changed things for the better for the paupers of Poplar. The Poor Law Board always responded to his letters, and at least two small-scale inquiries were instigated as a result of his persistence. He himself believed that he had brought about a three-month suspension and a substantial fine for the workhouse master; but he also admitted that ‘upon the return of the Master to his former position, matters then droped again into their former miss rule, and so have continued’. In the end, we can only admire the persistence of a man who had nothing much to gain from his role as self-appointed watchman, and, while he remained a pauper in the workhouse, very much to lose; a man whose only motive was to fulfil ‘a duty which we owe to the Laws of my country, to your Honourable Board, to the poor, and to myself’. May we all have the courage to be a bit more Thomas Gould.