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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Disability and Independence: the Long View

PIP outline

In March 2018 the Daily Mirror reported that Government reforms to disability benefits had fallen into disrepute. Some 69% of all people who appealed against decisions not to award (or not to award at the full rate) Personal Independence Payments in the prior tax year had won their cases. Reforms had been launched to great fanfare in 2013, with these so-called ‘PIP’ payments superseding the former Disability Living Allowance. The latter allowance, the Government argued, had itself fallen into disrepute, with the process allowing hundreds of thousands of people to fake disability or at least its extent.

From 2013 onwards almost 1 million people had their disabilities and hence their allowances reassessed. Newspapers across the political spectrum reported negatively on the new ability/disability tests, with those able to make even the most basic exercise type movements suddenly deemed fit to work. Over 500,000 people found that their previous benefits were downgraded or stopped completely. The cases of some high profile benefit cheats, who claimed severe disability and then were found on holiday, working or even, in one case, laying on strip shows while dressed as Batman, provided some populist cover for the reforms.

Here in 2018, it has become clear that the tests of ability to work have been both harsh and incompetently administered, leading to the Daily Mirror headline, itself duplicated across the print and e-media from March through to May. This places the Government in a thorny position. On many measures, Britain is the most disabled country in Europe and the world. Epidemics of obesity, chronic conditions associated with ageing, diabetes and alcohol dependence have created a public and personal health crisis. Yet even allowing for this, it seems intrinsically unlikely that somewhere between 1 and 2 million people are genuinely too disabled to work. What, then, can politicians ‘do’ about disability?

For us at ITOW, the answer might be to look at the past to shape policies for the future. Many of the modern dilemmas of disability policy are familiar to us all: how to deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of those with the physical and mental impairments that emerge out of extreme old age; whether and how to define those with physical impairments as ‘able’ and thus to oblige them to find work; how to deal with funding shortfalls in the NHS as it struggles and fails to meet the spiralling costs of intervening in areas of mental and physical impairment; and questions over what the proper balance between state, voluntary and private actions should be on these and other issues. Modern policy-makers, fund-holders, charities and even disability pressure groups construct these questions as essentially ‘new’. In fact, they are not.

The modern narrative that those with mental, physical and sensory impairments must be enabled (and sometimes forced) into work as both a good in itself, and as a way to reduce the poverty that many people with impairments face, was part of the welfare wallpaper in the nineteenth-century. New tests for disability of the sort referred to above focus on where someone sits on a spectrum of ability rather than disability. This way of thinking about impairments was central to the relationship between ordinary people and the local state in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, applicants and officials shared a common language of degrees of ability. Here for instance is Sarah Giles. She wrote to the central poor law authorities from Northampton on 18 February 1837 and asked that they ‘stand as my last frend in this wurld’.

Giles explained that ‘I have not been able to walk since my accident Sir and have to be pushed around when I can’. But, she noted:

I am not nor dersabled as you might call it but I derpend on selling my little thyngs on the street and this gets me most of my part and with the kind help of my naybours and the indugunce of my landlord and no littel help from my Brother I can make do but now I have been ill these last wintur munths and I have not bin abul to git about in the snow and can not use the crutches or the wheel in these times and so I am beehind with all ands so will you please kindly show as a frend for just a month as I am less able that I may settle some littel deps and keep my head up here that I may once again do what I can without the asisternce of the Board here.

Giles had been paralysed in a fall down a disused quarry pit as a girl and we have records of the race to save her life at that time. As an adult of 34 years of age, she now applied for help from the Northampton Poor Law Union, clearly not understanding that she ought to have applied to the local relieving officer rather than the central authorities. Yet this accidental letter is important. Giles assumed that there was a shared understanding that her paralysis did not equate to disability. When the weather was good, and she was healthy, Giles could wheel or crutch herself around selling items from a basket on the street, and maintain independence with the help of friends and neighbours. She had, in other words, a degree of ability. Most of those with sensory or physical disability in the nineteenth-century constructed themselves in a similar way.

Our failure to build on historical knowledge like this is important. In the nineteenth century, keeping those with impairments out of full and long-term dependency on the State required a dynamic local partnership between the person with the impairment, their variously constructed communities and the welfare system. Officials were often called upon to act quickly and to use welfare payments flexibly in order to support people as they traversed a spectrum of ability and inability. They almost always acted in partnership with families and neighbours, and they carefully calibrated their actions in relation to the current state of ability of claimants. Where those with impairments worked and earned wages, this was not a bar to rapid or significant action by the welfare authorities. Only when someone had confined themselves to bed and thus withdrawn from the public world did the language of disability start to creep in.

Greenwich pensioner
Disabled Greenwich Pensioners (© Wellcome Image Library)

In this nineteenth-century context, where legal rights to receive relief as opposed to a legal right to apply for it were few, most of those with mental, physical or sensory impairments seem to have retained a moral right to favourable consideration. Local officials familiar with the stories of those who claimed welfare, could and did find it virtually impossible to erase moral rights even if they wanted to in the first place. The legal rights that can so easily be watered down in the face of budget constraints are, arguably, no substitute for the loss of such moral rights over time.

Now, as the threat of a new and substantial tide of impairment looms large, and reforms to disability welfare policy have (as the Daily Mirror reminds us so forcibly) failed , history has very much to teach us.

Further reading:

  • Borsay, A., Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005).
  • Croley, L., ‘A working distinction: Vagrants, beggars, and the labouring poor in mid-Victorian England’, Prose Studies, 18 (1995), 74-104.
  • Gulliver, M., ‘Insulting Jean Massieu: Debating Representational Control of Deaf People in Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain’, Social and Cultural History, 14 (2017), 321-42
  • King, S., ‘Constructing the disabled child in England, 1800-1860’, Family and Community History, 18 (2015), 56-89.
  • Phillips, G., The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c.1780-1930 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).