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.

 

Paupers, Politics and the Power of the Pen

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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.

Life and Death in (and out) of the Victorian Workhouse

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Detail from a portrait of ‘Old Scotty’, a homeless beggar in London, by John Thomson, 1877 (© SWNS.com)

This week,  Conservative MP and former soldier Adam Holloway got into hot water when he suggested during a Parliamentary debate on homelessness that “sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the Army”.  Unsurprisingly, his comments were seized on in parts of the media, and he was widely castigated for his lack of sympathy and understanding. He hardly helped himself by going on to suggest that London homelessness was being driven by East European migrants, and that “begging is part of the problem”, because “you can…make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London” . On the face of it, his intervention seems to fit perfectly with official attitudes to homelessness going back to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 – an Act that, perhaps surprisingly, is still in force, and which states that:

every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself,

is liable to prosecution as a “rogue” or “vagabond”.

Yet, as Holloway himself acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, the problem of rough sleeping and rough sleepers has never been straightforward, and it isn’t one that responds well to simplistic solutions, whether martial or well-meaning (though the demonization of specific groups – rogues, vagabonds and foreigners, for example – is unlikely to help, either). We at ITOW were reminded of this when we came across the case of John Moss, which appears in the Axminster poor law correspondence for 1848 (MH12/2099).

Moss was a well-known figure around Axminster in the 1840s. He was described as “rather eccentric…but a quiet man”. He supported himself by begging, and roamed widely in the surrounding countryside; but he had no fixed address, and often found himself in the workhouse – once for a full twelve months. Although he seems to have been tolerated locally, he did fall foul of the Vagrancy Act now and then, and he was committed to the local gaol on more than one occasion. Sadly, his luck ran out in the winter of 1848, when he was found dead in an abandoned ‘tallet’ (a Devon term for a hayloft) near the village of Gittisham: according to the local paper he had lain there undiscovered for a more than a week.

At the inquest, it was reported that all he had on him was “a knife, clothes brush, a clean neckerchief, one shilling in silver and fifteen pence in coppers”. He also had a letter dated Ottery St. Mary, 23 January 1842 (six years before his death) and signed by “Elizabeth Moss”, and it was by this means that he was eventually identified. Shortly before he died, he had been given money and food by the Rev. J.T. Marker and others locally. It seems it was simple exposure to the cold that killed him: there were no signs of violence. He was “aged about 50”.

It would be easy to view this eccentric loner, in and out of the workhouse, as a victim of the system, with no fixed address and no proper support, begging for his bread and jailed for his pains. But scratch the surface of John Moss’s sad tale, and a slightly more complicated story comes into view; for Moss, it appears, was not entirely without resources to call on, despite his apparently down-at-heel existence. His father had been a local farmer, renting a property at £120 a year, and his brother was reportedly a surveyor “in tolerable circumstances”. He was described by Poor Law officials as a man “of respectable connexions”.

We have already seen that Moss used the Workhouse as a refuge when life outside  became too much – or, perhaps, when he wanted to avoid arrest for vagrancy. Who knows what drove him to choose the life he did? Were his ‘eccentricities’ more profound than that innocent term suggests? Was it a family rift that sent him on the tramp, or perhaps an emotional crisis? (What of that letter from the mysterious Elizabeth, the only intimate possession he had on him when he died?) Or had he simply had enough of institutional life? We know enough about workhouse tramp wards (Orwell’s ‘Spikes’) to suggest that any life outside might just be preferable.

Whatever the reasons behind John Moss’s mendicant lifestyle, it does seem to illustrate the central point made by MP Adam Holloway in his Commons speech this week – a point that was largely lost in the furore about his less subtle pronouncements. “The overriding majority” of those who were ‘genuinely’ homeless, he said:

[have] some sort of mental health issue, which is compounded by living on the streets and by drug and alcohol addiction…we should start treating [homeless]people as individuals rather than lumping them all together and suggesting that everyone has the same need.

John Moss was one such individual, and though his needs were periodically met in the workhouse and by the community at large, sadly this was not enough to save him in the end.

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‘Beggars leaving Town for their Work-house’, From J.T. Smith, Vagabondiana (1817)