Taking the Long View of Contagion, Compassion and Community Response

Temporary Spanis Flue hospital 1918 ii
Temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918

In these unsettling times it might seem as though history has little comfort to offer us. When we look back for reassurance, we tend to light on the scale of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the horrors of the Black Death, or the ravages of smallpox through the ages. Yet despite the hardships and, for some, personal tragedies that have followed in the wake of Covid-19 it is important to maintain a sense of perspective, and one way we can do this is by recognising just how resilient and resourceful we are, and always have been, in the face of epidemics and communicable diseases. From the early modern period onwards, we have built on empirical observations and experimental science to understand the best ways to mitigate and even halt the spread of deadly diseases; but, individually and collectively, we also have a rich history of compassion and public spiritedness when  it comes to protecting vulnerable groups and supporting those most affected by epidemics. Nowhere are all these tendencies clearer than in the stories that emerge from the correspondence to the Poor Law Commissioners across the 19th century.

Hampstead Smallpox Hospital ii
A Ward in the Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, 1871

In 1893, for example, Charles Wills, the medical officer of health for the Southwell Rural Sanitary Authority, wrote to the Local Government Board that a case of smallpox had been discovered at the union workhouse. The affected man, Henry Jackson, had tramped from Manchester (where he was believed to have picked up the disease) and arrived on the 27 January. The authorities swiftly determined that he had shared the vagrant ward that night with a further 18 men, and this was communicated to the Local Government Board with an account (as far as possible) of their ongoing movements. The ward was then closed, and Jackson was placed in isolation with another male inmate to act as his nurse. His companion was chosen specifically because he had previously survived the disease and was therefore assumed to be immune. The Guardians took further measures to stop the spread of the disease by vaccinating or re-vaccinating all inmates over the age of 10 who would allow it. As a result of their swift action, Jackson’s was the only recorded case on this occasion: he seems to have recovered by late March, and his ‘key worker’, Robert Rushton, who nursed him for a full seven weeks, was later given a guinea by the Guardians as a reward for his efforts, which enabled him to discharge himself from the workhouse. In a postscript to the case, the Medical Officer, Charles Wills, wrote that there were many isolated cases of smallpox in Derbyshire and Yorkshire at the time, and that it was bound to be exported to neighbouring districts. In response, he proposed that some semi-detached cottages should be built on property adjacent to the workhouse in order to improve facilities for isolation if it reached Southwell again (it is not known whether the Board chose to act on his recommendation in this instance)  (TNA MH 12/8544, 9547).

If all of this sounds remarkably familiar, then it’s hardly surprising: the very fact that epidemics were a constant threat before the refinements of modern medicine meant that rapid responses and empirical methods of containment were at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and many of the public health measures that were instigated from the 1830s onwards were, of course, specifically aimed at achieving this outcome. Crucially, the newly centralised and bureaucratised structures of the poor law were an ideal forum for applying these measures. So it was that when Richard Pugh, the clerk to the Watford Union, reported in 1849 that there had been a fatal case of cholera in the town, the Guardians were well placed to put in train a series of measures to ensure that it was checked at source. These included a house-to-house visitation of infected localities, and when a case was discovered in the Workhouse Infirmary it involved daily testing and examination of all workhouse inmates to ensure that timely treatment could be applied as soon as symptoms manifested themselves (TNA MH 13/197).

Indeed, large parts of daily workhouse practice were specifically aimed at stopping the encroachment of communicable diseases from gaining a foothold in these institutions, and from spreading more widely if detected. The oft-noted practice of removing a person’s clothes for ‘purification’ (usually by boiling) when they were admitted and replacing them with workhouse dress was done for precisely this reason. It is a subject that has often caused controversy in the literature, because contemporaries, and most historians, have chosen to interpret it simply as a way of enforcing a degrading uniform; but, in fact, it was a very effective way of checking the spread of disease. As the president of the Poor Law Board explained to Parliament in 1849, “the rule now in force [was] introduced on considerations suggested by the necessity of securing cleanliness,” and he added that “by enforcing it, the cleanliness and health of the establishments [has] been very materially promoted” (Bath Chronicle, 28 June 1849). When common sense measures such as these were not followed, paupers themselves were the first to complain. In 1867, for example, J. Smith, an inmate at Bethnal Green workhouse, wrote that the nurses from the sick wards were carrying their dirty washing through the day rooms, which were used predominantly by elderly and infirm inmates, and that this laundry was likely to be contaminated from contact with infected patients. He complained that it was a practice which was “injurious to health and not to be tolerated,” and he suggested that the only reason nurses were not allowed to go the “proper way” to the laundry was because the Master was fearful lest his own children “should catch a disease, as they would have to pass his apartments” (TNA MH 12/6854).

This focus on the workhouse poor brings us back full circle to the situation we face today with Covid-19. Thankfully, here in Britain, as in many countries where it has made such rapid progress, things have begun to stabilise and, though obviously still of great concern, the overall number of cases and deaths seems to have plateaued. One of the areas of increasing anxiety, however, relates to care home residents, and we still have little understanding of just how devastating it will turn out to be for the institutional care sector as a whole. Clearly, many of the practical measures outlined above were specifically designed to protect workhouse populations from mass outbreaks. But the authorities were also acutely aware that other measures that we are now becoming all-too familiar with could make a crucial difference in preventing institutional tipping-points. So, for example, when Widow Granger, a resident at Barnet workhouse, asked permission to go out and visit her dangerously ill granddaughter, the Guardians “refused [her request] in consequence of the complaint being the small pox” (G. Gear (ed.), The Diary of Benjamin Woodcock: Master of the Barnet Union Workhouse 1836-38 (Herts. Record Society, 2008), p.98). This entry tells us that Widow Granger would, under normal circumstances, most likely have been allowed out on compassionate grounds; something that, in itself, challenges many of the standard narratives about workhouse life. But it also tells us that officials in the 19th century were constantly grappling with the competing needs – emotional, psychological and medical – of those under their charge in exactly the same way as those who are currently trying to manage the spread of Covid-19 in care homes. The question of how to protect the physical welfare of vulnerable residents, while ensuring that they are not denied the life-affirming contact and support of loved ones, is clearly not a new one.

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented for most of us: but alongside the uncertainty and inevitable anxiety that comes with a situation like this, we also have the opportunity to reflect on the great sacrifices that ordinary people – from key workers to coordinators, and from community volunteers to self-isolaters – are making for the public good. It is, perhaps, some comfort to know that we have such deep reserves of selflessness and rapid response to draw on. This last example, from the Board of Guardians’ Minutes of Mitford and Launditch Union in Norfolk during the last great epidemic of smallpox in 1871, is a wonderful case in point (TNA MH 12/8484).

The attention of the Guardians was particularly directed to the case of William Cory, of Great Dunham, Labourer, who, with his Wife and family of six children, had recently been deprived of their usual Harvest earnings by reason of the state of Quarantine imposed upon them, for 5 or 6 weeks, in consequence of the existence of Small Pox in a Cottage adjoining his Dwelling house and under the same roof: And it being shewn to the satisfaction of the Guardians that this insulation of Cory and his family has tended to prevent the spread of the disease but that he had thereby incurred a loss of Five pounds and upwards, it is unanimously resolved that he be allowed the sum of Five Pounds, either under the provisions of the Sanitary Acts, or by way of gratuity under the special circumstances as the Local Government Board may approve.





“Drunk, Drunk, Drunken Bich”: The Crime (and occasional merits) of Anonymity

1842 attack workhouse stockport
Illustrated London News, 1842

In a previous post (‘Holding Power to Account, Pauper Style’), we talked about the potential hazards to paupers of complaining openly about their treatment under the New Poor Law, particularly those who were resident in the workhouse. They could be – and, they claimed, often were – subject to severe reprisals for bringing injustices, cruelty and misdemeanours to light. In fact, it is a constant source of amazement to us that so many wrote to the Poor Law Commission under their own names, given the fact that they were, by definition, economically dependent on the very officials they sought to bring to account. The vast majority of the letters from paupers that we’ve found in the MH12 collection carried their own names, and many workhouse inmates wrote again and again to highlight poor treatment and injustice, very often giving details into the bargain of the physical and material cost to themselves of doing so.

One of the problems for pauper letter-writers was that the Commissioners in London quickly decided, after 1834, that they would not respond to anonymous letters – presumably in order to discourage criticism of the system without accountability. When such letters arrived, they were quickly annotated by officials with comments like “Anonymous, and not worth noticing” (MH12/6847, original ref. 25188/1856), or “I presume that as the communication is anonymous nothing further need be done” (MH12/3408, original ref. 46590/1869). This meant that, in order for their concerns to be taken seriously, paupers knew that they simply had to identify themselves; and, given that the first response of the Commissioners was to forward a copy of the letter to the local guardians for their comments, it is easy to see how this system could be abused.

As all this suggests, however, a minority of letters were sent anonymously, and there are reasons why this should be so above and beyond the threat of reprisals. Sometimes, the subject of a complaint was so serious that paupers – and particularly workhouse inmates – simply did not feel that the risk of identifying themselves was worth taking. In 1866, for example, a letter was sent to Sir George Gray, the Home Secretary, from an inmate at Bethnal Green urging “an inquest on Mrs. Follett who was starved to death in my Ward”. The unnamed author noted that “We sent a Letter the other day to the Police Station, but she is took away and no inquest”, and concluded, darkly: “but it will come out” (MH12/6852, original ref. 13543/1866). On other occasions, anonymity allowed paupers to dispense with the usual niceties and give vent to their frustration in the most uncompromising terms. So it was that an unnamed inmate of Basford workhouse, in Nottinghamshire, wrote to inform the Poor Law Board that “misis Johnson [the Matron is] allways drunk She puts a Botle in her Pockit She gets drunk and falls doun stears [and] makes her Self a Black eyes”. The writer went on to threten that “if thear is not sumthink dun sune we shall Write to the house of lords”, and finished with a flourish: “drunk drunk drunk”, he (or she) wrote with gusto, “drunk drunken Bich” (MH12/9248, original ref. 31594/1862).

Letters like this demonstrate the kind of visceral language that is more familiar from anonymous threatening letters in the 18th and 19th centuries than from the usual petitionary appeals we’re used to in MH12. It is part threat, part cathartic outpouring; and it is difficult to know which of these functions gave the writer the most satisfaction. The element of catharsis is clearly evident, too, in a series of letters that were sent from the workhouse in Cardiff, in 1855. Their target was the new master and matron, Mr and Mrs John, and the first letter was pithy and to the point: “take [heed] John”, it stated, “there his a bullet redy for you and the old chair man and…your wife[.] one of you shall die” (MH12/16250, original ref. 47409/1855). Seven further letters were sent to gentlemen in the town, appealing for them to look into the master’s conduct, and each threatened some form of violent revenge if nothing was done. “We broke one window yesterday”, read one, “and by my God if there is no alteration before this week is out the old house and they shall be burned in their beds”; “Our hearts is trembling within our bodies”, read another, “for to burn or poison the set” (MH12/18250,original ref. 48915/1855).

Rebecca & Daughters Punch v.5 p.5
From Punch, 1843

The precise grievances of the writer(s) are less important to us here than the form and tone of these letters (in fact, the general accusation was that the pauper inmates were starved while the master and his family lived in luxury). In particular, they are very reminiscent of the threatening letters that were sent during the Rebecca Riots in rural Wales between 1839 and 1843. Although Rebecca is generally described as a movement against turnpike tolls, it also led to protests against many other things, including, significantly, the treatment of the poor. As the Guardians pointed out in relation to the letters sent at Cardiff, there was very little apprehension that the writer(s) would actually carry out their threats. Nonetheless, they took them seriously enough to request that a police officer be sent from London to discover the author(s), so that they might be “punished as an example to others” (MH12/18250, original ref. 47409/1855). At least in part, this may have been because they felt Rebecca’s breath on their shoulder when they read them.

The one thing letters like this demonstrate is that, despite the general tone of respectability and conventional politeness that characterises most pauper letters in MH12, when they donned the cloak of anonymity paupers were also quite prepared to drop the mantle of compliance and subservience. Sometimes, when direct action was not an option, epistolary anonymity, and the consequent disregard of the authorities, seems to have been a price worth paying for the opportunity to vent all that simmering frustration and anger directly. I wonder if we haven’t all felt that impulse from time to time.