HISTORY: by Geoffrey PartingtonNews Weekly
The long debate on how to alleviate poverty
, May 14, 2011
Today, many Australians oppose “work for the dole”, a form of outdoor relief of considerable generosity; and many thousands of Aborigines or part-Aborigines live in almost permanent pauperism. Attempts to reduce indigenous dependence on welfare have either failed or been rejected as too harsh. Policies designed to provide Aboriginal children with the education available to other Australians have been rejected as child-stealing and cultural genocide. The John Howard/ Mal Brough “Intervention” of 2006 has been rejected as undue interference with the human rights of Aborigines.…
In this context, it is of interest to look at the history of efforts to help the poor in England in the 19th century, when some similar issues arose.
For many poverty-stricken people in Victorian England the workhouse was a name of dread. Some could joke with rhymes that began: “It was Christmas Day in the workhouse”, but there was not much to laugh about.
During the French Wars of the 1790s, the price of bread rose sharply; so did rural unemployment in the southern and midland shires, as enclosures and new machinery reduced demand for labourers.
In 1795 the Berkshire justices of the peace met the pauper crisis with the “Speenhamland System”: “outdoor (outside the workshop, that is) relief” was to be provided from the poor rate on the basis of the local price of the quartern loaf (1,600 gr. when baked) and size of family.
For labourers in work their wages, if below the Speenhamland figure, were topped up from the poor rate. Large-scale employers were thus subsidised by small employers and by ratepayers who employed nobody. Many full-time workers were reduced to pauperism, because some employers reduced wages knowing that their labourers would finish with the same weekly pay. Rev. Thomas Malthus blamed increasing pauperism on population growth fuelled by incentives such as “Speenhamland” for the poor to raise large families.
The Acts of Settlement made things worse by limiting relief to people born, married or apprenticed in a parish. Other claimants were moved on to the next parish after being given food, drink and shelter for a night. This reduced mobility of labour, because many unemployed stayed in their native parishes for fear of being denied the poor law dole elsewhere.
After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the price of wheat and other cereals fell, but rural unemployment increased rapidly. Within three years poor rates in England rose by over a third. The landowner-controlled parliament enacted Corn Laws to restrict imports of grain, but landowners still had to pay poor rates and church tithes, whereas most manufacturers, presiding over still expanding industry, paid neither.
Rural discontent in the southern counties erupted in 1830 into the “Swing Riots” of rick-burning and machine-breaking. The risings were put down forcibly, but both Whigs and Tories concluded that changes must be made in the poor-law system they considered was at least partly to blame.
For once they agreed with the utilitarians who, despite their general opposition to government interference, supported the most powerful central control over people’s lives ever known until then in English history, as the only way to end the wastage and demoralisation created by uncontrolled outdoor relief.
In 1831 the amount spent on poor relief nationally had risen to £7 million a year, more than 10 shillings per head of population. There were about 1.5 million paupers in Britain: some 12 per cent of a 13 million population. The Poor Law commissioners recommended an end to “outdoor relief” for the able-bodied and the systematic building of workhouses in which conditions should be worse than those of the poorest employed labourers.
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was less severe than this. Legislators realised that workhouse conditions could not be at near-starvation levels, and therefore could not be made worse than that of the poorest labourers outside them. Parliament accepted, too, that some outdoor relief ought to be available, although on much stricter terms, in times of high seasonal or cyclical unemployment, to able-bodied paupers. It is not true that most, let alone all, paupers could only get relief by entering a workhouse.
Other than incorporated boroughs and cities, there were no elected forms of local government in 1834. The 1834 Act merged parishes into Poor Law unions elected by ratepayers on a wider franchise than that of the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act. Elected boards of guardians decided on eligibility for relief and supervised the paid staff who ran the workhouses.
The three Poor Law commissioners: the “bashaws of Somerset House”, and even more their secretary, Edwin Chadwick, were determined that workhouse life would not be comfortable. Between 1834 and 1842 no married couples, let alone “partners”, were allowed to cohabit; parents had no legal right to see their own children (although evidently a blind eye was often turned to such meetings); paupers were only allowed outside the workhouse for church or school; meals had to be taken in silence; smoking was forbidden indoors; and the deranged had to be very mad before being transferred to asylums.
Prison-style uniforms had to be worn. Work for men consisted largely of stone-breaking, bone-crushing, oakum-picking and hand-grinding of corn or work on a treadmill. Women were employed largely on washing, black-leading, polishing and cleaning, so that the workhouse floors were among the cleanest in the kingdom. Inmates swearing or feigning sickness could have their food allowance cut for up to 48 hours. Insubordination or violent behaviour could be punished by solitary confinement for up to 24 hours.
Workhouse children were, together with factory children, the first in England for whom school attendance was compulsory. Often not even a minimally qualified teacher was available, so that instruction was frequently given by older paupers. Yet many pauper children became literate and grew up to pursue lives that were more successful than those of many outside the workhouses.
The 1834 system had many enemies. Some critics claimed the workhouses were unnecessary, because they would be half-empty when trade was good, and too small when trade was bad. Later, opponents argued that apparent benefits were merely post hoc and not propter hoc: they would have happened anyway. Some critics condemned separation of families; others claimed that inadequate separation encouraged child abuse and sexual assaults on women.
Agitation began in several industrial districts even before the arrival of Poor Law unions and workhouses. Fear that outdoor relief would be refused during spells of unemployment, and apprehension of oppressive conditions in Poor Law “Bastilles”, led in 1837 to the formation of the Anti-Poor Law Movement in Lancashire and Yorkshire West Riding.
There were riots in weaving districts against unemployment blamed on power-looms. A temporary political alliance was formed during the 1841 election in the West Riding between Chartists and Tories: both loathed factory-owners. Lancashire and Yorkshire were, however, finally compelled to form Poor Law unions. In most northern towns there are still “Union Streets”: the name does not celebrate trades unions or the Union with Scotland or Ireland, but the workhouse.
Major literary figures who denounced the 1834 Act included Thomas Carlyle, Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens. The Brontë household was a centre of indignation: in February 1837 Patrick Brontë described the Act as “a monster of iniquity, a horrid and cruel deformity”. He followed Dickens in imagining workhouse inmates rejecting “their water gruel, and on their two ounces of cheese, and their fourteen ounces of bread per day”. Yet, the six diets for workhouse inmates were nutritionally much more adequate than many poor people had outside workhouses. Cooks were well trained and dismissed if they were incompetent.
Dickens frequently denounced the Poor Law, notably in Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend. Mr Podsnap, a caricature of utilitarianism, claims, “There is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country.”
Old Betty Higden, however, denounces the workhouses: “Kill me sooner than take me there. Throw this pretty child under carthorses’ feet and a loaded wagon, sooner than take him there… your old Granny Betty is nigher four score year than three score and ten. She never begged nor had a penny of the Union money in all of her life… she worked when she could, and she starved when she must.
“You pray that your Granny may have strength enough left her at the last… to get up from her bed and run and hide herself, and swoon to death in a hole, rather than fall into the hands of those Cruel Jacks we read of, that dodge and drive, and worry and weary and scorn and shame, the decent poor.”
Left-wing historians have continued in Dickens’ vein. E.P. Thompson wrote joyfully (1963): “Joseph Raynor Stephens actually called for arson against the ‘Bastilles’ and Oastler stirred up civil — and, sometimes, very uncivil — disobedience and … even urged the use of industrial sabotage against mill-owners who violated the law.”
Simon Fowler, until recently secretary of Labour Heritage and the Labour Oral History Project, claimed (2008) that workhouses were “largely designed for a pool of able-bodied idlers and shirkers” that “hardly existed outside the imagination of a generation of political economists”.
Conditions in some workhouses were appalling, as revealed at the Andover Workhouse, but overall paupers in the workhouses were better off than the very poor outside, because they were regularly fed, clothed and sheltered. Trevor May (1987), wrote of an “insoluble dilemma”: “If the pauper is always promptly attended by a skilful and well-qualified medical practitioner … if the patient be furnished with all the cordials and stimulants which may promote his recovery: it cannot be denied that his condition in these respects is better than that of the needy and industrious ratepayer who has neither the money nor the influence to secure prompt and careful attendance.”
Many unemployed agricultural workers became navvies, carters, miners and mill workers. Many emigrated.
Contrary to Malthus’s gloomy forecasts, higher population did not reduce average living standards, while sexual segregation in workhouses had little effect on population growth. Few Poor Law unions implemented the recommendation that there should be separate workhouses for aged, infirm, children, able-bodied females and able-bodied males, because they could not finance four workhouses.
Despite accusations of extreme parsimony in the workhouses, the net cost per inmate was typically double the amount paid to each recipient of outdoor relief. Some unions hoped that payment for the work undertaken by the inmates would produce a profit, but production costs were almost invariably higher than income.
Overall, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was highly successful. There were significant oscillations in pauper numbers in years that included slump in 1838 and hardships during the “Hungry Forties”; but from about 1,300,000 paupers in 1841, costing £3,884,000, of whom 192,000 were inside workhouses, costing £892,000, and 1,008,000 in receipt of outside relief, costing £2,992,000, pauper numbers fell to between 1,000,000 and 1,250,000 in the 1850s and to 845,000 in 1860.
The national percentage of paupers in 1860 was 4.3 and in 1885 2.8, compared with 12 per cent in 1831.
Not every unpopular measure proves a failure.
Dr Geoffrey Partington was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education; has taught history in secondary schools; and has lectured in education at Flinders University and overseas. He has twice been awarded the George Watson Prize for the best essay on a political subject published in Australia.