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A third scandal of 1845 was associated with the poor law, one of the most controversial aspects of the ‘Condition of England Question’. When appalling abuses in a workhouse in rural Hampshire led to a public enquiry, MPs and their constituents alike were riveted by reports in the national press. The poor law was administered from the metropolis through official correspondence that ran to tens of thousands of letters each year. Press reports and a later select committee of the House of Commons revealed that the boundaries between official (semi-public) and private letters were sometimes blurred at critical moments in the Andover story. As in the Mazzini debates in the Commons, however, such letters were often the most solid evidence available. Troubling parallels between all three scandals of 1845 that are under review in this part were used by the Revd Sydney Godolphin Osborne, the most lively contributor of letters to The Times on the subject of the Andover workhouse, thus twisting the tail of Sir James Graham, the beleaguered home secretary of the day.
This chapter sets out how Elizabeth I’s extraordinary Poor Laws brought into being the world’s first collectivist-individualist society, a unique English political and moral achievement that mandated community support for orphans, widows, the infirm and sick, the old, the involuntary unemployed and single mothers and their children. It will show how this nurturing welfare system protected England from the scourge of famine – that other devastator of populations after plague – such that the English were free of large-scale famine more than 150 years earlier than the rest of Europe. It also helped power England’s exceptional economic growth, supporting a mobile workforce to develop secure in the knowledge that they would be supported if times were hard.
It details how these Poor Law provisions were misguidedly overturned in 1834 by the new, more exclusively individualist economics and utilitarianism of the nineteenth century before returning, over a century later, with the founding of the post-war Beveridge welfare state. This saw a collectivist-individualist balance restored in full all across society, a Golden Age of growth with a comprehensive welfare system funded by progressive taxation and leaders of enterprise incentivised to consider long-term returns alongside the welfare of their workforces and communities.
Marriage was often a way to contain the poverty of women and children and sometimes men. Men were expected to be the family breadwinners, earning enough to feed, clothe and house their wife and children. In reality, poorer women were always obliged to assist in supplementing or securing the family income, as were children. For many women, the desertion of a husband brought them and their children to destitution and they ended up in the workhouse. Desertion could occur at any point in a marriage, sometimes after a couple of days or even years later. The large number of newspaper notices placed by husbands cautioning the public that they would not pay any bills accumulated by their runaway wives testify to the way in which men and women took matters into their own hands to abandon a difficult marriage, without consulting a lawyer or, in many cases, their spouse. Sometimes spouses agreed to a desertion as a way of separating. The evolution of the law throughout the period saw the removal of legal constraints placed upon women granting them, for instance, greater property rights and economic autonomy. By the end of the nineteenth century, the law provided more substantial support to women who were deserted, or separated, particularly in the area of securing maintenance payments.
Chapter 6 uses the fictional working-class Jemima’s account of the poor laws and the laws of settlement and removal to discuss a series of cases involving poor and pauper women in interaction with the law. Material is drawn from magistrates’ proceedings and from the records of the court of King’s Bench, where some of the cases, including that of the slave servant Charlotte Howe, were sent on appeal. The judges’ (including William Blackstone and chief justice Mansfield) attitudes towards the poor laws are discussed.
Some ordinary working people at the turn of the nineteenth century appear to have had the knowledge and the means to employ an attorney to write a legally threatening letter to those who had offended them in some way, thus bypassing the ‘official’ legal channel of the local magistrate. Their law consciousness is explored by examining four specific cases of a purchased ‘lawyer’s letter’ and by the variety of jokes – terrifying comedy – they made about the law.
The systematic proselytisation of Catholic children institutionalised under the New Poor Law of 1834 was felt by the Catholic community as a very serious grievance. The legislation was framed so as to make the ministrations of the state church an integral part of the workhouse regime, while providing safeguards for the religious rights of non-Anglicans, both adults and children, through a conscience clause which however was not envisaged as applicable to children perceived as having no meaningful family connections. Loose wording allowed locally elected poor law bodies to frustrate the intentions of Parliament, and nullify all efforts of relatives and others to secure appropriate religious upbringing for Catholic children. The problem was particularly acute in the London area. Earlier lobbying initiatives came to nothing, but a fresh campaign begun in 1859, waged with the participation of Catholics at all levels of society, and persisting in the face of repeated setbacks, succeeded in 1868 in bringing about a change in the law, whereby procedures were established to enable the transfer of all poor law children of proven Catholic background to voluntary institutions under Catholic management, with funding for their maintenance paid from the poor rates.
Did late Victorian strikers have a right to poor relief? Historians have suggested they did not. Scholars point out that nineteenth-century strikers rarely turned to the Poor Law for assistance, and when they did, during a colliers' strike in South Wales in 1898, Poor Law officials were taken to court by disgruntled coal companies. In the subsequent High Court ruling known as the Merthyr Tydfil judgment of 1900, the Master of the Rolls decided that the policy of relieving the strikers had indeed been unlawful. However, it is argued in this article that the judgment has not been properly understood by historians. Contemporaries did not think it obvious that the giving of poor relief to strikers was illegal. On the contrary, in 1898, there was widespread agreement that Poor Law officials had no choice but to support destitute strikers; the Poor Law demanded they relieve the men and their families, a point confirmed in an earlier High Court ruling in 1899. Thus, Poor Law scholars should view the Merthyr judgment as a notable innovation in Poor Law policy. Labor historians should see the ruling as part of the employers' counteroffensive against the labor movement of the 1890s and 1900s. Merthyr came out of the same febrile atmosphere that produced the Taff Vale judgment. That its true significance has been forgotten can largely be explained by the labor movement's unease at having a striker's right to poor relief confirmed in 1899. Respectable workers, union leaders averred, should not be supported out of the poor rates.
The post-war history of hospital care for older people in Britain in the first phase of its National Health Service (NHS) emphasises a detrimental Poor Law legacy. This article presents a regional study, based on the South West of England, of the processes by which Victorian workhouses became the basis of geriatric hospital provision under the NHS. Its premise is that legislative and medical developments provided opportunities for local actors to discard the ‘legacy’, and their limited success in doing so requires explanation. Theoretical perspectives from the literature are introduced including political economy approaches; historical sociology of the medical profession; and path dependence. Analysis of resource allocation decisions shows a persistent tendency to disadvantage these institutions by comparison with acute care hospitals and services for mothers and children, although new ideas about geriatric medicine had some impact locally. Quantitative and qualitative data are used to examine policies towards organisation, staffing and infrastructural improvements, suggesting early momentum was not maintained. Explanations lie partly with national financial constraints and partly with the regional administrative arrangements following the NHS settlement which perpetuated existing divisions between agencies.
This chapter concentrates on the provision of urban social services concerning poverty and health, especially critical life situations associated with unemployment, low wages, life-cycle stages, illness and death. Britain as voluntarism became municipal and increasingly mutually interdependent with the local state of local government and the poor law. In the mid-nineteenth century the reliance on families for the provision of social welfare may have been even greater in urban industrial towns than rural areas and small towns. The chapter then focuses on the continuities and changes in the provision of social services with regard to poverty and health. It explores alternative sources of assistance and their interrelationships in the mixed economy of welfare. Finally, the chapter examines to what extent these changed during the period and paying particular attention to whether there were distinctive urban aspects and to variations among urban areas.
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