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Strikers and the Right to Poor Relief in Late Victorian Britain: The Making of the Merthyr Tydfil Judgment of 1900

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2013

Abstract

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.

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Articles
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Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2013

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References

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32 Ibid.

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47 Aberdare Times, 30 April 1898.

48 See, for example, Western Mail, 25 April 1898 and Aberdare Times, 4 June 1898.

49 Merthyr Express, 6 August 1898.

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63 Ibid.

64 Merthyr Times, 29 April 1898.

65 Western Mail, 16 May 1898. Some 6,000 miners were disenfranchised as a consequence of receiving poor relief during the strike (Manchester Guardian, 20 September 1898).

66 Merthyr Times, 3 June 1898.

67 Webb and Webb, English Poor Law History, 1:374.

68 Merthyr Times, 13 May 1898.

69 Webb and Webb, English Poor Law History, 2:836, n.1.

70 Aberdare Times, 30 April 1898.

71 Merthyr Express, 1 April 1899.

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77 Aberdare Times, 7 May 1898.

78 On the decision to apply for relief as a “choice,” see Lees, Solidarities of Strangers, 37.

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85 Ibid.

86 “Bircham to Shepard,” 3 June 1898, BG/B/Miscellaneous Papers 0036, GRO. There were good reasons for taking the threat of unrest seriously. There had been antilandlord riots in Merthyr and hundreds of troops were billeted in the coalfield. One newspaper declared that “something approaching revolution” was not “very far off” (Merthyr Express, 4 June 1898; Merthyr Times, 3 June 1898).

87 Merthyr Times, 22 July 1898.

88 Merthyr Times, 8 July 1898.

89 “MBG minutes,” 16 July 1898, U/M 1/25, GRO.

90 Merthyr Times, 29 July 1898.

91 “MBG minutes,” 16 July 1898, GRO, U/M 1/25.

92 “Bircham to Knollys,” 11 August 1898, 12/8022, TNA: MH.

93 Merthyr Express, 6 August 1898.

94 The same situation obtained in the Bedwellty union.

95 Merthyr Times, 30 March 1899.

96 Economist, 1 April 1899, 459.

97 Attorney General v. Merthyr Guardians.

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