One of the best known dramatic images in English is probably that of Oliver asking for more, an image of childhood hunger that is indelibly linked to Dickens and his age. But why were the workhouses built, and why was the mid 19th century such a hard time for the poor?
To start, there are probably too many factors to discuss properly, but there are a few big events that rear their ugly heads.
The main one is urbanisation. In Britain, the rural population was largely controlled by resources. Women had to work alongside their men, so getting pregnant made them unable to work, so marriage and childbirth were events that mostly happened only when resources allowed. Lack of food and housing seems to have been an effective contraceptive for the poor. Also a factor was that many young poor went to work in the great manor houses, where servants were segregated, so putting a break on marriage and childbirth.
In the countryside, people tended to marry only when they had their own home, but when young men moved to the towns, they often served apprenticeships so were earning adult wages by the age of 21, so could marry several years earlier, adding at least 1 or 2 kids to the family, born to younger mothers so were more robust.
After the long 18th century, when wars and famine caused massive loss of the male population, peace brought problems. The Napoleonic wars had injured many men, so were unable to work at least at full capacity, but they could still marry and have kids. Many ex soldiers and sailors were unemployed, and the local parishes struggled to raise funds to feed and house them from local taxation.
The early 19th century had seen the emergence of massive social changes, none of which anyone knew ho to deal with. As Ian Anstruther writes in his book on the Andover Workhouse scandal, by the 1830s : ‘ Depression had hit the industrial north and thousands were homeless and out of work; terrible storms had destroyed the crops and everywhere the poor were hungry and in rags; tens of thousands, literally, had died when cholera, India’s dreaded scourge, had ravaged the country with inexorable speed; everywhere riot, arson and sabotage threatened the nation with civil war as popular clamour for political reform, dangerously muted since the French Revolution, erupted at last with frightening, incalculable force..’
At the same time, the numbers of poor in Britain had reached extraordinary levels; they had become a virtual army, costing some 7 million pounds per year just to feed. This was also a time of industrialisation of the countryside, making many agricultural workers unemployed in an attempt to control the price of wheat to feed them. The result was the Labourers’ Revolt, which included the Captain Swing Riots where gangs marauder at night smashing machinery.
Ye gods above, send down your love,
With swords as sharp as sickles,
To cut the throats of gentlefolks
Who rob the poor of victuals
This shows another aspect of Britain at the time, the near complete gap between the rich and poor, who accused each other of stealing their food, and blaming them for the crisis. The revolt was suppressed by the militia, several leaders executed and others transported, but the problems continued.
Lord Grey set up a Royal Commission of Enquiry in the Spring of 1832 and two years later, plans were accepted to replace the Elizabethan Poor Laws,. These consisted of local parishes paying the able bodied to stay at home with poor houses for the aged and inform. They effectively industrialised poverty by forming large Poor Unions out of 15 or so parishes, to build a big clean Poor House with strict rules, the absolute minimum of comfort and food and medical treatment The poor were given a choice, to either enjoy freedom and struggle to find work, or be treated as virtual prisoners, but with the only end of their sentence being death.
From the outset, thee draconian plans met with stiff opposition, from the great publisher John Walter, founder of The Times, and the writer and passionate campaigner, William Cobbett, whose books ‘Rural Rides’ are a brilliant account of individual suffering at this time.
The proponents claimed that poverty was caused by idleness, that it was acceptable to criminalise people because of poverty, to separate husbands and wives – in part to control the birth rate, and to confiscate their possessions.
This was the ultimate demonstration of how to be poor was to be utterly powerless. The alternative was claimed that the costs of caring for the poor would bankrupt the country.
The law was passed with a majority on 13 August 1834. Promises were made that the Poor rates would fall, which they did, by about 40% which was better than expected, as the harsh regimes deterred many from entering the work houses, forcing workers to accept lower wages. The Poor Law commission became a power over the poor, as they built a network of prison like workhouses across the country. It was even more humbling for the many former soldiers who had fought for the country’s freedom to be denied it for themselves.
But as Victoria became queen in 1837, harvests failed, and the hungry forties began. Britain was by then THE world power, so was often involved when disasters struck elsewhere. Despite the American War of Independence having been lost in the previous century, there was much commercial exchange between the two, but as Jehanne Wake wrote in ‘Sisters of Fortune’, :
‘Everybody is speculating and everything has become an object of speculation… From Maine to the Red River, the whole country is an immense [stock market]. Thus far everybody has made money as is always the case when speculation is in the ascendant’, wrote the French writer Michael Chevalier. By 1837 everybody was more likely to be losing money. During the preceding six months an economic storm fuelled by wild speculation and the reckless extension of credit had broken over the United States and was moving rapidly across the Atlantic to batter the leading firms engaged in the American trade. ’
This explosion of speculation and financial collapse echoed the South Sea Bubble and other failures in Britain a century earlier, which had also triggered widespread financial problems. Some of the biggest banks in the United States closed or had to be bailed out by Britain, so drawing money out of an already struggling economy. More than a million were unemployed became increasingly subject to harsh treatment within their workhouses where budgets for their food and care were often reduced as the cost of food soared.
The work that paupers had to do to earn their meagre existence was often the pounding of bones to make fertiliser, incredibly hard work for the fit and able, but the cause of much suffering and injury for the children and adults forced to it. Many were injured by flying pieces of bone, or by being crushed. Some of the bones came from old graveyards, but some had traces of meat or contained marrow, so the paupers fought for such scraps to keep themselves alive.
The worst of the abuses were found at the Andover Workhouse, and were reported in 29 dramatic reports in The Times and those responsible were dismissed in the ensuing scandal. The Poor Law Commission was replaced by a Board, with direct responsibility to parliament, so the campaigners seem to have won. But the problems of the poor did not go away.
Then another disaster struck – the potato famine, famous for its effect on depopulating large areas of Ireland, but depriving many British paupers of an important staple in their diet. By isolating the poor from their local area, they were also deprived of contact with local benefactors who would help them out from time to time. And their invisibility made it easier for the draconian system to continue.
As Anstruther wrote: ‘The System was, indeed, the finest in Europe. It gave paupers food and clothing, shelter, warmth and medical attention as a right and without cost, in every corner of England and Wales. The newspapers might complain if they liked; but the Workhouse system had been conceived by some of the cleverest men of the time, taking account of all the circumstances; the numbers of the poor, the distress of the ratepayers, the Labourers’ Revolt, the uncertainties of industry. ‘
As with so many things, context is all. We all know about Oliver Twist, we have seen films set in those dark times, but what of the rest of the world at the time? What do we know of the French, the German, Italian or Russian Olivers?
The problems of the poor back then have not gone away, but there were alternatives for them. People emigrated in huge numbers- often paid for by their local parish – , to North America, to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. There were mining booms such as the California and Australian gold rushes that got rid of some of the poor and brought money in return.
Britain is different to Europe in so many ways, but perhaps the biggest one is that for centuries, it has been possible for people who don’t like things here to emigrate, often to better lives, albeit at a high personal cost. That is one of the biggest differences in our modern world. Today, it is often the able bodied, the rich, the talented who leave, with the poor stuck on their council estates, being blamed for the country‘s evils.
For anyone in London between now and January, there is a free exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives regarding the Poor Laws and their records.