It is true the workhouse and the 1834 Act which introduced the new system of relief have many critics.
Much was written on the conditions in the workhouse, and these Poor Law Bastilles were both hated and feared particularly amongst those who had to rely on them. There were also many in the establishment who were hostile. These included Thomas Carlyle, and Charles Dickens, along with the Tory Richard Oastler who had long campaigned for factory reform and the radical William Cobbet. They were joined by the Times newspaper which from the late 1830s into the 40s carried letters highlighting some of the worst abuses.
Like all campaigning propaganda some of what was written was at best exaggeration and at worst falsehoods. The powerful scenes in Oliver Twist are in case in point. There was brutality and at times a callous disregard of the inmates which reaches its highpoint in Oliver’s diet “of three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week on Sundays.” But contemporary accounts and modern research suggest that this diet owed more to Dickens’s own hatred of the workhouses than reality.
But this should not blind us to what awaited any of those from our township who sought relief in the years after 1834. A precondition of admission was that families were segregated. It mattered little if the couple had been together for almost all their entire adult life or that they entered as a family unit.
The sad fact was that many working families could expect to seek relief at some point and the hated “bastilles” were one of the strategies to cope with unforeseen circumstances by all of those on the margin of poverty. This extended to those who were ill and might be admitted to the infirmary as well as those giving birth outside wedlock.
The Poor Law Commissioners reasoned that to provide medical care for a bread winner would in the long run be more economical than having to provide assistance to the whole family in the event that the illness proved long term. In the same way they were keen to promote schemes to resettle agricultural families from the depressed south to the growing industrial north and sponsor emigration to Canada and Australia.
It is always dangerous to make judgements about the past. The economic and political landscape as well as the prevailing philosophy of self help are, or at least were so different from our own that it can be misleading to criticise the system of poor relief. On the other hand Britain was the workshop of the world with vast riches flowing into the country from a growing empire.
But that wealth was held by a small section of the community who saw fit to devise a system of relief which regarded the sick, the unemployed and the old as feckless and grasping and whose poverty had to be punished.
Nor was the outcome of the 1834 Act a departure from existing thinking on caring for the poor. During the 18th century experiments had been undertaken to group parishes together with a central workhouse with the guiding principle that conditions inside should be so harsh that only the desperate would seek help. Nor should we forget that the policy of issuing settlement and removal orders had been in existence since the early 17th century. These made settling in a parish conditional on the family or individuals being able to prove they had the means to support themselves and in the event that they couldn’t provided for removal to their place or origin.
Extracts from Chorlton-cum-Hardy, by Andrew Simpson to be published in April 2012.