Posts Tagged ‘Poor Law Commissioners’

Richard Oastler, on Why the Poor Deserve to Keep Their Liberty from the Workhouse

April 22, 2016

I found this quote from Richard Oastler’s The Rights of the Poor to Liberty and Life of 1838 in the book Poverty and Public Health, by Rosemary Rees (Oxford: Heinemann 2001):

Remember, always that liberty – freedom from confinement as well as food and clothing – is the birthright of every Englishman, however poor. What, Sir, is the principle of the New Poor Law? The condition imposed upon Englishmen by that accursed law is, that man shall give up his liberty to save his life! That, before he shall eat a piece of bread, he shall go into prison. In prison, he shall enjoy his right to live, but it shall be at the expense of that liberty, without which life itself becomes a burden and curse.

Thank God, the law of the land does not yet say – though the Commissioners of the New Poor Law have dared to say – that poverty is a crime, by which an Englishman may be deprived of the blessings of liberty.

(p.99).

Bloggers like Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman, Tom Pride and Mike over at Vox Political, and myself have repeatedly pointed out the similarities of the workfare system to slave labour. It’s also been pointed out, time and again, that a benefit claimant may spend longer on workfare than a criminal sentenced to community service. It doesn’t seem to me to be at all a stretch to apply this quote from Oastler about the ‘New Bastilles’ of the workhouses to workfare and the wretched sanctions regime.

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G.M. Trevelyan and the Promotion of Victorian ‘Workhouse’ Values in the 20th Century

February 24, 2016

I’ve put up a few pieces in the past few days tracing Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ and the modern Tories’ emphasis on conditionality in welfare support – or what’s left of it – to the doctrine of less eligibility that insisted that welfare relief should be made as hard and uncomfortable as possible in order to dissuade the able-bodied poor from going on it. The recommendation of the Tory think-tank, Reform, that the disabled should be paid the same amount of relief as those without disabilities very strongly echoes the classic statement of the principles of ‘less eligibility’ as articulated by a Victorian Poor Law Commissioner.

G.C. Peden in his book, British Economic and Social Policy: Lloyd George to Margaret Thatcher (Deddington: Philip Allan Publishers Ltd 1985) describes how laissez-faire individualism was central to Victorian economic attitudes. He notes that it became a philosophy that permeated politics and social studies, and discusses the rise of the doctrine of ‘less eligibility’ and the 1834 Poor Law establishing the workhouses. He also mentions the work of the historian, G.M. Trevelyan, in continuing to promote the workhouse and the ideology behind it into the Twentieth century, writing

One man acting as a bridge between the centuries was G.M. Trevelyan, who was born in 1876 and who was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1927 to 1940. His British History in the Nineteenth Century and After first appeared in 1922 and was still being printed as a paperback in the 1960s. In it, Trevelyan gave a classic defence of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Before that date magistrates in England and Wales had had the power to supplement inadequate wages out of local rates – a form of relief which Trevelyan describes as destructive of self-respect and self-help, virtues which could be restored to what he called the ‘cringing poor’ only by the ‘intellectually honest’ if ‘harsh’ reform of 1834. (Trevelyan 1965, pp. 248-9). (p. 4). (My emphasis).

Trevelyan was one of the leading historians of that period, and my guess is that many schoolchildren and students studying history in the early and middle twentieth century were brought up on at least some of his works. My mother, for example, has a copy of one of them, though she certainly doesn’t share his attitudes. My guess is that Trevelyan’s works form the intellectual background to Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ and their re-emergence in the Tory party. Of course, she was greatly taken with von Hayek, slapping to down in front of her cabinet colleagues to say ‘This is what we all believe now’, but I think Trevelyan’s influence was already strong, at least in preparing the intellectual ground for von Hayek, Friedman and the like. And it’s disgusting that what should have gone the way of the 19th century is still blighting life in the early 21st.

The Principle of Less Eligibility in the Words of the Poor Law Commissioners

February 15, 2016

Bloggers such the Angry Yorkshireman, Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void and very many others have pointed out that the dominant ideology behind the Tory cuts is essentially the principle of less eligibility. This was the idea behind the New Poor Law, which saw the creation of workhouses across the UK, in which the poor were incarcerated. Conditions were made so unpleasant in order to deter what would be known now as ‘welfare dependency’. They were to stop people entering them unless they were in absolutely dire need.

I found this statement of the principle from one of the 1832 commissioners responsible for the ‘New Bastilles’ in Pat Young’s Mastering Social Welfare (Basingstoke: MacMillan 1989).

Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice. But once the condition of the pauper is made more uncomfortable than that of the independent labourer then new life, new energy, is infused into the constitution of the pauper; he is aroused like one from sleep, his relation with his neighbours high and low is changed; he surveys his former employers with new eyes. He begs a job – he will not take a denial, he discovers that everyone wants something done. (p. 71).

This was the principle that saw families split up, husbands separated from wives, and punished if they even kissed each other in the morning. And it resulted in terrible suffering and hunger, such as the scandal which erupted when the inmates in one workhouse were found to be so starving that they were eating the marrow from the bones they were supposed to be cutting for fertiliser.

It’s the principle that Maggie espoused in her wretched ‘Victorian Values’, or as she called them, ‘Victorian Virtues’. It’s the appalling system of values that has seen 590 people die in despair, neglect, starvation and through their own hand, and 290,000 suffer mental problems, through benefit sanctions and the stress of the odious ‘work capability’ tests.

It’s also interesting that tonight, on the regional current affairs programme for the Bristol area, Close Up West, that they mentioned self-reliance as a factor in the high rate of male suicide. Suicide is the leading killer of men under 50. Five times more men commit suicide than women. In Bristol the rate is even higher: it’s six times more. The hospitals in Bristol and Bristol uni are taking steps to counter and treat this. Among the factors cited for the high suicide in my fair city by one of the female doctors interviewed was the current economic climate. Joblessness, and immense debt incurring while studying, which also didn’t give you a job after you graduated, were important factors. Women were better able to cope because they were more open and had more ‘networks of support’, in the sense of sympathetic friends. Men suffered because they tended not to go to the doctor. And part of this was the need to be self-reliant. If you’re a bloke, you can’t be so ready to be weak, or seen as weak and unable to cope. And so it destroys those who need help, and can’t cope. Like one in four British citizens in their lifetime.

The Victorians had a lot of virtues. They were clever, inventive, worked hard, and at their very best had a very strong sense of moral responsibility and social consciousness. Among the men and women, who campaigned against slavery, were people who lived, worked and worshipped with the people they were sworn to champion, and they suffered from it at the hands of the bigoted and privileged. Marxism as a political theory is deeply flawed, but Marx himself was fired by a genuine, burning outrage at the poverty and squalor he saw around him. As were F.D. Maurice and many of the Christian Socialists he disparaged. But ‘less eligibility’ is a vile doctrine, that should have gone out along with the Poor Law and the Workhouse. It should have no place in the 21st century.