Austerity, benefits and a lack of compassion: the application of the ‘hard labour test’ in 1840s London

Historical work on the role of the eighteenth-century justice of the peace (by Peter King, and myself) has revealed the important work they did in mediating claims for poor relief. As well as dealing with all sorts of offending and advising on a range of local matters JPs (later termed magistrates) sometimes intervened to assist the poor when they were refused help by the Poor Law officials in their parish.

The parish was the local authority with responsibility for helping those that could not work through ill-health, age or legitimate unemployment. But one’s entitlement to benefits (as we might term them) was limited and conditional. The laws of settlement were complicated but, in essence, a person had to be born in a parish to be entitled to poor relief there, or to have settled there through work or marriage.

Being ‘settled’ might meant paying a local tax for a year or something akin to that and, because the costs of poor relief fell on the ratepayers not the state, local authorities were not keen to attract new mouths to feed and equally vigorous in evicting anyone who looked like they might become a burden on the population.

JPs were therefore frequently called upon to hear settlement claims and counter-claims.

In 1834 parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which set in place a new, harsh, form of poor relief designed to deter all but the genuinely impoverished from seeking help from the rates. Thereafter anyone requesting poor relief was supposed to be offered the workhouse and all the horrors that entailed if they wanted help from the parish. This meant the breakup of the family (men and women and children were housed in separate wings), a barely sufficient diet (see Oliver Twist) and backbreaking hard labour (picking oakum or breaking rocks were typical).

In short in the nineteenth century pauperism was seen as a personal failing, and if you asked for poor relief you faced an experience almost as bad as being sent to prison.

In 1847 a poor woman, whose name was not recorded by the Morning Chronicle‘s reporter, appeared at the Marlborough Street Police Court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Hardwicke that because her ‘children were starving, her husband in an infirm state of health, and out of work’ she had approached the relieving officer at St. James’ workhouse to admit them temporarily.

However, the officer told her that he could only do so on the condition that her husband would agree to be set to hard labour, breaking stones.

She said that she was sure that if he ‘was put to such work as this, in this inclement season, in his present state of health, that it would kill him, and and she therefore said it was impossible to accept the condition’.

The officer, a Mr Dore, then said that the alternative was for the whole family to be passed (effectively evicted from the parish) to Ireland where her husband had been born. This too was unacceptable to her; she complained that while he had been born in Ireland he’d not been there for years, that she and her children were English born, they had no home in Ireland. Moreover, she continued:

‘Her husband was a journeyman tailor, had acquired a settlement in St. James’ parish, and had never applied for parish assistance’. She added that she ‘had begged a loaf a bread from the receiving officer, to feed her famishing children with, as they had nothing to eat all day. This was refused, and if it had not been for the humanity of a neighbour, her children must have passed another day without food’.

Mr Hardwicke sent for Dore, who confirmed the woman’s story but said his hands were tied; he had his instructions from the workhouse Board of Guardians. The magistrate suggested that there were times when a little discretion was in order. The hard labour ‘test’ might be appropriate in ‘cases in which the parish authorities had reason to believe that an able-bodied applicant only desired to lead an idea life in the workhouse’ but in cases such as this, he ‘thought the general rule ought to be relaxed’.

Mr Gore said he only had the one sort of work available but if saw someone really struggling the policy was to offer them medical help and some respite. This was usually evidenced it seems, by seeing that their hands had become ‘badly blistered’ and other signs of ‘bodily weakness’. In this case of course, by the time that was apparent the poor old man might have been well on his way to the grave.

The magistrate sent the relieving officer away to see what he could do for the family but that was as much the court did for them. This would not have been an isolated incident in a society without universal benefits.

But before we get too complacent and say how awful the Victorians were to their poor we should take a look at the reality that in 2015/16 the Tressell Trust donated over 1,000,000 three day emergency food parcels to vulnerable people in the UK.  Tressell are the biggest but not the only provider so the figure is larger than this. Barnardo’s estimates that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty, 1.7 million in ‘severe poverty’. The majority of these (63%) are living in families where at least one parent is in employment, not unemployed or ‘workshop’.

This is the reality of austerity Britain; the reality of the fallout from the banking scandal, the gap between rich and poor, the continued campaign to demonise those on benefits and the harsh reality of global capitalism. As in the 1840s it is the poorest that suffer while the richest are protected and indeed prosper and grow richer.

And we wonder why people commit crime…

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, January 25, 1847]

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