When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

WestLondon2

A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

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