War on the poor: then and now

Map of Shoreditch workhouse

My partner, Tony, told me that his father had a real fear of the workhouse. He once showed Tony a workhouse. Workhouses didn’t exist any longer when Tony was growing up but his father was fearful of them. I asked Tony whether any of his ancestors was in a workhouse, he said he didn’t know. On the spur of the moment, I checked the 1881 Census and there was one of Tony’s relatives an “inmate” at the Late Shoreditch Industrial School, Brentwood. He lived with his parents in Shoreditch during the 1871 Census yet by 1881 he was at the Industrial School. What had happened in those intervening years? I couldn’t find any documentation at the London Metropolitan Archives to find any answers or a clue why he ended up there. I did find the original register for 1877 onwards, and he’s featured there. Entering the “school” at 10 (there are two dates regarding his birth) and eventually being “discharged” at the age of 16 (though he may have been 14).

As I was reading through the endless names of the children registered I became overwhelmed at the sheer number of boys and girls. Their name is entered, district, religion and discharged or death date. Thankfully, Tony’s relative was discharged, unfortunately many were not so fortunate. I wondered still why he had gone there. I was told that there may be an explanation if I read the 1867 minutes of the Board of this “school” but it was still a long shot. But no, nothing.

The 1834 Poor Law Act made arrangements for the education of paupers. Children were separated from their parents. I assume Charles (Tony’s great-great grand father) the same happened to him, his father was a “wood carver” (documented in the 1871 Census). Could he no longer afford to keep his children? I read some truly horrific stories of new mothers being separated from their babies. Industrial Schools had the Protestant work ethic at the forefront of its ideology. Children who were destitute but who had not as yet committed any serious crime. Originally, Industrial School were voluntary but the The Industrial Schools Act of 1857 changed that:

This gave magistrates the power to sentence children between the ages of 7 and 14 years old to a spell in one of these institutions. The act dealt with those children who were brought before the courts for vagrancy in other words for being homeless. In 1861 a further act was passed and different categories of children were included:

Any child apparently under the age of fourteen found begging or receiving alms [money or goods given as charity to the poor].
Any child apparently under the age of fourteen found wandering and not having any home or visible means of support, or in company of reputed thieves.
Any child apparently under the age of twelve who, having committed an offence punishable by imprisonment or less.
Any child under the age of fourteen whose parents declare him to be beyond their control.(5)
The act stated the child had to be ‘apparently’ under the age of fourteen. This was because children often lied about their age if it was advantageous for them to do so. Some children genuinely did not know how old they were. It was not until 1875 that it became compulsory to register births.

I don’t know if Charles committed any crime (I still can look at court reports of that time). He may have become destitute, along with his siblings and parents, and ended up in one of these “schools”. Again, it is possible to check documentation of workhouses in that period and I may find the parents of Charles.

Boys were taught a specific trade (Charles’s occupation in the 1891 Census is “cabinet maker”) while girls were taught washing, housework, knitting and sewing. Girls being taught in the traditional Victorian way on how to be a woman.

Brentwood School was established in the 1850s but by the 1890s was subject of a scandal. A girl “inmate” died of her injuries after being pushed down the stairs. Nurse Elizabeth Gillespie went to jail.

Regime of terror that had reigned for many years, with the head mistress giving the girls black eyes and beating them with a ruler.

These institutions were an excuse for violence and abuse as these children were possibly deemed as nothing of importance. Parishes were giving these ne’do wells an education. The ideology of these “schools” operated like prisons therefore it’s not surprising in the least that cruelty and violence was part of the bargain. Children being punished for being poor yet given a very basic education, without any care or compassion. Victorian paternalistic society was extremely barbaric and cruel if you were poor and destitute. I wondered what horrors Charles had witnessed or experienced? It seems like the fear of the workhouse was passed down the generations. This “school” was eventually shut down and became a hospital.

There are parallels with then and now, along with the fear that history will repeat itself. Poor being punished for being poor. We may have moved on socially and politically from those bad oh-sad-oh days of Victorian society. But the whiff of the workhouse politics is never too far away. Demonising the poor with politicians lying about benefit claimants. Unemployment rising specifically for young people and women. Jobs disappearing yet Tories blame the unemployed accusing them of “popping out to the shops when they should be looking for work”.. This bilge was uttered Wandsworth housing leader, Paul Ellis, as he passed plans to evict unemployed tenants from council houses. New council tenants will be told they will lose their homes unless they get a job or enrol in a training scheme.

On top of the draconian plans to make the unemployed homeless, Cameron wants to force claimants to do community work or else they will lose their meagre benefits. More exploitation and blaming for the unemployed for not looking hard enough to find a job. ConDems do not want to take responsiblity for the fact the jobs are just NOT OUT THERE!

So it’s more conditionality, coercion, exploitation and sanctions. In the 19th century there was no welfare state to support people yet that is hanging from a thread with various greedy private sector companies circling like nasty little vultures that they are. The lies and vilification continue while people get poorer, it is estimated 133,000 households in capital will be unable to afford their rent under proposed welfare reforms, according to London Councils. Depressingly, people are increasingly using food banks when benefit payments are delayed, according to the Trussell Trust.

We have people who are going without food in order to feed their children sometimes for days, for all sorts of different reasons, but fundamentally because their incomes are too low to support their basic needs of housing, clothing and food.
And the bureaucratic support that’s available simply takes too long to kick into gear on occasions.’

And of course we have this hilarious Big Society con which is al about cuts and privatisation, voluntary sector and private sector taking over. What really worries me is dismantling the welfare state and the public sector you end up with a society based on Dickensian Poor Law legislation, industrial schools and workhouses. Private and voluntary organisations deciding whether you are deserving or undeserving poor. ConDems and NL obsessed with this ridiculous lie call “culture of dependency”. Sometimes I feel we are sleep walking to Serco run workhouses and that there will be modern-day versions of Tony’s ancestor, Charles.

louise Whittle

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