1833 Earl Grey, the Prime Minister, set up
a Poor Law Commission to examine the working of the poor Law system
in Britain. In their report published in 1834, the Commission made
several recommendations to Parliament. As a result, the Poor Law Amendment
Act was passed. The act stated that:
(a) no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from
the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse;
(b) conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage
people from wanting to receive help;
(c) workhouses were to be built in every parish or, if parishes were
too small, in unions of parishes;
(d) ratepayers in each parish or union had to elect a Board of Guardians
to supervise the workhouse, to collect the Poor Rate and to send reports
to the Central Poor Law Commission;
(e) the three man Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by
the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment
Act throughout the country.
von Herkomer, Westminster Union, The
Graphic (7th April, 1877)
Fred Copeman, Reason in Revolt (1948)
This life of mine started in the year 1907
at the Wangford Union, a Workhouse near Beccles, Suffolk. I can still
vaguely remember the cold uncharitableness of the place and its inhuman
poverty. Most of the two or three hundred
inmates were very old, and many were treated as hospital patients.
Looking back through memory's years, I see an
atmosphere of hopelessness which gave me, surrounded as I was by the
old, the infirm and even the insane, the feeling
that all had come here to die. Life was a continuous repetition of
work, sleep and funerals. I could never make out why so many people
had to die.
All the ground floors,
with the exception of the Master's quarters, were of stone. The upper
walls and ceilings were a dirty cream, the lower part a monotonous
battleship grey. The dining hall to me was a huge place. It had lines
of well scrubbed tables and stools on the stone floor. There was one
small, round, closed-in iron stove, with a long chimney reaching to
the ceiling. The dormitories were on the first and second floors,
with the infirm people in two wings, one for men and the other for
women. There were buildings attached to either wing for the male and
female tramps, who appeared to have a life of their own organised
separately from the Workhouse itself. The tramps, curiously enough,
were the envy of the inmates because of their freedom to leave at
My mother was a little
old lady, thin and frail, and almost totally deaf. She seemed unhappy.
She always seemed to be discussing what she would do when her ship
came home. All the inmates had this habit and talked constantly of
what they would do when they got out. Very few of them ever left,
I would often meet Mother,
scrubbing the stone passages which, to me, were miles long. It seemed
that she did all the work. She was perpetually on her knees, and her
hands were rough and sore from being so much in cold and dirty water.
Talk between us was difficult, and for that reason she seldom showed
her feelings. Even at that age I felt pity for her, coupled with hatred
for those who were better off. I compared her with the Master, the
cooks or the women who worked in his quarters. They appeared well
off in comparison.
Our Sundays were never
the happy time they might have been, sitting at the table in the bare
dining hall separated from the others, because her deafness made us
shout, causing much noise. This drew attention to us, making us feel
we were the joke of the crowd. George often cried. How I hated all
of them for it. Looking back, I realise that Mother had a real deep
love for us. Though she never displayed it openly, I sensed it all
the same. Often I
saw her crying, but could not get to know the reason. I never knew
a father, and if he existed she seldom mentioned him.
Pankhurst described her experiences as a Poor Law Guardian in
her autobiography My Own Story.
The leaders of the Liberal Party advised women to prove their fitness
for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in municipal offices, especially
the unsalaried offices. A large number of women had availed themselves
of this advice, and were serving on Boards of Guardians, on school
boards, and in other capacities. My children now being old enough
for me to leave them with competent nurses, I was free to join these
ranks. A year after my return to Manchester in 1894 I became a candidate
for the Board of Poor Law Guardians. I was elected, heading the poll
by a very large majority.
When I came into office I found that the law was
being very harshly administered. The old board had been made up of
the kind of men who are known as rate savers. They were guardians,
not of the poor but of the rates
For instance, the inmates were
being very poorly fed.
I found the old folks in the workhouse sitting
on backless forms, or benches. They had no privacy, no possessions,
not even a locker. After I took office I gave the old people comfortable
Windsor chairs to sit in, and in a number of ways we managed to make
their existence more endurable.
The first time I went into the place I was horrified
to see little girls seven and eight years on their knees scrubbing
the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad,
summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short
sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered
too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among
them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change
in the fashion of their clothes.
I also found pregnant women in the workhouse,
scrubbing floors, doing the hardest kind of work, almost until their
babies came into the world. Many of them were unmarried women, very,
very young, mere girls. These poor mothers were allowed to stay in
the hospital after confinement for a short two weeks. Then they had
to make a choice of staying in the workhouse and earning their living
by scrubbing and other work, in which case they were separated from
their babies. They could stay and be paupers, or they could leave
- leave with a two-week-old baby in their arms, without hope, without
home, without money, without anywhere to go. What became of those
girls, and what became of their hapless infants?
Marie Corbett was one of the first
women in Britain to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. Her daughter
Margery Corbett Ashby described her mother's
work as a Poor Law Guardian in her book Memoirs.
My mother visited the local Uckfield Workhouse and was appalled
by the conditions in which orphaned and abandoned children were
living in wards with the old and mentally afflicted. She stood
for election as Poor Law Guardian, and became one of the first
women in the country to be Guardian and Rural District Councillor.
She reformed conditions in the workhouse, and gradually removed
all the children, whom she boarded out with village families
When she had emptied Uckfield Workhouse, she took children from
Eastbourne Workhouse and from a London borough. When she died,
many of these former inhabitants of the workhouse wrote to me
and they all used the same phrase: "She was my best friend."
In an article Votes for Women, that Elizabeth
Robins wrote in December 1909, she criticised the way that
the Government looked after orphan children. Robins argued that
when women had the vote, the Government would come under stronger
pressure to improve the workhouse system.
The State keeps 22,483 children in workhouses. Here is a description
of a Government nursery: "Often found under the charge of
a person actually certified as of unsound mind, the bottles sour,
the babies wet, cold and dirty. The Commission on the Care and
Control of the Feebleminded draws attention to an episode in connection
with one feeble-minded woman who was set to wash a baby; she did
so in boiling water, and it died."
"We were shocked," continues the Report, "to discover
that infants in the nursery of the establishments in London and other
large towns seldom or never get into the open air. "We found
the nursery frequently on the third or fourth story of a gigantic
block often without balconies, whence the only means of access even
to the workhouse yard was a flight of stone steps down which it was
impossible to wheel a baby-carriage of any kind. There was no staff
of nurses adequate to carrying fifty or sixty infants out for an airing.
In some of these workhouses it was frankly admitted that these babies
never left their own quarters (the stench was intolerable) and never
got into the open air during the whole period of their residence in
the workhouse nursery. In some workhouses 40% of the babies die within
I doubt if there exists in print a better plea for the urgency of
Woman's Suffrage that that embodied in this Report of the latest English
Poor Law Commission
What it reveals is an incompetence and legalised
cruelty in the treatment of the poor
that thousands of innocent
children are shut up with tramps and prostitutes; that there are workhouses
which have no separate sick ward for children, in spite of the ravages
of measles, whooping-cough, etc.
Men have talked about these evils for seventy-five years. We see now
that until the portion of the community standing closest to the problems
presented by care of the old and broken, the young children and the
afflicted, until women have a voice in mending the laws on this subject,
the inadequacy of the laws will continue to be merely discussed.
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