"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Thursday 24 February 2011

In the Shadows of the Workhouses

Once again this blog results from a comment I made during a discussion on another excellent blog, this time by from Sue Marsh: http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/2011/02/nhs-camerons-albatross.html If you haven't visited Sue's blog yet http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/ you really should. After I made the comment I wanted to expand on it and so this blog began to form

A bit of explanation first. Most of us have hobbies/interests, although perhaps mine sometimes take the form of obsessions! As the years have passed I have realised however how often these interests dovetail, to name a few: Victorian Fiction, Workhouses, Victorian Religion, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, H.G.Wells, History of the Early Days of the Labour and Trade Union Movement, Edwardian Society, Family History.

In the nine months of this Coalition Government, like many others, I have listened to and read the pronouncements of David Cameron and his colleagues with increasing disbelief. Taking into account the inevitable 'Yaa boo' of a new government blaming the previous administration for every ill in the country [so far the snow in December didn't seem to be Gordon Brown's absolute fault] there seemed to be almost a determination to dismantle society as we know it, despite the 'ideals' for a 'Big Society', which many are still saying they do not understand.

Last week we had the unedifying spectacle of the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman saying 'We got it wrong'in Parliament after half a million people signed a petition protesting against the proposals to change the ownership of 637,000 acres of woodlands from public to private. There is an ongoing protest, with petitions
[ http://www.petitiononline.com/ukcghq/petition.html ]and massive campaigns on social networking sites for example, to stop the proposed closures of Coastguard stations and the selling-off of the Air Sea Rescue Service. The privatisation of the latter had to be halted when it was revealed that "commercially sensitive information" had been leaked to the interested 'purchasers'.

Nearly every night on our local news there is another village or town in our area holding a protest to try and keep their local library open. Especially in small villages the libraries are so important as a 'hub', providing a centre for not just books and computer access, important as that is - but for reading and other groups, holiday activities, local exhibitions etc. Do those in government ever have to use a library - or can they afford any book that they read a review about in the newspapers they can afford to buy every day [no going to the library to read the daily newspaper for them!] Do their children ever have to go to the local library to use a computer in the holidays to finish a school project or have they got one or more at home they can use?

And of course I haven't started on the cuts to the front line services, the NHS, the Disability Living Allowance, Housing Benefit, Student fees. I don't need to point out that if we are really so much in need of money that these things will save their are other ways this could be found: examination of tax avoidance of large multi-nationals and defence spending just for a start......

Someone in our blog discussion suggested we are going back to the way of life of the 1930s but I would suggest it is worse than that, and leaving the 21st and 20th centuries akin to going back to the 1830s, the 19thCentury. Here is my reasoning:

When the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834 adjoining parishes were linked together in unions to adminster jointly 'welfare' to the poor & destitute of their parishes. This was a way to save money by pooling resources by being more 'efficient' [a good 19thC buzzword - but heard more and more in the mouths of Cameron et al nowadays] Of course this resulted too often in mass catering etc being costed and delivered at the cheapest possible rates [Workhouse records make fascinating readings at County records offices] and the stringent rules to get admitted into a workhouse resemble too closely the sort of assessments claimants have to undergo now.

Of course in the 19thC there was the notion of the 'deserving poor' and thus too this led to the idea that there must be 'undeserving poor'. At this time poverty was commonly thought to be a sign of God's disapproval [Calvinst/Protestant Work Ethic] so those born poor and staying poor really should not deserve or expect much help. God showed his approval of the 'good' by awarding them with riches but expected them to re-invest rather than fritter it all away, and if this re-investment led to further riches, well more and more approval was being shown! What an excellent creed for the then burgeoning Capitalist society! Of course it was believed that the rich had a 'paternalistic' duty to look after the poor [only enough to enable them sufficient health and strength to provide factory fodder, to keep them in luxury would have been against God's plan, after all] Another term for this 'welfare' was/is 'Benevolent Capitalism'. [Recently Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight asked a 'Suit' from the Institute of Directors what had happened to Benevolent Capitalism and he replied 'Oh, I think we have moved on from there' - but in the proposed 'Big Society' with all the welfare reforms what will replace it?]

In a really perverse way, the 1834 Act was the beginning of a kind of Welfare State in that it 'standardized' across the country the provisions of each union for their needy but left individual unions to set the spending on their 'paupers'. As long as an individual union kept its inhabitants alive all was well - officialdom only interfered if mortality rates rose too high as in the case in the Somerset workhouse in Bridgwater in 1839. Those able to work and provide for themselves were deserving poor, those feckless enough to not be able to find work [even in times of agricultural depression for example] or becoming unable to work through age or incapacity were undeserving poor so admittance to an institution like the workhouse was actually rather good of the society which could have left them to starve. Statistics show that at times the mortality rate in prisons was 3% whilst in workhouses it was 40%, so multi-occupation was not the reason for the high mortality.

Why am I giving you all a history lesson? Because it seems to me as if the present Government wants to keep today's 'needy' on subsistence levels but with not enough money for 'luxuries' as a punishment for not being born rich/becoming ill. Excuse me if I sound cynical, we should learn lessons from the mistakes of history - not return to them. Why shouldn't those who can't afford 'luxuries' like books, medicine, education, walking in the forests, rescue at sea, help when ill, help with social services etc etc expect those who are lucky enough to earn enough/have inherited wealth to help them out. In a 'Big Society' where 'We are all in it Together' it would still seem that - to misquote George Orwell - 'We are all Equal - it is just that Some are far more Equal than Others'.

For more information and history on Workhouses - if I haven't already bored you silly - please go to this great website: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

The photograph above is of the entrance to Williton Workhouse, W.Somerset. Taken on a beautiful day, with tubs of flowers in the foreground - try to imagine entering here on a cold, wet day with one's possessions [if any] taken from one and being issued with a sort of 'sackcloth uniform' and being set to 'picking hemp' on a diet of little more than cold porridge..... There is a heartbreaking fictional account of the way old people were separated from their spouses - in the "Men" and "Women's" wings in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

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