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Down and Out in Victorian London

How much is conveyed in those two short words -- "The Parish!" And with how many tales of distress and misery, of broken fortune and ruined hopes, too often of unrelieved wretchedness and successful knavery are they associated!

      -- from Sketches by Boz

So Charles Dickens described the Victorian parish, the British local government unit responsible for administering to the neighborhood's poor. The system was a miserable one, cruelly and purposefully inadequate at aiding society's least fortunate. The Victorian attitude toward the poor -- one of shame -- was largely to blame for this legal, harsh treatment of society's downtrodden.

Victorian Morals and the Poor
The Industrial Age and the financial opportunities surrounding it led to a rapidly growing middle class in early 19th-century Britain. Previously, the aristocratic upper class -- one that scorned working for a living -- dictated economic and social influence. Now the bourgeoisie, including factory owners, managers and purveyors of new services, wanted its place in society and needed to legitimize labor. They put forth a new ideal of work as moral virtue: God loved those who helped themselves, while "burdens on the public" were sinful and weak. This attitude validated the middle class by giving it someone to look down upon.

Subsequently, welfare in Dickens's time was based on deterrence rather than support. Parish workhouses, the last resort for the homeless poor, were made as miserable as possible to discourage reliance on public assistance. Upon entering, inmates were stripped, searched, washed, given shapeless striped clothing to wear and shorn of hair -- in short, they were treated like criminals. Husbands and wives were separated into men's and women's quarters to "avert breeding." Mothers were taken away from children to end "negative influences" on the young. Brothers and sisters were kept apart to avoid the "natural" inclination of the poor toward incest. After inmates were split up by age and sex, no health-related separation took place: the ill, insane and able-bodied all lived together. Meals were purposely inadequate, consisting mainly of single pints of gruel, a few ounces of bread and water. Rooms measuring 20 feet long accommodated upwards of 30 people. Most inmates shared a bed. Heating was overlooked; often a block of rooms shared but one fireplace. Work involved back-breaking labor such as stone-splitting, mill-driving (on treadmills), bone-crushing (for fertilizer) and heavy housework. The least able-bodied -- the old, the sick and the very young -- suffered most of all.

The workhouse was administered by unpaid bureaucrats, headed by the Beadle, an elected official. These civil servants treated workhouse residents with scorn and cruelty, reminding them with Biblical passages how lucky they were ("Blessed are the poor..."). The workhouse staff received a somewhat better class of lodging and food for their efforts.

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The Poor Laws
Parishes were first instituted with the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which organized tax-collected assistance. The poor were divided up into two groups: the "impotent" (the sick and elderly, those classed "would work but couldn't") and the "able-bodied" (thought of as "could work but wouldn't"). The impotent were given outdoor, or out-of-almshouse, relief, while the able-bodied were brutally beaten to "right" their paths. Not all parishes were the same: some didn't have almshouses, while others were known for kinder treatment. To prevent droves of paupers from inundating the parishes with better arrangements, the 1662 Settlement Act stated that people had to prove "settlement" before receiving relief from a parish. Proof consisted of birth in the parish, marriage (for women) or working in the parish for a year and a day. Labor contracts were often made for 364 days to prevent settlement rights.

The 1782 Gilbert's Act changed some features for the better. Named for the Member of Parliament (or MP) who took 17 years shepherding it through, this act allowed parishes to join together in building poorhouses and to share expenses. In 1795, the Speenhamland System, another reform named for the Berkshire village of Speen, where it began, was predicated on the idea of local magistrates that "the present state of the poor requires further assistance than has generally been given them." Disastrous harvests and growing population stirred fears among the ruling class that the peasants might revolt as they had in France; thus allowances in Speen were initiated. Laborers received subsistence relief according to income, price of bread and number of children in the family. This system spread quickly through the south of England, most heavily in what was known as the "Swing" counties, a particularly impoverished part of the country. The Speenhamland System is believed to have saved countless families in the Swing counties.

Unfortunately, a recession in 1815 and more industrialization led to further unemployment. Riots and poaching became the rule of the day. Between 1824 - 1830, crime in rural areas increased 30 percent. The Swing counties saw riots come to a head in 1830. Rabble-rousing journalist William Cobbett wrote a blistering article in the November 27, 1830, Political Register blaming the Swing riots on hunger and the poor laws. He challenged, "I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach." Cobbett advocated not only that "forty million [pounds] a year must now remain with the working people," but that Parliament itself needed "radical reform."

The Poor Law Commission of 1832
An 1832 Commission was established to review the poor laws. Earlier conservative commissions had criticized relief efforts, but not changed much. Nottinghamshire reforms aimed at stricter administration of relief received much publicity in 1821 - 1822, harshly attacking allowances of any kind. The Nottinghamshire reforms also led to the beginnings of the deterrent workhouse described earlier.

In 1832, 26 investigators visited about 3,000 parishes, each official believing outdoor relief or allowances harmful to the poor. Britain at this time was divided into 15,000 parishes, and with no annual trends compiled, a national picture was not readily available. Commissioners were also influenced by the economist Thomas Robert Malthus, quite popular at this time, who had stated in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that population would increase faster than food supplies. War and disease were necessary to kill off the extra population, unless people limited their offspring.

A questionnaire was also sent out, with only 10 percent of parishes replying. The data collected from the questionnaires was not reliable: badly phrased questions didn't distinguish between family allowances on wages and wage subsidies, and the lack of responses precluded a random sampling. The Commission concluded from the questionnaires that, as a rule, family allowances led to bigger families. Commissioners agreed that the old Poor Law was too expensive and wasteful.

Results compiled by the Commission resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act took power out of the hands of local parishioners and gave it to elected officials representing a central authority and middle-class values. It also took away relief from the poor outside government institutions -- it was either the workhouse or nothing. These harsh changes were aimed at the able-bodied poor, but hit the infirm, old and very young much harder. Many MPs voting on the Act were southern rural landowners who had been devastated by bad harvests and rioting (corn prices, greatly depended on for income, were at an appalling low).

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Child Labor Laws
In less rural environs, industrialization led to a need for cheap labor. Lenient labor laws made children a prime source of workers. The desperately impoverished often sent their children off to factories, mines and workshops. Parish officials, too, sent their young charges off, viewing such situations as divine opportunity. Children worked long hours at the lowest rates. Ruling classes saw this as a positive circumstance, as such children didn't depend on parish relief.

Child labor was so common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that in 1802 Parliament passed the British Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, the first law regulating child labor. It stated that pauper children (those receiving charity) under the age of nine could not work in cotton mills, and those under 14 could not work at night. The workday was 12 hours long. In 1819, the law was extended to include all children. These laws weren't paid much heed until 1833, when the Factory Act provided for inspections.

Some children helped their parents pay off debts, as did the youthful Dickens. Debt was a crime in Victorian England, and debtors were sent to prison until they could pay off their creditors. Such prisons were filthy, rat-infested places where inmates usually lived with their entire families during the period of incarceration. Family members were free to come and go as they pleased. The 12-year-old Dickens ate with his family at Marshalsea Debtor's Prison, and slept in a squalid rooming house near his job at the Warren Blacking Polish factory.

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God loved those who help themselves, 'while burdens on the public' were sinful and weak.

gruel recipe
Economist Thomas Malthus stated war and disease were necessary to kill off the extra population, unless people limited their offspring.

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