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Forgotten Poor Law Scandals.
viding that their daily life should be supervised by persons of high intelligence and morality, and of proved ability in organization and personal management. And we are still more astounded that the shocking consequences which resulted, and which were well known to have resulted from the neglect of this obvious precaution, should have been so completely forgotten that we needed the deaths of Gibson and Daly, and the exposures of the Lancet Commissioners, to remind us that substantially the same system remains in force to-day which produced the horrible workhouse scandals at Hoo, Eton, Bridgewater, Andover, Bath, and many other places more than a quarter of a century ago. Two conclusions are compelled by these facts. We cannot but believe that the temper of the times which gave origin to the New Poor Law was a hard and selfish temper; and we cannot resist the conviction that there is no nation
earth at once so willing to confess its faults with groans and shrieks of self-condemnation, and so easily tempted to forget all its vows of amendment, as the British people.
It would be beside our present purpose to rake up the disgusting details of the scandals which marked the early history of the New Poor Law; and we may content ourselves with referring the curious in these matters to a very odd, but in its way a most valuable book, which contains a mass of information on the subject. We refer to the Book of the Bastiles,' by G. R. Wythen Baxter. * A more frothy and vapid outpouring of mixed philanthropy, self-conceit, and political spite, than the original portion of this volume, could not be conceived; but luckily the book contains, also, an immense mass of references to authentic documents, about the accuracy of which there can be no mistake. Without entering upon minutiæ at all, we may say that the evils of workhouse management, at the date of that older Poor Law agitation, consisted in :-1. The incongruous assemblage of all kinds of destitute persons under one roof. 2. The want of any classification but such as consisted in the roughest separation, often most mischievous to the best moral feelings of the inmates. 3. The low standard of education, and often of morals, which distinguished the masters and matrons of workhouses. 4. The fact that these latter officials, and the underlings who were but too willing to pander to their tyrannical temper, and often to their immorality, were left without any sufficient check: the boards of guardians being elected in such a manner that the majority of these bodies, which nominally undertook the care of the workhouses, were quite incompetent to exercise a searching supervision over the
* London: John Stevens, 1841.,
acts of the paid officials who were constantly resident on the spot.
In one thing, and in one thing only, has the system of workhouse administration materially changed since the first decade of the operation of the New Poor Law. The machinery is unaltered, save in trifling particulars. Even the personnel of the inspecting staff, which so grievously neglected its duties then, includes more than one or two of its original members. The Poor Law Board has been, and is, composed in part of men who come and go,' and who have entertained more or less fluctuating ideas respecting Poor Law policy; but partly, also, of a permanent secretariat, which goes on for ever' in unchanged stupidity, perversity, and selfishness. But an influence has passed over the surface of unpaid society, which has partially filtered down even to those holes and corners in which the 'guardians of the poor' hold their conclaves. That moral and religious change which has made it impossible that we should ever hear again such brutal speeches (there is no milder term for them) as some which were delivered in Parliament by noble lords and great county magnates, circa 1838, has softened the moral cuticle of even British farmers and small London shopkeepers—the toughest of articulately speaking men. There can be no doubt that the majority of guardians everywhere are more considerate in their feelings towards the poor than they were twenty years ago. If here and there an instance occurs of the parade of harsh sentiments towards paupers, it will be almost invariably found to come from some board of guardians whose members are not merely ignorant of the requirements of workhouse inmates, but are accustomed to take their tone from a chairman, or from some other influential member of their body who happens to be a pig-headed theorist. Perhaps the very worst sort of theorist of this type is the vieux militaire, of the martinet-lunatic variety, who has retired into country life and taken to the business of worrying poachers and paupers, instead of choking soldiers with stiff black stocks, and strangling them with tight cross-belts. One such man on a guardianboard, particularly if he be wealthy and influential, will sometimes convert a score of farmers and shopkeepers, worthy men enough in other capacities, into unfeeling tyrants of the poor.
From one cause or another, however, the active agitation against Poor Law administration gradually subsided. People did not forget Dickens's description of a workhouse and its brutal master, in Oliver Twist;' but it seems to have been tacitly assumed that such things were of the past, and had no longer any existence. A few persons knew better than this, Character of Workhouse Officials.
303 and were aware that even the worst of workhouse abominations still flourished in some places, although they very seldom came to the ears of the public. The masters and matrons of workhouses have continued to be selected, in the majority of cases, from a low class of society; a very common practice being to elect a discharged policeman, or turnkey of a gaol, and his wife. In a large majority of cases, at any rate, the master and matron were very ill-educated persons, both intellectually and socially ; and it is to be feared that the qualification most stringently insisted on by the guardians was, that these officers should possess ‘firmness' of character-an euphemism, too often, for a disposition to bully their inferiors and dependents. And if they were unfit for the responsible office of superintending the large and miscellaneous collection of human beings contained in a workhouse at the time of their entrance on office, it too often happened that they were even worse fitted for their duties at the end of a year or two. Their salaries were quite insufficient to enable them to live and bring up a family (honestly) in the style of gentlefolks, or of the moderately well-to-do shopkeepers. But, on the other hand, they were placed in a position which enabled them to indulge in an ‘amount of eating and drinking which was a novelty and a temptation to them; and under this regimen they frequently throve and grew fat, with great damage to their better moral qualities, and much increase of any natural tendencies they might possess towards tyranny and selfish immorality. The extent to which these vices were developed, in too many cases, is a thing only most generally and vaguely suspected by the outside public. And yet it is the fact, that in a large number
- probably quite half-of the workhouses, under the cloak of an outward decency, which has undoubtedly been enforced by fear of the inspectors from the Poor Law Board, systematic embezzlement of the parish property has been going on for years, side by side with constant cruelty to the inmates; both being the work of the master or matron, and sometimes of one or two of the paid subordinates. It need not be supposed that in every case the peculations amounted to large thefts, or that the tyranny over the sick and helpless involved, consciously, cruel intention on the part of the officials; on the contrary, the dishonesty has doubtless, in many cases, been much of the same kind (only a little more decided) as that of a cook who multiplies . perquisites,' and the cruelty has chiefly consisted in ignoring the fact that paupers have any human affections and intelligence. We are sorry to say, however, that very accurate information leaves us no doubt that, in a considerable number of cases, matters have been, and are, very much worse than this. Dishonesty has often reached the extent of downright embezzlement of large quantities of goods, and of corrupt arrangements with contracting tradesmen, by which these gentry were to share with the workhouse master the plunder of the parish. We know at this moment of more than one workhouse, in which it is quite notorious that the master is living at a rate of expenditure amounting to four or five times his salary, although possessed of no private property; and besides this, it is well known that many of these officials, after bringing up a family on the nominal salary of £50, £80, £120, or £150 a year (with lodgings and board for themselves and wife only allowed by the law), have accumulated comfortable fortunes of several thousand pounds! And, worse than all the corruption and dishonesty thus unmistakably suggested is the ugly fact which peeps out here and there (but as to which the public knows only a fraction of the truth), that the resident paid officials of the workhouses have, in various places, availed themselves of the opportunities afforded by their position to still further demoralize the miserable women who are placed in their power, and whom, as the smallest feeling of duty would have taught them, they were bound to defend and succour from the evil influences which had formed the curse of their lives. We will not attempt to estimate the frequency with which this has happened, but we have been informed by a Poor Law inspector that he was convinced it was far from uncommon; and our own experience has made known to us more than one instance which shows that the story of Farnham Workhouse is no solitary monstrosity. Now this kind of thing is an enormity so shocking, that it is difficult to frame any hypothesis to account for the supineness of the Poor Law Board in not taking stringent measures to detect and punish offenders, and to make such scandals impossible, except the hypothesis of the Board's entire ignorance of any such matters. This, however, is certainly not the state of the case, for the Poor Law Board has repeatedly had representations made to it, on respectable authority, which must have convinced them that among the low-bred and low-paid, but grossly feeding, resident officers of the workhouses, animality was only too common. With positive knowledge of the truth of our words, we now assert that the party of inaction at the Board has discouraged inquiries into these matters, and also into the most serious charges of embezzlement. On the latter head, let any one who wishes to be satisfied study the official documents * relative to the charges
Workhouse Visiting Society.
brought against a former master of Lambeth Workhouse, and the iniquitous delays which the permanent officials of the Poor Law Board interposed before the resignation of this person was compelled. A more disgraceful story of the doings of a public department could not be found; and yet there are many others in the history of the Poor Law Board which closely resemble it. But we shall return to the working of the Central Board at a later stage.
That a class of officials who are, as a rule, so contemptible in mind, manners, and education, and so open to corrupt influences as the workhouse masters and matrons, should have been allowed, down to this very moment, to oppress the poor and rob the parishes, seems almost incredible. That we have now, at last, some hope that their intolerable rule will before long pass away, is due, in the first instance, to the courage and devotion of a band of ladies whom we desire to mention here with deep respect and admiration. Under the able leadership of Miss Louisa Twining, the Ladies' Workhouse Visiting Society was formed; and such high-hearted women as Miss Carpenter, Miss Cobbe, Mrs. Tait, Mrs. Gladstone, and many others like them, were engaged in the arduous task of penetrating the mysteries of the workhouses, and endeavouring to mitigate the discomfort and grievances of the helpless inmates. In the Workhouse Visitors' Journal, a publication which they maintained for many years, they fully exposed the anomalous character and defective classification of the workhouse populations, and, in more cautious and guarded tones, hinted the existence of the grosser evils above enumerated, which none could have more completely recognised than they did. For the time, however, and not to provoke a too fierce opposition to their benevolent schemes, they confined themselves in public chiefly to efforts for a reform in the condition of the sick and the incurables, whom they proved to form an enormous proportion of the total workhouse populations, and to induce the Government to improve the education of pauper children by obliging the guardians to bring them up in district schools, apart from the evil influences of the workhouse. Unfortunately, these excellent ladies did not succeed in catching the popular ear, and their sex and quality forbade them to declare internecine war with official abuses, and force their cause upon the attention of a money-getting and selfindulgent generation. Meantime, the meanest and most disgraceful stratagems were resorted to by a portion of the Poor Law Board to blind the eyes of the public, and to stop their ears against the reception of any information as to the true state of things. They consented, indeed, to a parliamentary