Introduction:‘Children who belong to the state’

In 1838 the London and Westminster Review informed its readers that the New Poor Law had proved to be a very popular theme for ‘grievance’ songs. The lyrics to several broadside ballads were printed including The English Poor Law in Force which railed against the refusal of relief to a destitute family, and the self-explanatory Just Starve Us. The Review thought the lyrics to A Workhouse Boy were too ‘horrible for citation’; it told the story of how a pauper boy was killed and his body added to the Christmas soup. The Review concluded that these songs contained the ‘fiercest exaggerations’ of the charges that were being laid against the new poor laws. Ballads such as these, together with reports about the neglect of paupers shaped popular opinion of an iniquitous new law. The Age periodical argued that if the measures proposed by the Poor Law Commission were enacted, their opinions about ‘the united wisdom of the country’ would turn into ‘sentiments of indignation and horror’, while John Bull declared that the Poor Law Commissioners had ‘begun their reign of terror’. Between 1837 and 1842, The Times published more than two million words on the ‘new’ poor law’s administration, and related nearly 300 alleged ‘horror’ stories. By far the most evocative and enduring representation of the alleged evils of the new poor was the character of Oliver Twist created by Charles Dickens. As the London and Westminster Review reported, most of the reports, songs and literary representations of this new law were exaggerated, but the cruel and harsh reputation of the poor laws have proved as long-lasting as Dickens’ boy who dared to ask for more.

David Englander calls the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act ‘the single most important piece of social legislation ever enacted’. Historians have engaged with its complexities since its inception and the resulting scholarship is diverse and substantial. While the legislation itself and the minutiae of its administration can encourage somewhat dry scholarship, this book is mindful to avoid ‘stripping’ people of ‘their humanity’, and focuses on the human drama of paupers’ experiences within this hugely important Victorian law. The ‘new’ poor law was designed to deter paupers from applying for relief by including a ‘workhouse test’ whereby only the most necessitous and ‘deserving’ would accept the offer of the ‘House’ as the only relief available. In reality, many directives and recommendations issued by the central authorities were not always used by individual poor law unions. This is illustrated most starkly by the two main principles of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act proving unworkable in reality. The doctrine that all relief to able-bodied paupers and their families should only be given in workhouses was infeasible unless hundreds of new workhouses were constructed, and became impossible in times of high unemployment. The deterrent principle of ‘less eligibility’ intended that the standard of living in the workhouse was lower than that of the poorest independent labourer. In practice, diet and conditions in workhouses often exceeded those found in the homes of many poor families, but nonetheless a deterrent remained owing to the widely held punitive and humiliating reputation of the workhouse.

Nineteenth-century Britain was home to ‘great floods of children’ who throughout the course of the century constituted up to 40 per cent of the population. As children also made up between 30 and 40 per cent of recipients of poor law relief in nineteenth-century Britain, their impact on poor law resources and doctrine was substantial. Charles Dickens’ compassion for pauper children and his input into the poor law system extended well beyond his novel Oliver Twist. On a visit to a poor law school in 1850 he described how the children were ‘with minds and bodies destitute of proper nutriment, they are caught, as it were, by the parish officers, like half wild creatures, roaming poverty-stricken amidst the wealth of our greatest city; and half-starved in a land where the law says no one shall be destitute of food and shelter’. Similarly, schools inspector Jelinger Symons argued that children had a ‘pure claim on public aid’ but while pauper children generated widespread pity for their condition, the solution for its amelioration was contested. The often publicised plight of pauper children also generated attention from philanthropists and child welfare campaigners. These intersections between state aid and private philanthropy revealed competing ideologies of care and cost, and fostered class and gender friction.

While few scholars of the poor laws have ignored pauper children, they have receiving only passing attention in many works on wider poor law themes. Despite the burgeoning of histories of children and childhood being a flourishing area of historical scholarship, Frank Crompton’s Workhouse Children is the only monograph concerning children and the poor laws, and is confined to exploring their treatment in workhouses. The poor law central authorities in London along with many provincial poor law guardians saw the workhouse as unfit for the appropriate rearing of pauper children. The assessment of workhouses as ‘promiscuous environments’ was widespread, and the premise was reiterated by social purity activist Ellice Hopkins, who argued that girls in the workhouse faced the especial threat of ‘the deepest degradation of all’. Child welfare campaigner Florence Hill was convinced that the association between girls and mothers of illegitimate children in workhouses was ‘polluting’ and she cited the similar views of many other commentators, including Edward Tufnell, Edward Senior and Jelinger Symons, as corroboration. Because of their association with pauper adults, it was thought that children were not only being insufficiently trained, but were ‘actually nurtured in vice’. It was thought inevitable that many workhouse children would grow up to be ‘thieves, prostitutes or paupers’. Symons had argued that even when the children were in separate rooms from the other workhouse inmates, they could hear continually the ‘obscene conversation of the depraved portion of the adults’. This expectation continued into the twentieth century, and although the 1905-9 Poor Laws Royal Commission found little evidence, it was still assumed that workhouses contained a large number of prostitutes.

If children were not corrupted by the workhouse, they were thought to be in grave danger of being ground down by apathy and losing any work ethic. One Welsh guardian referred to his workhouse as ‘that miserable hole’ , and Florence Hill lamented ‘the inevitable consequences of ordinary workhouse life’ which equated to a ‘dulness [sic] of apprehension, ill-temper, a want of self-respect, and negligence as regards the care of property’. Charles Dickens argued that the ‘monotonous semi-prison life’ of the workhouse must ‘degrade and depress’ the minds of pauper children.

Consequently, strategies were devised to move children out of workhouses across England and Wales. The vast majority of children supported by the poor laws had never been inside a workhouse, and they remained with their parents despite alleged embargos of outdoor relief, and the parents themselves were often active agents where the education and welfare of their was concerned. Children were boarded out with foster parents, some of whom were members of their extended families; many were sent to separate district schools or ‘cottage’ homes, and others spent whole or part of their childhoods in philanthropic and religious orphanages. The more ‘refractory’ pauper boys were sent to training ships; disabled children were often educated in specialist establishments such as institutions for the blind or deaf, and some poor law unions emigrated their children to Britain’s colonies.

In essence this book supports the notion that most pauper children were not abandoned to beg for more food in workhouses, but that their upbringing; their reformation was carefully planned, managed and debated. It questions to what extent these varied strategies were a result of anxiety for the future of economy in the production of ‘able labourers’, or care for the children themselves, although strategies of control and policies of goodwill were often interrelated. Perceptions of pity were used to justify more rate-payers’ money being spent on pauper children, and also to counter criticism that pauper children received advantages that were unavailable to the children of the independent poor. Although many conflicts concerning the care and education of these children who ‘belonged to state’ were unresolved, their proposed childhood was imagined as being ‘normal’, and was subsequently imposed upon them. In common with many ‘fragile’ kin structures of the nineteenth century, the family networks of paupers were complicated and volatile.

This book covers a long period, and as Hopkins argues poor children were generally better off in 1900 than in 1800, but this was by no means a smooth progression. Some historians of the 1960s and 1970s, in their confidence of an unshakeable welfare state, analysed poor law provision as a weak precursor to the ‘cradle to the grave’ policies of the post-war Attlee Government and many works about social welfare provision prior to the 1990s invariably linked the word ‘welfare’ to the word ‘state’. As Daunton argues, assumptions that welfare history was ‘marching to a preordained end’ are problematic given the challenges to welfare provision in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, paradigms of ‘modernization’ and ‘unilinear’ explorations collapse when variations between poor law unions and sites of conflict between national policy and regional reactions to the relief of poverty are questioned, as they are in this book. This was a paradoxical era which saw laissez-faire competing with markedly increased intervention by the state. Poor law services were diverse, ambiguous and frequently patchy, and King, with the bemused fondness only a poor law devotee could display calls them ‘endearingly riven with intra- and inter-regional differences’. The sheer enormity of contradictory decision making and behaviour is perhaps the reason why some scholarship of the poor laws have been opaque and indecipherable, the scale of figures, correspondence and bureaucratic paraphernalia that is available for the historian to consult still offers incompleteness, but in volume amounts to much more than could be done one lifetime.

This book builds on Alysa Levene’s brilliant study of the childhoods of the poor in eighteenth-century London. Similarly, Jane Humphries’ insightful and moving glimpses into the lives of pauper children as part of her study on child labour is a reminder of the power of working-class writing as a valuable source for the histories of children, and similar sources have been used in this study as much as possible. However, Pauper Childhoods takes care to foreground the child, rather than policies for his or her care, housing and education. In doing so I ask and answer questions concerning the children’s lives and hopes for their future, and memories of their past. I am also indebted to Lydia Murdoch’s arguments in Imagined Orphans which offers valuable comparisons between Dr. Barnardo and poor law care. Murdoch’s analysis of the ‘organisation of space’ within institutions, and her arguments concerning doctrines of middle-class domesticity embraced by poor law establishments which was envisaged as the polar opposite to the alleged chaotic and undomesticated homes of the poor echo my findings, and offer a framework for analysis.

Although the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 applied to both Wales and England, its implementation and impact in the Welsh context has not been studied as exhaustively. This book will begin to redress this situation as it will explore the experiences of pauper children in both Wales and England. There are many fine works about poverty and childhood in London, and this book neither ignores nor foregrounds the capital. Although London has been called ‘a nation in itself’ in relation to poverty and the poor laws and many strategies for the care of pauper children originated in, or were inspired by trends in London’s ‘hotbed of innovation’, and are explored for this, and many other important strategic developments.

Opinion among historians concerning the treatment of ‘looked after’ children in this period can vary widely. Hendrick argues that the pervasiveness of ‘legal violence’ in children’s institutions ‘nearly always’ resulted in not only corporal punishment, but also in sexual abuse. At the opposing end of the spectrum, Marianne Moore contends that the debates concerning industrial school and cottage homes systems were motivated not by social control but by benevolence, and as such presaged modern child protection services. Whilst agreeing with many of Moore’s findings, it is disingenuous to dismiss the subtle forms of social control inherent in the care of pauper children and this book will question the stability of homogeneous readings of the competing ideologies at work in poor law and child care systems of the time. Similarly, although Hendrick provides little evidence for his confident assertion above, the prevalence of sexual abuse in children’s homes uncovered by historical abuse enquiries begun in the 1990s and continuing at the time of writing in 2016, suggests that sexual abuse in children’s homes during the twentieth century was ubiquitous. This may indeed be so but nonetheless research conducted for this book has not revealed any evidence of institutionalised sexual abuse in the establishments under review, whether this is because vulnerable children were better protected by the Victorian system, or the evidence is too well hidden is difficult to establish.

This book demonstrates how poor law guardians and managers of philanthropic institutions garnered support and funds by utilising the general sympathy that poor, orphaned and disabled children generated within the majority of the population. As Levene argues, the study of poor children is an activity ‘freighted with emotional overtones’. Certainly, this book does not subscribe to the views of historians such as Aries, Shorter and Stone who argued for a lack of affection towards children prior to the modern period, although by the period covered by this book they argue that parental affection was well established, at least within the middle-class family. As Fletcher and Hussey argue, these historians’ ‘itch’ to argue linear change, and ‘progression’ has been misplaced. During the time covered by this book ‘sentimentality’ flourished, especially when was directed at ‘pathetic’ children; guardians were acutely aware of its power, as were the fund-raisers of philanthropic causes. It is also difficult and probably futile for historians of children to distance themselves completely from emotion concerning the children we research. Although, as Bown says, it has ‘rarely been respectable to stand up for sentimentality’, as we can still ‘fall prey to its lures’. This book argues that emotional investment, albeit accompanied by scholarly rigour, is unavoidable in the researching and interpretation of children’s histories. A project of this kind cannot be undertaken successfully without empathetic engagement with the children whose lives we seek to illuminate. Roper has also criticised detachment within scholarship relating to the First World War, where he argues that ‘the intensity of emotional experience’ might tempt historians ‘beyond linguistic codes’. However, as Roper argues, ‘empathetic connections’ between historian and subjects are problematic and must be wary of projecting ‘the historian’s own unexamined projections onto the past’.

Consequently emotional affect will not sidestepped as it is necessary to engage with the feelings of children. I am inspired by the words of Ellen Ross in Love and Toil, whose seven year old son Zachary Glendon-Ross died in 1989 while she was researching her book. Ross argues that a historian can retain scholarly convention while experiencing emotional involvement with her historical subjects. While I argue that emotional engagement enhances histories of children, I take care to channel this emotion with academic detachment and not heroicise them nor construct for them ‘a mythical past’. The children will also be memorialised by naming as many as possible. In this it is informed and influenced by Ian Grosvenor’s argument that by being able to name children ‘we reclaim them as individuals’ and allow a voice to those ‘who remain largely silent’. The naming of children in print also confirms their existence in the same way as Roland Barthes’ argues that images demonstrates that a person had ‘indeed been’.

It is unlikely that any of the extensive source base consulted for this book has not been mediated by those in authority. Jordanova warns us how historians ‘persist in searching for the voice of children themselves, in their diaries and autobiographies’ when there can be ‘no authentic voice of childhood speaking to us from the past because the adult world dominates that of the child’. We can however attempt to unravel children’s own experiences from multiple clusters of sources, undeniably mediated by the ‘adult world’, and, as Davis argues, ‘step forward from the margins’ to attempt readings of what has been revealed.

The book is organised into three sections. Part one explores the experiences of pauper children in poor law institutions such as workhouses, district schools and later, cottage homes. Part two looks at the most used strategies for the care of pauper children in local communities including outdoor relief and boarding-out. Part three analyses how pauper children fared when they were sent by the guardians to privately run charitable establishments, and also examines the lives and future prospects of disabled children.

The treatment of children in workhouses is explored in the first chapter. The family circumstances of the children are analysed and their education compared with children of independent labourers. The workhouse was perceived as a site of moral contagion from which many unions sought either to remove them or attempt to nullify its effects by education, segregation and monitoring, and arguments and debates concerning separate establishments for pauper children took place over many years. Chapter Two analyses these debates and the lives pauper children could expect in these seemingly more child-friendly homes. This chapter argues that although family type institutions were perceived as leading the way in child welfare, by the early twentieth century these homes had equally fallen out of favour.

Chapter Three explores the much discussed and prevalent strategy of boarding-out pauper children. This policy is very familiar to today’s carers of looked after children, but was contested throughout the nineteenth century. This chapter sheds light onto how pauper children were perceived in local communities and whether affection or monetary gain was the motivation of foster parents. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that poor law central authorities began to admit favouring boarding-out, primarily because of the loss of control over the children and the often lax supervision by local boards of guardians. Chapter Four highlights what the 1834 poor law amendment act chiefly sought to change, the practice of allowing paupers a ‘dole’ in their own homes. Contrary to poor law propaganda, outdoor relief was never completely curtailed and was the principal strategy to relieve the majority of paupers outside London and certain ‘hard-line’ unions. Fewer sources exist to enlighten the lives of outdoor pauper children but this book endeavours to read against the grain of sources about poverty in nineteenth-century England and Wales to uncover the children’s experiences. Although these policies were the most extensively used by many guardians, they are often neglected by historians because of the paucity of sources relating to them.

The final part of this book is devoted to the children who were sent to privately-run charitable institutions. Chapter Five explores diverse establishments, ‘orphan’ homes for Roman Catholic girls, many of which looked after physically or mentally disabled children. Unions also sent some boys to training ships to learn discipline and a trade, and these are the only institutions in the study to which a punitive label can be attached. Although disparate institutions, all were motivated by the making of respectable responsible subjects. The final chapter also examines disabled children, in this case those who were blind or deaf. It explores attitudes to the education of blind and deaf children and analyses the children’s lives and expectations and questions whether these institutions enabled or disabled the children in their care.

Davin argues that historians need ‘both zoom and wide angled lens’ to capture the particular as well as the general. This book offers a wide-ranging and multi-layered analysis of pauper children and their relationships with poverty, their parents and each other, the poor laws and philanthropy in England and Wales. The histories of pauper children are complicated by conflicting attitudes of (and within) regional poor law unions, competing strategies of child welfare activists and fluctuations in policy by central authorities. Although the ‘new’ poor law sought to bring uniformity to welfare provision, the treatment and care of pauper children was largely dependent on chance; where and with whom they lived. As Henriques argued, many of the harsher elements of the poor laws were mitigated by the ‘goodwill’ of individual guardians, and this insight can also be ascribed to the behaviour of masters and matrons, house-mothers, teachers, and indeed the children’s own family, or to whom they were fostered. It is problematic to attempt to homogenise and pigeonhole the lives of pauper children, and the purpose of this book is not to offer generalized arguments. Their varied experiences are what matters, and the lack of an overarching argument and conclusion need not be seen as an academic failure because they are elusive, but as an opportunity to explore in one book how the poor laws and philanthropy interacted with their dependent children, and how the children fared in a multiplicity of circumstances. The result is a more nuanced analysis that moves beyond Dickensian cliches of Victorian history to consider the multiple experiences of poor law children.

Lesley Hulonce July 2016


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