Posts tagged ‘Victorian’

January 28, 2019

Death of a Pauper

Guest blog by Textor

In June 1850 David Wright, chartist, post office messenger, shoemaker, poet and it seems a police informer, raised a legal action in Aberdeen Sheriff Court. As lowly as the local Sheriff Court might have been the radical democrat was in a sense challenging the might of the British state. His beef was with James Wallace, Inspector of Poor for St Nicholas Parish, one of the many men across Britain who had been given the job of relieving, organising and disciplining the country’s poor.

poors house

The poet’s mother Jean Duncan had recently died. Burial clothing, coffin and interment cost her sons 25 shillings. The poet claimed that St Nicholas Parish, in the person of James Wallace, was due to cover the cost of the funeral. It transpired that Jean had been on the city’s poor roll for over ten years which meant she had been entitled to, and received support from the city. For most of her time on the roll she had been eligible for what was called out-door relief: a meagre amount of entitlement was given while she stayed at what was her home; undoubtedly a poor soul in a poor house.

Circumstances changed about March 1849 out-door relief was withdrawn and she was sent to the Poor’s House on Nelson Street. This recently opened institution became home cum prison for women, men and children from across Aberdeen. We don’t know why Jean Duncan decided the Poor House was not for her; more than likely having been forced out of her own home and losing the degree of freedom that went with it she found institutional discipline at Nelson Street too much and perhaps the mix of residents did not suit her. Whatever the case she abandoned the Poor’s House within three weeks. Sadly for her the rules of the game meant Jean was no longer eligible for poor relief. She lost her official designation of “pauper” and with it any help from the parish.

So it was Jean fell back on the little that her family could provide until her death in the summer of 1850. If the unfortunate woman had died a pauper then the cost of burial could have been covered by parish funds although with the Anatomy Act in operation corpses of any “unclaimed” poor dead were made available to city surgeons for dissection. A “guardian” of Old Machar’s poor put it this way – many prejudices in regard to this subject existed in the minds of some people. Easy for this representative of the middle class to say, he was unlikely to have a family member dispatched to the anatomist and then buried in a pauper’s grave. It’s worth bearing in mind that a pauper’s body could lie unclaimed not because a family lacked feeling or consented to anatomising the corpse but simply because the weight of poverty prevented what was seen as a more fitting interment. Poor’s House inmates almost certainly knew and feared the Anatomy Act and this might have been in Jean Duncan’s thoughts when she decide to go back home.

Sheriff William Watson presided over the case. Here was a man of some local and national standing who was behind the introduction of Industrial Schools across Britain; institutions which by removing the poor’s children from the streets cleared the city of juvenile beggars and “delinquents” and at the same time provided a modicum of education along with opportunities to learn trades. Children were fed, and where necessary clothed. And so streets were cleared of troublesome poor, crime was contained and disaffected children were provided with some sense of their worth and place in industrial Britain. Sheriff Watson in other words was sympathetic towards them and hoped to integrate them into the ways of the Victorian world.

However, as much as the Sheriff was keen to alleviate conditions experienced by some of the city’s poor poet David Wright was treated less fortunately than Aberdeen’s ex-delinquents. Poor Inspector James Wallace argued that having left the Poor House Wright’s mother, Jean Duncan, effectively removed herself from the roll and thus ceased to be a pauper though the Inspector’s action seemed to contradict this when he arranged for a physician to visit the ailing women at her son’s house. This might well have been an act of pure charity by Wallace rather than, as Wright argued, an indication that Jean was still seen as under the care of the Poor Law. The poet’s legal agent explained that he and his brothers had pinched themselves and go into debt in their efforts to support their mother. Sympathy was not forthcoming. Inspector Wallace held against the Wright brothers the fact that on their mother’s death the body was not handed over to the Poor’s House. The legal tide favoured authority, more so when the Sheriff was told that David Wright earned 12 shillings per week as Post Office messenger. Watson ruled that regardless of how the men pinched themselves to perform the last offices in doing this they had been doing no more than was their duty and that they had no call on the parish funds.

rowlandson anatomy

Rowlandson’s Dr William Hunter’s Dissecting Room

The foundation stone of Aberdeen’s new Poor’s House had been laid with Masonic ceremony in April 1848. According to merchant Baillie James Forbes it heralded a new morality where poverty was not seen as a crime. Forbes was a liberal free-trade man and well aware that the competitive trade cycles of capitalism meant periods of unemployment for some with consequent poverty; what Forbes characterised as those unavoidable contingencies which necessarily arise from the peculiar structure of society. Unfortunate, but not a crime. As enthusiastic as he was for free-trade the good Baillie had no reluctance in promoting state intervention in management of the poor. How far this was driven by his sense of it being morally correct is a moot point. More certain is that as a Baillie (magistrate) he was alive to the need for mitigation and control of the worst social and political effects of capitalist commerce, especially so with the burgeoning of the town’s working class. He was unperturbed by the provisions of the New Poor Law Act of 1845 which, according to its critics threatened to bankrupt ratepayers and create a utopia for rogues and vagabonds. For Baillie Forbes the Act was the Magna Charta of the poor in Scotland.

Landowners in the County were aghast at the demands which threatened to be placed on their well-filled purses, but rather than admitting their simple greed they argued that the central weakness in compulsory assessment and state-managed poor relief (as opposed to Church and private philanthropy) was that it could only undermine the “natural” morality of the Scottish poor: the principle of self-dependence. In its place, they said, would be an indifference to industry and careful living.

Baillie Forbes would have none of this. He recognised that with proper organisation, sufficient funds and strict discipline the Poor’s House had every opportunity for engrafting industrial habits on “deserving” cases admitted to it. Of course part of engrafting meant the poor were threatened with “indoor” relief; a threat which promoters hoped would ensure the more indolent and profligate able-bodied persons looking for charity dropped off the poor’s roll, in effect forcing them to work for a living.

sheriff watson

Sheriff Watson

The great and the good who gathered that spring day in 1848 could not but be enthusiastic at the prospect of efficient management of an element of the capitalist social world. Positive feelings of Christian benevolence came from the prospect of providing accommodation, medical care and food for the disabled, the infirm elderly, orphans and even for some able-bodied who were willing to submit to the demands of House rules for short periods of time. Beyond this they hoped their social engineering would go some way to create greater stability and safer political world; at least for commercial and professional classes. After laying the foundation stone some sixty “gentlemen” trooped back down King Street to the Town Hall to partake of a splendid entertainment . . .[where] the wines and fruits were of the most recherché and excellent description. This small feast was provided by Baillie Forbes..

The convivial assembly warmed by the philanthropic glow of the occasion and no doubt buoyed by the wine and fruits on offer listened as Provost George Thompson, local shipping magnate, regaled them with his thoughts on the revolutions rocking continental Europe: dynasties that had stood for ages were being overthrown in a day . . . the whole of Europe was in commotion. However, Britain, he declared, had nothing to fear, his homeland was firm and secure. In her sound and well-balanced constitution there was security for the throne, and protection for the lives and liberties of the people.

Of course, liberty and security for the poor was more circumscribed than that available to the men gathered round the table at the Town Hall. Those forced by circumstance to enter the Poor’s House enjoyed the dubious liberty of being able to offer their corpses to anatomists at Marischal College; a freedom which I suspect was seldom exercised by the men fervently toasting the health of Queen and country. Jean Duncan had briefly experience the liberties and benefits of the Poor’s House and was clearly unimpressed. She was accorded the right, however, to take herself to her son’s home and there experience the rechercé of poverty. Poet David Wright, and police informer or not, recognised that freedom was hinged on wealth and property and that the “working bee” – the working man or woman was at the base of the pyramid supporting all exploiters above. As he put it,

Come then arise–for once be wise,
And imitate the bees;
And all unite in Freedom’s fight,
And spoil the sons of ease.

robber barons