Workhouses: did Charles Dickens get it wrong?

Britain was a swaggeringly confident country in 1834 with a firm belief in laissez-faire economics. Yet they created a tightly regulated centralised welfare system which deleted localised authority by imposing national standards. Every aspect of the new system was laid out from segregation of the sexes to diet. Local administration was the newly created Poor Law Unions, which had local control though answerable to the Poor Law Commissioners in London. ‘Less eligibility’ was the clause of the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834 which was intended to make life in the workhouse so onerous and unpleasant that no-one would willingly chose to enter*. Victorian welfare was for the destitute. Nonetheless the Poor Law Amendment Act is the unlikely acorn from which the British welfare system grew.

Britain in the late 1820s and 1830s was in turmoil. Living standards in agricultural regions were in sharp decline. Mass migration to London and the industrial north left behind those trapped by circumstances leaving them in a hopeless social and economic situation. Additional stress was caused by astonishing population growth. During the fifty years 1801-51 Britain’s population doubled**. Declining living standards and population growth is a toxic combination. Rural distress caused violence. The 1830s brought the Swing Riots throughout South and Eastern England with agricultural machinery, farm buildings and animals being targeted. The trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1834) is an example of government inspired repression. The context of the Poor Law Amendment Act plus the pervasive economic theories meant that the government wanted to ‘punish’ paupers.

Welfare is a tricky political and economic concept. Is welfare an entitlement for citizens and were paupers ‘citizens’ (paupers couldn’t vote and didn’t pay tax). Biblical precepts about the obligation of the wealthy and by extension the government are ambiguous***. Biblical ambiguity or not, allowing paupers to die in the streets was rejected without discussion. The suppressed premise was that there was a minimum and that minimum was a place of safety protecting life. ‘Less eligibility’ meant that that minimum would be unappetising. Only the most desperate pauper would enter a workhouse. Government sponsored workhouses acknowledged the previously unstated obligation that the state had a duty of care towards its citizens.

Charles Dickens wasn’t alone in condemning workhouses and his character Oliver Twist vividly illustrates the actuality of the deliberately poor diet. But did Dickens miss the point? There were no wagons collecting the dead from the pavements of London or anywhere else in mainland Britain. The horrors of starvation are very different to hunger. The Great Famine in Ireland amply illustrates the point. Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom since 1801 but was treated like a colony complete with the usual racism that that implies****. In the Great Famine a million Irish died from starvation whilst a further million emigrated. The Irish population dropped by 25% in six years. Starvation for the Irish pauper was an ever present possibility unlike mainland Britain. Ireland demonstrates that the mainland British workhouse system was an efficient welfare system. Workhouses were built in a programme involving significant capital expenditure. They were austere but they were safe, dry and fit for purpose. The lives of paupers were protected by the publication of minimum diets preventing local Poor Law Guardians from reducing the provision of food to save money.

Mainland British paupers didn’t die from starvation even if their grinding poverty followed them into the workhouse. Workhouses prevented death but in every other respect they crushed the spirit of those that lived there. It is a matter of judgement as to whether that was a price worth paying. The British welfare system was created in 1834, which through ‘mission creep’, has developed into what we have today where welfare is an entitlement for every British citizen no matter how wealthy.

**A comparison is the period 1651-1751 where English population growth was 600,000.
*** Biblical precepts are notoriously ambiguous where any precept can usually be matched by another one which contradicts it. Compare: Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be poor in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed….” with Mark 4:25 “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath”.
**** see also for the views of Anthony Trollope the novelist and civil servant who had extensive knowledge of Ireland and was a fierce critic of landowners.

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