Thomas Malthus and The Andover Workhouse Scandal 1845-6

Deuteronomy 15:11 “There will always be poor in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed….

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.

England* in the mid-19th century was ostentatiously Christian. However age-old challenges remained. The poor were a Biblical ever present. This tested the Victorians’ generosity of spirit. The Malthusian theory stated that England had surplus population who should die off ‘naturally’, just as animals die off when they exhaust their food supplies. The intellectual climate created informed Victorian legislators** who, on this argument, were going well beyond their moral obligations by funding workhouses. The bourgeoisie were acquitted of neglect though the philanthropic could, if they wished, save a pauper from death. Parliament legislated that workhouses offered aid at a level below the living standards of the poorest labourer. This was the infamous less eligibility clause in the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834). There is a hint that workhouses should make death easier for paupers. The Andover Workhouse Scandal is intelligibly horrifying.

Malthusian population theory (1798) is as follows:

Malthus proposes the principle that human populations grow exponentially (i.e doubling with each cycle) while food production grows at an arithmetic rate, (i.e by the repeated addition of a uniform increment in each uniform interval of time). Thus, while food output was likely to increase in a series of twenty-five year intervals in the arithmetic progression 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so on, population was capable of increasing in the geometric progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and so forth.  This scenario of arithmetic food growth with simultaneous geometric human population growth predicted a future when humans would have no resources to survive on ***.

This has the chilling effect of dehumanising paupers. They are characterised as quasi-animals: breeding according to food supply. And like animals they should take the consequences of their imprudence. Disease and starvation would ‘cull’ paupers naturally in the Malthusian world.

Exactly as predicted, population growth in southern England in the late 1820s and 1830s led to turmoil. Living standards declined. The principal claim of Malthus was that population grew in times of plenty but fell back ‘naturally’ in times of hardship. His theory was tested in the period 1801-51 when England’s population doubled (8.3m to 16.8m) and extremes of poverty were seen. Paupers gradually starved and starvation brought the Swing Riots (1830s) and political developments such as unions of workers (the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset being the most famous). The political and rebellious context of the Poor Law Amendment Act was unconducive to generosity of spirit.

Victorian England was unforgiving of disobedient officials who exceeded their authority. The officials at the Andover Workhouse created a ferocious regime for their inmates***. This was beyond the pale because of the systematic reduction of food for inmates who were doing very hard physical work (bone-crushing). This appallingly grim work involved the use of a 28 pound (12.7 kg) hammer for twelve hours a day. Deliberately under-fed to the point of starvation, the authorities at Andover stole from inmates and flouted the Poor Law Commissioners’ **** dietary instructions. Journalists exposed the fact that some physically exhausted inmates chose to commit crimes so they could enter prison – a softer option. Others, on the brink of starvation, ate marrow from bones and even fought each other to get bits of bone which had morsels of meat remaining.

The connexion between the intellectual Malthus with the thuggish, morally criminal behaviour of the guardians of the Andover Workhouse is oblique. However the intellectual climate created by Malthus dehumanised paupers. This made it easier for those in authority to be inhumane. The Andover Scandal wasn’t unique but it provided a benchmark for what shouldn’t have happened.

*This blog focuses on southern England.
**In general the New Testament is uncomfortable reading for those who are inclined to be ungenerous to the poor. Victorian Christians didn’t emphasise verses such as “for the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil”1 Tim. 6:10. file:///C:/Users/Chris/Downloads/01fopmpopulation_tcm77-251915.pdf p3
*** 1848 brought another scandal in Yorkshire see
http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/hudders.html
**** http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/poorlaw/dietwh.htm

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