Protesting about Pauperism
Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870-1900
Elizabeth T. Hurren
Royal Historical Society Studies in History, New Series
Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015
Paperback reissue (First edition, 2007). xii+216 p. ISBN 978-0861933297. £19.99
Reviewed by Alannah Tomkins
Elizabeth Hurren’s book on the late-Victorian poor law, like many academic monographs, started life as a PhD thesis. Unlike most volumes in the genre, her work has been reissued in paperback and so has been promised a new and wider readership for her ground-breaking work. Few PhDs can hope to achieve the same impact and longevity.
The case examines the poor law as a component of local government, and as a source of contention in the late-nineteenth century. The established line on the decades 1870-1900 held that the turbulence of the 1830s was well behind the poor law, which had developed into a relatively stable entity nationwide with broadly agreed protocols for policy decision and action. The ‘crusade’ against outdoor poor relief, an attempt to compel paupers to accept workhouse welfare that was at its most potent in the early 1870s, is generally underplayed as a relatively short-lived and geographically-curtailed experiment. Hurren explodes this settled picture by revealing the visceral challenge of the crusade to consensual and humanitarian impulses in some locations. She analyses the turbulence that might be engendered by the clash of prominent local personalities with new county structures, with more diverse electorates, and with emergent rural trades-unionism. Giving the crusade its historiographical due, she argues that it could make a very significant impact on the poor as a mediator of the experience of pauperdom and as a spur to politicisation.
focuses on the rural Brixworth Union in Northamptonshire and its rich evidence
of administratively-enforced hardship and concomitant protest against the
crusade. The ideological complexion of the
evident sufferings of the Brixworth poor, Protesting
About Pauperism is not a comfortable read. Chapter eight, which covers
pauper pleas to observe funerary norms and burial arrangements, is unequivocally
grisly, given that the alternative to a pauper grave was consignment to
dissection within a medical school. Hurren construes the Medical Relief
(Disqualification Removal) Act of 1885 as an instrument relatively neglected by
historians but offering sly support to committed crusaders. Even so the most
insidious development in Brixworth was the ‘Secret Service Fund’ which operated
from 1878 until 1896. This was an unofficial scheme, implemented by the leading
crusaders on the Board of Guardians with the compliance of the (very highly
paid) relieving officer. Every time a deserving case was made for outdoor
relief, the officer referred it to a crusading Guardian rather than to the
Board. The Guardian then made a discretionary payment from a small charitable
fund, run only by core crusaders, on the proviso that the applicant did not
reapply for relief. Any pauper brave enough to reapply to the
crusading was only curtailed by the successful election of opposing and working-class
guardians. In Brixworth the balance of power shifted decisively across the
1890s as a coalition of the working and lower-middle classes, from agricultural
labourers to small-scale employers, secured a voting majority on the Brixworth
Board. One hero of this story is Sidney Ward, a counter-weight to the malign
Pell, whose commitment to founding the Brixworth District Outdoor Relief
Association exemplified the motives of most members: they had personal
connections to those treated severely by the
Brixworth was undoubtedly an atypical Union in its aggressive, successful and long-lasting implementation of crusading principles, but a close examination of the severity possible under the late-nineteenth-century poor law is a sharp reminder of the discretion open to Guardians before the democratisation of local-government voting. This research may be the most significant intervention in the historiography of the New Poor Law in the last generation. Now its reissue will make the analysis accessible for undergraduate purchase as well as postgraduate and postdoctoral research.
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