Barry Shurlock explores history’s message on poverty

THIS is the time of year when the plight of the less fortunate comes to mind. In 1877 the line “It’s Christmas Day in the workhouse” touched the heart of the nation. It was penned by campaigning journalist George Robert Sims, railing against the Poor Law reforms of 1834. These were based on the idea that life in the workhouse must be worse than that supported by handouts in the community.

Attempts to eliminate poverty have a very long history. Once aimed mainly at keeping “vagrants and beggars” off the street, a new crisis arose after the dissolution of the monasteries, when hospitals and other charitable offices disappeared. The obligation of every parish in 1597 to appoint an Overseer of the Poor and later laws to raise rates for welfare did not solve the problem. There were endless disputes about an individual’s proper parish, and rate-payers engaged in creative penny-pinching.

Within Hampshire there were many early “houses of industry” and similar places for the needy. They received basic food, worked at such things as spinning, weaving and wire-pulling to earn money. Some institutions, like Hinton Ampner were tiny, others, like Alverstoke, were huge. They were located haphazardly and run by local volunteers, without regulation.

In Hampshire matters came to a head in November 1830 during the Swing Riots, when starving agricultural workers rioted and broke up threshing machines. To vent their anger, a posse trashed the workhouse at Headley, near Alton, and tore off its roof. The next day they went on to Selborne for a similar demonstration.

It was events like these – Hampshire’s Storming of the Bastille - that persuaded the government in 1834 to completely overhaul the system. Building on an earlier idea of 1782 all parishes had to join forces in a Union with a purpose-built workhouse. There were about 30 such workhouses constructed in the county. Their elegant structures are prominent on maps of the period – but the regime was harsh and based on assumption that the poor were to blame. It was the stuff that fuelled Oliver Twist, the novel of Portsmouth-born Charles Dickens.

The new workhouses were in the hands of Guardians. The Hampshire Record Office has a rich store of minutes and correspondence and more than a thousand other items which illustrate the times. In particular, they document the lives of many individuals whose lives are otherwise unrecorded.

Almost immediately after the 1834 reforms, stories of shocking neglect surfaced. In 1836 in Bishops Waltham a woman died of “mortification of the bowels”, and a year later the sad story of mistreatment of boys in Fareham was taken up by MP John Walters, owner of The Times.

But the shocker, which embroiled Hampshire in a major, if unedifying part in changes to legislation, involved the Andover workhouse. It was being run by a drunken, dissolute Waterloo veteran ex-sergeant major and his wife, with inmates so hungry they had to chew the bones they ground up for fertiliser. Tipped off by a whistle-blower Guardian, Andover’s scandal reached Westminster and the outcome – spurred on by the Press – led to a more tightly regulated system.

Welfare was, of course, revolutionised in the last century, but the spectre of the workhouse did not finally fade until after WWII and all legislation was not finally repealed until 1967.

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