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How did the elderly fare in welfare terms under the English New Poor Law

The passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834 coincided with the beginnings of the administrative Victorian political regime whereby meticulous attention to detail was a feature of both the work houses and the nascent welfare state. Unlike welfare relief during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Stuart eras, the Poor Law of the nineteenth century was considered a matter for state intervention, though not in the same way that we would understand state sponsored action today. Poor relief in Victorian England was intended as a deterrent rather than relief, and there is no doubt that the Great Reformers of the mid nineteenth century would be horrified at the state of twenty first century welfare state under New Labour.Yet in comparison to both contemporary foreign powers and the march of history, the New Poor Law was indeed a watershed in British social history, especially for the elderly, infirm and destitute. Political mechanisms took over the helm of welfare reform where the local Parish used to constitute the main official authority pertaining to the poor (‘out relief’). Theoretically, therefore, welfare was available to the entire population – old, young, male and female – as opposed to the geographic sensibilities of the Old Poor Law. In reality, however, the choice between the work houses and homelessness was rarely one of opinion.For the purposes of this study, a chronological approach must be adopted to highlight how the New Poor Law evolved from its conception to the modern administrative monolith witnessed in the twentieth century. Through the lens of history, it will be seen that the term ‘welfare’ did not apply within the confines of the New Poor Law. By definition, the study must likewise chart, in particular, the fate of the elderly under the Poor Law although it should be noted that a more generic approach must at times be taken, especially when specific documentary evidence pertaining to the elderly is difficult to gauge. The broader concepts of ‘the poor’ and ‘the working class’ will thus be cited as a means of conveying the standard of living for the elderly within the title of the discussion. A conclusion will be sought once analysis has shown that concern for the aged is a relatively modern phenomenon, certainly in terms of the role of the state, which necessarily implies hardship for the elderly during the early modern industrial period.First, a definition of the term ‘elderly’ must be attempted. In contemporary language, the term elderly would apply to anybody above the age of retirement in the UK: sixty for women and sixty five for men. However, in the early Victorian era, the concept of retirement meant nothing for the elderly, certain the elderly people who would require assistance from the New Poor Law. Moreover, life expectancy was remarkably different during the nineteenth century, certainly within the cross section of the population who would come under the broader administrative umbrella of the New Poor Law. Industrialisation was barely two generations old, which resulted in many male workers dying young and many female spouses forced into lives of poverty on industrial streets where life expectancy nose dived in tandem with living conditions.Therefore, in light of the above discrepancy between our modern understanding of the term ‘elderly’ and the realities of life during the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an educated estimate would calculate a figure of late fifties and early sixties as constituting the elderly within this study. Clearly, this topic is highly subjective and analysis of different work houses would reveal different figures for the inmates in terms of age and background. It is important to realise that the study will oscillate between varieties of the aged in order to present a more ordered composition of the reality of life under the New Poor Law. Furthermore, much of the following discussion will inevitably revolve around historical conjecture.The trigger for reform of the state’s role in relation to the new working class poor was an essay written by famous English philanthropist, Thomas Malthus and it had direct reference to the implications for the demography of England in future generations. The Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) implied that rampant sexuality and a declining death rate would result in a broad common economic base of the populace who would necessarily drain the capital accrued by the state in demand of state sponsored support. It is important to note that his work and the subsequent social legislation passed during the 1830’s and 1840’s would not have existed without the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Poor relief and urbanisation are inseparable; a socio political explosion of the previous centuries of history. As the British social historian Paul Mantoux (1961:477) put it: “The industrial revolution is precisely the expansion of undeveloped forces, the sudden growth and blossoming of seeds which had for years lain hidden or asleep.”It is also important to realise that poor relief was a unique feature in England, one that did not take place on the continent. There was no similar Poor Law in Europe, the reason being the secular nature of British society after the sixteenth century Reformation and the separation of Church and State, which meant that the parishes took over the helm in relation to welfare and poor relief in a way that the Catholic Church did not. Ironically, Malthus and contemporary commentators such as the French social analyst, Say (1828:398) blamed the very existence of the Old Poor Law for the burgeoning numbers of the English working classes at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”There were scarcely any machines at the time of Queen Elizabeth and yet it was then that was felt necessary to bring in that law for the support of the poor which has only served to multiply them.”There was, as a result, a contradictory state policy adopted which advocated structural assistance for the all elements of the nation’s poor yet one which was simultaneously advocated an officially policy of laissez faire, which preferred the poor to look after themselves. The concept of aid for the underprivileged was therefore haphazard and so it comes as no surprise to learn that the practice of the New Poor Law was administratively anarchic, which affected the elderly in ways that can only be guessed at.Workhouses were conceived with comfort and humanitarian support at the very bottom of official priorities. Indeed, the idea was to make all aspects of the New Poor Law a deterrent for the entire working population. Malthus and others believed that the working classes were responsible for their own hardship with increasing instances of prostitution, alcoholism and homelessness being ascribed for the underlying reasons as to the immorality of the poor as opposed to the urban realities of heavy industrialisation. The historian must take care not to judge the early Victorians for their approach to poor relief. As Cole and Postgate (1992:274) underline, the 1834 Act signified the spirit of the age whereby policy makers truly believed that their harsh sociological methods would bring about the redemption of the industrial working classes.”Out relief should never, it was considered, be given to able bodied males; and when workhouse relief was given it should be given only on such terms that life on relief should be more unpleasant than the most unpleasant way of earning a living outside.”Viewed from this austere subtext then, the role of the work houses was tantamount to a prison, or more accurately a penitentiary, with the chief purpose of the work houses being to try to ‘educate’ the wretched classes by instilling fear of religion and the state in a bid to reduce vagrancy and population numbers. Certainly, there could be no more reckless breeding inside of the workhouses themselves, which deliberately separated families and genders, one of the most despised aspects of the regime in contemporary eyes. The separation of family and gender only served to underline the fundamental similarities between the work houses and the fate of the criminal population.The work houses were likewise separated by age and physical health with one part of the traditional English work house constituting the elderly and infirm; the second being made of children; the third component was able bodied women who were logically separated from able bodied women. Although physically separated from one another the experiences for all of the inmates was exactly the same. The elderly lived in the same cramped living conditions as the able bodied.An explanation of the realities of life inside of the work houses is necessary to highlight the plight of the elderly under the New Poor Law. As would be expected, a generic answer is not possible as huge discrepancies were witnessed in terms of geography, management and funding across the newly united kingdom of Great Britain. Life varied from region to region and individual experiences differed markedly. Manchester workhouse, for instance, was condemned at the beginning of the 1800’s by an independent report while Bristol workhouse was perceived to be a particularly advanced institution, fostering care and community spirit. Christie (1984:103) details the futility of attempting to offer a definitive conclusion with regards to workhouses.”It is difficult to generalise with certainty about conditions in these establishments. The reports put together indicate a wide range, from the clean and well run to the badly managed and squalid.”Charles Dickens, amongst others, painted a particularly bleak portrait of life in the work houses though the focus of his novels and many philanthropists’ investigation at the time was the young and able bodied; they were, after all, the potential labour backbone of the new industrial society. Little attention was paid by either Westminster or contemporary commentators to the conditions of the elderly within the work houses. As with the passing of the Poor Law, this was merely a sign of the times: the elderly were presumed to be the responsibility of the family whom they themselves had raised. Little thought was paid to the possibility of the destitution of the familial support structure for Britain’s elderly. It is a social issue that has still yet to be absolutely addressed.The necessary figures required to properly describe the plight of the elderly under the New Poor Law are simply unavailable. The reason for this is the aforementioned lack of concern for the aged, yet this alone cannot explain the lack of concrete evidence; rather the reason has less to do with contemporary sensibilities than the demographics of nineteenth century Britain. As Paul Johnson (1993:11) explains, the concept of caring for an elderly section of the population is a discernibly twentieth century phenomenon, one that has taken place throughout the West only after having been experienced first in England.”Until the 1980’s little had been written by historians about either the social impact of aging or the changing experience of older people in modern Britain. The enduring historiographical invisibility of older people has been in stark contrast to their growing physical presence. From the mid sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century, fewer than 10 per cent of the English population was aged over sixty; in 1901 for instance 8.1 per cent of people were aged sixty and above. Yet by 1941 more than 14 per cent of the population in England was aged over sixty, a figure which had risen to 20.7 per cent by 1991.”Figures for employment are more tangible; these are the men and women who avoided the work houses. Phillipson (1982:9) ascertains that 73% of the male population recorded in the census as aged over sixty five were recorded as having an occupation in 1881. The figures for women are more difficult to gauge as the ‘means test’ introduced for widowed women clouds attempts at consensus of how many ‘elderly’ women were in employment, which necessarily affects attempts at charting the number of aged women who were affected by the New Poor Laws. Indeed, as Joan Perkin (1993:144) testifies, the issue of widowed women (which did not necessarily imply ‘elderly’ widows as the poor quality of health and safety resulted in an epidemic of industrial related male deaths at a relatively young age) was one of the more common features of the realities of the New Poor Law.”Throughout the nineteenth century widows with children formed the largest group of paupers receiving poor relief or entering the workhouse.”There is a definite split detectable in the attitude of the British state to the concept of welfare within the context of this discussion. The first period, which we have covered, can be analysed within the broad bracket of the years 1834 to 1870, where the advent of Gladstone’s Second Government during the 1880’s signified a permanent shift in the role of the state concerning both the poor and the elderly. Thus, while the first period must be generalised as an ad hoc series of reforms designed to keep all facets and age brackets of the working classes away from the burgeoning industrial middle classes and (more importantly) the chief motivating factor of the Empire, the second part of the discussion describes a wholly different paradigm of poor relief: the embryonic welfare state.By the 1870’s it had become to apparent to policy makes in both Westminster and Whitehall that the ‘population question’ that had so perplexed Malthus and the early Victorians was not a temporary dilemma. It was a permanent feature of modern society. As a result, the later Victorians were slowly able to get to grips with the concept of state care for the elderly. Gradually, therefore, the elderly need for access to the New Poor Law was diminished as Patrick Joyce (1990:141) details.”The pre 1914 limitations placed by poverty on kinship and neighbourhood activities were considerable, the change developing slowly with relative affluence, a decrease in the death rate, increased population stability and community coherence, and the beginning of government welfare policies.”While the inevitable advances in technology, urban design as well as the slowly decreasing level of danger associated with heavy industrial labour meant a significant change in standards of living in the late nineteenth century, the legislation passed in relation to the poor was a matter of policy and therefore of partisan political debate. The identity of the party in power was therefore crucial to the fate of the elderly under the Poor Law. Whereas, for example, at the beginning of the period of the New Poor Law, the political spectrum was divided upon Whig and Tory lines, the 1870’s heralded the golden age of the Liberal Party in Britain, one that characterised itself on passing social legislation.This period has been described as the ‘slow march of democracy’ where the concept of parliamentary democracy began to have meaning for the working classes. Yet in relation to the New Poor Law very little was reformed at a legislative level. The state still refused to hand over the issue of poor relief back to the community or the parishes preferring instead the cultural deterrent of the work houses, many of which had actually become more squalid in terms of living conditions since the first part of the century. A similar situation was salient with respect to the elderly, with no state pension devised and only those means that were open to the entire population at the disposal of the disadvantaged elderly at the end of the century.Other social and political reforms, however, had an indirect effect on both the evolution of the nascent welfare state as well as the plight of the poor in real terms. The passing of the Factory Act in 1874 and the Public Health Act in 1875 inevitably affected the lifestyles of the poor and thus the need for them to enter the work houses. Poor health was historically the chief reason for a man or a woman being unable to work, hence the passing of domestic legislation that aimed to improve standards of living had a marked effect on the poor, particularly the elderly who were as dependent upon employment as were the fit and able bodied.Yet when Gladstone’s second administration began to turn its attention to the workers themselves, real progress was achieved in terms of how the elderly and the poor in general fared under the broader umbrella of the Victorian State. The 1880 Employers’ Liability Act was a watershed in terms of employment legislation in the developed world. The Act applied to all manual workers except seamen and domestic servants. It gave to injured employees or their dependents the rights to recover damages from their employers, which had a direct effect on the numbers of elderly poor requiring poor relief.The 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act went a step further by decreeing that an employer should compensate a workman who was injured, and the dependants of a workman who was killed at work, irrespective of any negligence on the part of the employer or his other employees. The effect of this legislation on the elderly should be clear, the changing emphasis upon compensation for workers who died (which was a common feature of industrial societies like that fostered by the coal mines of the South Wales Valleys, for example) constituting the first step of the welfare state in terms of care for the aged. Indeed, this final Act of social legislation during the nineteenth century heralded the beginning of a new era that saw to it that those members of society who had ‘paid their way’ by working all of their productive, adult lives ought to be able to live their final years in relative comfort, away from the deprivation of the work houses.However, while the slow march of democracy crept towards the genesis of the welfare state, the basic principles of the Poor Law were not challenged. The same was true for the elderly. The legislative changes outlined above did indeed have a positive effect on the industrial working classes but the effect was piecemeal, long and drawn out; more akin to a process of osmosis than a social revolution. Furthermore, severe economic depressions throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s meant that many of Britain’s elderly became discernibly transient occupiers of the work houses, intermittently using the shelters when economic hard times set in, re joining employment and society only when the international financial climate permitted it.It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that serious political debate re surfaced concerning the New Poor Law with the so called ‘radical’ element within the Liberal Party seeking to take social legislation and care for the poor a step further. This is deemed to be the end of the period of laissez faire government. Yet, as Francois Bedarida (1991:141 142) suggests, the Poor Law was still deemed to be the best means of state care for the aged, infirm and out of work.”The ‘progressive’ democracy of the radicals, though it was based on the principle of State intervention, only aimed to correct the mistakes and weaknesses of liberal society, and not to change its structures… one sees the principle at work when the Liberal Government refused to break with the traditional concept of the Poor Law as defined by the Benthamites in 1834. This was the touchstone.”The work houses therefore remained the central feature of the British Poor Law during the first part of the twentieth century although a series of reforms passed by the Liberal Government did in fact lay the foundations of the modern welfare state. The 1905 Unemployed Workmen’s Act was the genesis of the concept of the ‘labour exchange’ benefit system, which affected young and old alike. The 1908 Old Age Pensions Act was an even more significant step for the elderly, particularly as this was a non contributory piece of legislation. The 1911 National Insurance Act covered health and employment and was concerned with funding the first two reforms. Cumulatively, these Acts did more for the fate of the elderly and indeed the entire poor of Britain than any of the legislation that went before them, including the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Theoretically, also, they eradicated the anachronistic Victorian idea that every member of society could be cajoled back into work. Retirement, as a concept, began to emerge at this time.Added to the provisions for the social services laid down by the Liberals was the defining moment in the history of the poor, the elderly and the entire sub structure of British society: the First World War. The forced re alignment of the labour force, incorporating the elderly and women, changed forever the tapestry of British social life. Moreover, the large numbers of casualties within the younger male section of the population meant that, after 1918, the issue of the elderly in society could no longer be avoided. Put simply, there was a large gap where historically there had been the backbone of the workforce, an issue which was addressed during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The final nail in the coffin of the New Poor Law came, fittingly, one hundred years after its inception with the passing of the Unemployment Insurance Act in 1934, which, according to Lloyd, (1993:185) “accepted the ultimate responsibility of the central government for looking after the unemployed.”ConclusionIt can be seen how the New Poor Law and the welfare state never met within the passage of modern British history. Rather, a series of social provisions were established within the social services at the start of the twentieth century with the aim of making available alternatives for the elderly in the face of poverty other than the work houses. Over a period of a hundred years, the evolution of both government and society saw to it that the humanity that was suppressed by the Victorians was able to re surface in the context of the elderly, poor relief and welfare reform. The advent of state pensions in 1908 was the official turning point in the way in which the elderly were viewed within the broader picture of the poor and the welfare state. From this moment on, the aged were classified away from the young unemployed with the key theoretical division made between those fit and able to work and those unable to work but who likewise ought to be funded due to their previous financial contribution to society.Before this important milestone, however, the historian can presume that life for the elderly in the work houses of the New Poor Law during the nineteenth century was atrocious, involving contaminated, squalid living conditions and malnourishment with the increased likelihood of the uncontained spread of disease. These are only the physiological symptoms. The psychological effect of the enforced separation of family and the abandonment of liberty can only be gauged as catastrophic. Together with the poor state of medicine until the latter half of the nineteenth century, the New Poor Law was one of the reasons why life expectancy remained so low.Yet the historian must not become embroiled in the perceived heartlessness of the Victorians. The very idea of social ‘rights’ was an anathema to policy makers of this epoch where many feared the inherent corruption of the working classes more than the implications of a lack of state action in health and elderly care, as pre eminent social historian E.P. Thompson (1991:837) asserts.”The historical myth, which assumes some medieval social compact between the Church and the gentry, on one hand, and the labourers, on the other, was employed to justify claims to new social rights in much the same way as the theory of Alfred’s free constitution and of the Norman yoke had been used to justify the claim to new political rights.”Furthermore, as a footnote, contemporary writers must bear in mind the current complexion of the welfare state with continuing scandals being reported concerning the meagre sums upon which the elderly still have to live during the twenty first century. In this way, the question of the elderly and state relief has yet to be properly answered.

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