Few people would dispute that social conditions and standards of living for the poor have improved since Victorian times. Yet, the Government’s draconian measures against benefit claimants suggest that conditions may have improved but attitudes have not really changed.
The poor, especially those unable – some would argue unwilling – to work, are regarded with a similar vitriolic contempt as they were in the nineteenth century. The Victorians called those too ill or sick to work ‘the undeserving poor;’ referred to these days as the underclass.
The relationship between the poor and work has always been complex, having its roots in the Christian belief in the redemptive power of work. The Protestant Work Ethic, as it has been described by social historians, was founded upon the belief that humility, frugality and good old fashioned hard work were steps along the road to salvation.
The Victorians strongly believed in the notion of work, as a means of keeping the poor out of trouble and keeping them humble so that they could be unitised as cheap labour, about which the Christian Work Ethic was adamant that they should not complain, since they would gain their reward in heaven.
During the Victorian period there was of course, no benefits system and the only means of support for the very poor, was to enter the workhouse, where they would have to endure hours of tedious, menial work for little pay and negligible nutrition.
Workhouse inmates were put to work in jobs such as picking oakum with a spike (workhouses were colloquially known as ‘spikes,’ perhaps because of this) – breaking stones, and bone-crushing for use in fertiliser. Some were so hungry and malnourished that they would suck the marrow from the bone before crushing it.
Of course the Victorians did not invent the workhouses, though the inexorable link between the workhouse and the nineteenth century is due in part to Charles Dickens’ Oliver, in which the workhouses are depicted as corrupt and filthy and their inmates as malnourished, starving and desperate.
The workhouses go as far back as the fourteenth century, to the Poor Law Act of 1388, when the labour shortages due to the Black Death meant that the movement of labourers needed to be restricted and so the poor were put into workhouses and became the responsibility of the state.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was mass unemployment, a fact that was not helped by the invention of new agricultural technology that made many farm labourers redundant and therefore reliant upon state support. Poor relief was becoming difficult to sustain and maintain.
Thus, in 1834, a new Poor Law Act was introduced that attempted to tackle the problem of an ever-burgeoning state-dependant poor. This act has been heavily criticised for its harshness, since its chief objective was to discourage or refuse poor relief to those who would not enter the workhouse, thus forcing many people to do so against their will.
Many authorities saw the opportunities for cheap labour and exploited it to its hilt. As we know from Charles Dickens, whose harsh experiences with poverty shaped much of his early life, the workhouses were designed to be harsh and unbearable in order to ensure that those who were able-bodied did not enter them, and that only the really desperate applied.
Join us next Thursday when Julia continues her discussion of the attitudes to the poor in Part 2 of Workhouse or Workfare?
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