Poor Law

Brutal conditions designed to ‘tackle rise of vagrants’

© Dr Richard Talbot, MBE, Historian and Author.

A few weeks ago, I recall a comment by a reader referring to the current problem of people sleeping rough and begging in our city centre referring to them as vagrants a most unfortunate term for the 21st century. In this first of four articles on the subject of vagrancy I hope to illustrate the nature of vagrancy as it in the in the eighteen hundred’s when there was no comparison to the use of that term today.

In assessing the issue of poverty, the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘non-deserving’ poor had always been an area of confusion but the New Poor Law of 1834 listed vagrants at the bottom of a list of eight categories of what could be deemed as poor.

Under the Poor Law there were no benefits as today it was simply if you had no money, no home, no job you would apply to be admitted into a workhouse. Here families were separated by gender and a minimum age necessary for the maintenance of ‘decency’ whereby children were segregated from adults in order to dissuade them from a life of indolence and mendicancy and kept from what was considered ‘sluggish sensual indolence’.

Vagrants or casuals were travellers from town to town, perhaps we could call tramps. The 1834 Act was designed to stem the drain of resources as a deterrent, but vagrants dominated the flow of poor inmates. In 1837 workhouses became obliged to provide temporary overnight shelter for any destitute person, forcing guardians to arrange special accommodation for this category. Initially, vagrants were housed in infectious wards, stables and outhouses anywhere until purpose built vagrant wards were built at the edge of the main workhouse site, frequently having its own access from the highway to avoid contamination with other inmates.

Vagrants would arrive late in the afternoon waiting for admission and their personal belongings removed. The number of beds available for vagrants was frequently limited and late-comers found themselves turned away. In better-regulated wards, they were stripped, bathed and their clothes disinfected, and a bread and water supper were served.

By the 1840s, vagrancy had reached epidemic proportions so in an attempt to reduce the numbers separate casual wards became the official government policy intended to drive a wedge between the travelling artisan and the professional tramp. Onerous task-work, humiliating induction procedures, a meagre diet, and deliberately cramped and spartan sleeping accommodation provided made the casual ward the resort of the desperate and were, to many, and quite unimaginable today.

The common criticism of workhouses and the vagrant wards was that they were morally ‘unclassified’ and thereby facilitated the contamination of the various workingmen by the professional idler. They had no special provision other than improved policing and deterred from public relief. It was this body of highly mobile vagrants roaming the country in search of work legal or illegal that became a feature of the Victorian era consisting chiefly of agricultural labourers, navvies, sailors and demobilised soldiers.

In the public imagination, they were considered the image of the tramp: slovenly, drunken, wily, and unwilling to work but always ready to engage freely in whatever criminal opportunity that may present itself and a threat to Christian civilisation. These, the lowest of the low, were thought of as turbulent desperadoes who were beyond reform and redemption.

Vagrant wards had raised sleeping platforms, divided down the middle by a gangway, and each side divided up to give a sleeping space of at least 2ft. 3in. wide, with an area at the head of each a compartment where clothes could be placed. Bedding was to consist of ‘straw or cocoa fibre in a loose tick’, and a rug ‘sufficient for warmth’ was provided. The principal consideration of the guardians was to reduce the number of vagrants not to make them comfortable.

It was an attempt to mitigate the possibility of contagion by providing solitary confinement for vagrants to sleep and work. In theory, this arrangement both safeguarded the deserving wayfarer from the moral infestation and eliminated the sociability so attractive to the habitual vagrant. This was achieved by that became known as the cell system first adopted at Chell workhouse then later at Stoke. In a further attempt to reduce the number of vagrants as numbers increased by sixty-one percent from 1866 alone to 1871 forced labour such as rock breaking became compulsory in 1882 with the threat of prison if not done.

The next three essays on the subject of vagrancy deal with how they were treated at the workhouse at Stoke and Chell.


Stone-breaking tasks cut numbers at workhouses

© Dr Richard Talbot MBE, Historian and Author

This second essay on vagrancy turns to the Potteries, divided on parochial grounds into Stoke and Wolstanton and Burslem Unions. Indeed, the term vagrant was perceived as a national cancer eating away at the very fabric of society with numbers increasing alarmingly across the six towns amounting to one sixth of all paupers. In an attempt to reduce the inter-contamination of that class of pauper it was decided to isolate them from other vagrants to minimise the harmful consequences of communal wards.

Vagrancy as an institution continued to grow and the guardians were convinced that more stringent measures were required as for six weeks ending 30th November 1868, no less than six hundred were admitted and given relief. So bad it became necessary to employ a police officer from Burslem to examine each application at a salary of £5 per annum to keep records and give orders. The diet for male adults consisted of 6 oz. bread and one pint of gruel. For females above fifteen years and children from 7-15 years, 6 oz. of bread and one pint of gruel. For children under seven years of age 4 oz. of bread and half a pint of gruel. For breakfast – the same as supper and there was no breakfast until the task of work was completed.

In January 1869 it was decided to try a new method of reducing numbers by building sleeping cells very much like those found in a prison, usually arranged along both sides of a corridor each containing a simple bed, hinged so that it could be folded up against the wall. But life was not that simple as most workhouses installed work cells at the end of the cells for stone breaking. It had a hinged metal grille opened from the outside to allow unbroken lumps of stone to be deposited into the cell. The inmate then had to break up the stone into lumps small enough to pass back through the holes of the grille into a tray beneath. These changes had a considerable effect on numbers reducing the weekly total by over 50%. At Chell tasks of work for male vagrants included breaking 1½ hundredweight of stone or four hours at a water pump. For female vagrants, the task was to pick half a pound of oakum. In 1869, the task of working at the pump was amended to working at the corn mill for 3½ hours.

In a further attempt to reduce the numbers the Casual Poor Act was passed in 1882, whereby vagrants were detained until 9 a.m. on the second day following admission, and, if it was a second application to the same union within one month, vagrants were delayed until the fourth day. Guardians resisted this until 1886 as the Master insisted that all vagrants be discharged after one-night detention as soon as they had performed the task of work in the hope they would move onto another Union. Under the previous ruling if they were detained until 11 a.m. or even 9 a.m. any work for the day in the vicinity of the workhouse would have already been taken. By 1892, vagrants were allowed to leave at 5.30 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter by simply stating that were ‘desirous of seeking work.

For children under the age of fourteen years they were taken to a Magistrate with a view of sending that child to a Certified Industrial School, and that the Master be instructed to keep a close eye on the child. This was no doubt to protect the child from the influence and behaviour of adult vagrants.

The treatment of vagrants during the Victorian period seen through the eyes of today is indescribable and yet it was a fact of life and many writers of the day grew wealthy as a result of writing about them. But it was also for the vast majority of Potteries folk a daily struggle of survival to stay out of the workhouse. In the next essay we turn to the Spittals Workhouse, now the Royal Stoke Hospital to see if life was different than that of Chell.


Did ‘lax-attituded’ cause mass-influx of vagrants?

© Dr Richard Talbot MBE Historian and Author.

This week the Spittals Workhouse now the Royal Stoke Hospital falls under the spotlight. As early as 1869 concern over the increased numbers of vagrants as in February alone six-hundred able-bodied were admitted – habitual beggars, thieves and prostitutes where most refused to carry out the prescribed four hours work.

These initial facts illustrate the variation from the neighbouring union of Wolstanton. Stoke emphasises the fact that they were overwhelmed by the numbers of able-bodied vagrants probable on account of its access on the A34 or its lax attitude towards vagrancy.

A report of 1870 made note that vagrants resorted to all sorts of expedients to secrete the money they might bring with them attempting to conceal even a farthing let alone a sixpence in clothing or parts of their body. This led to the suggestion of sleeping cells, like those at Chell to reduce numbers. Tactics by the Master stopped the idea despite numbers increasing to a staggering 4,249 in 1873 and 5782 in 1874 where nearly all without exception were able to earn their own living.

Benefits from the new ‘cell system’ were recorded throughout the country and yet at the Spittals held back despite the magnitude of the problem and the costs to rate payers. The average cost of a vagrants per night was 3½ pence of which two pence was for food and 1½ pence for fire. The results of the work allocated to each male covered the cost of food, showing a profit of 1s 4d per cubic yard of broken stone.

After years of deferring the subject of cells, it eventually became clear that the reluctance to proceed was due to financial considerations.     Then in May 1874 guardians debated the question of cells again where it was reported that there was no more of our money to help to feed this idle army of men and women who won’t work, and therefore should not eat. Contempories of the period described vagrants as having a ‘moral natures so low that they were found like a pestilence slaying the life of our labouring poor’. Despite the overwhelming evidence the Master claimed the figures were dubious and the vote for change was once more lost and deferred for a further year.

This was followed by a ‘Letters to the Editor’ “It is high time that some steps be taken in order to abate this crying evil, for when we consider that 7,357 vagrants are continually pouring in like a polluted stream, drawing as it were, the life blood from the hard earnings of the already over-worked ratepayers, which some stringent measure should be adopted. What is more shameful is that to find that thousands of these idle vagrants are annually relieved at the expense of the ratepayers, why scores of deserving are entirely neglected”.

It was a further three years before action was taken when it was finally disclosed that it was the need for vagrants to man the water-pumps that decisive action was not taken to implement the cell system earlier. Once installed the results were dramatic as numbers fell by 52% in the first year but increasing further in subsequent years.

Unlike Chell, Stoke, immediately implemented the 1882 Act regarding the retention of vagrants for a longer period as a deterrent which helped in reducing numbers. The efforts however came too late as the following four years witnessed a trade depression in the Staffordshire Potteries whereby demands for accommodation at both workhouses increased. Public schemes such as road building were implemented by the government in an attempt to find employment nationally for over ten thousand workers. The coal fields of North Staffordshire were practically moth-balled from 1884 and in the six towns of the Potteries had been reduced to starvation levels and subscription lists opened for the poor.

The final essay on the subject moves to where society is now and what is being done to overcome the problem.

Support for the homeless is ‘first step to restoring dignity and hope’

© Dr Richard Talbot MBE, Author and Historian.

Until now I have illustrated how vagrants were treated during the 19th century. However, these issues are not the same as encountered today whereby the problem remains relatively static and the issue could well be described as falling between begging and rough sleepers although I admit there is an overlap.

Begging is more about perception than reality. Are all beggars on drugs, are all hungry and if I give them cash what will that be spent upon? Do they after a day in Hanley or elsewhere return to their nice semi in the suburbs, or is the money to support families in eastern Europe – all relevant questions.

But what about rough sleepers, those found in high street doorways, parks where most people pass by and turn the other way. Yes, it’s easy to make judgements but underneath that soiled sleeping bag is a person and for what-ever reason finds themselves without somewhere to live.

There are no vagrants by definition with no comparisons with the rough sleepers of today. What we have is a small section of the community that find themselves categorised and labelled as the scourge on society. So, to find out more I visited the Lou Macari Centre in Hanley where I found that there is not one single cause of homelessness but many as I would soon learn.

Lou took me around his centre – no its not a 5* or even a 2* hotel, but it is a place that provides a shelter, warmth, protection and meals to those otherwise would be wandering the streets. Above all, as Lou made clear “it’s a place which shows that society has not given up on them and where many take their first steps of change that has the potential to turn their lives around given the right support”. He explained further “when a person first arrives you have no idea as to why, yes maybe substance abuse but it could be mental issues, or where circumstances have changed in their domestic or family arrangements and a person suddenly finds themselves out of the streets. At the centre we treat each as individuals, helping with benefits but more importantly with support through counselling by trained staff and believe me where there is a success story and a person finally gets their own place and a job, well it’s time to celebrate.”

During my time there, Lou was constantly in demand to sort this and that, the pressures on him and his fantastic team are complex and testing, but I felt there here was a refuge at a level where people felt comfortable, welcomed and supported in a friendly way with no favourites but all equal.

Lou pulls no punches, he says it as it is and it’s tough in a world where many like his residents are side-lined. For most rough sleepers he admits “what they want above anything else is their own home, it’s the first place where they can commence the process of re-building their lives.”

This policy of finding accommodation is reaping rewards in Stafford where the latest figures show that homelessness has been halved in the last year and down to just over a handful. This follows a number of initiatives by the council who bid for money from a Government pot aimed at helping to reduce the number of rough sleepers. The impressive results have even been mentioned in the House of Lords. The council employs a Community Matron who now knows each rough sleeper personally in the town. The priority at Stafford is the same as that of Lue in putting a roof over someone’s head and in most cases helps to restore self-esteem.

This focus is reflected in Finland where rough sleeping is expected to be eliminated within the next few years as the government, who like Stafford Borough are working to provide accommodation as the first step in promoting dignity and hope to that person. To me this is a crucial step for society where it recognises the frailties of human life and does something about it.

The poor house at Penkhull was a large three-storey, L-shaped building, of an institutional design with a cemented facade. (Fig.2) It was situated at the junction of Trent Valley Road, and Manor Court Street, the location is illustrated on T. Hargreaves’ map of Penkhull 1832.

This early eighteenth-century building replaced an earlier poor house referred to in 1662. The new house was built in keeping with the objectives of the 1722 Workhouse Act, “whereby church wardens and overseers could acquire property and contract out with anyone for the maintenance and setting to work of the poor there”. (35) Confirmation of this is found in 1775/6 when just over one thousand pounds was spent to support eighty inmates in the poor house. This figure remained relatively unchanged, for the average expenditure on poor relief for the years 1783-1785 amounted to 1,235 0 7d. What percentage of the population the figure of eighty inmates represents is not known. Clark and Slack estimate the deserving poor (orphans, old, widows and single parent families) at between four and five percent of the population from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries would suggest that those residing in the Penkhull workhouse included those from the town of Stoke.

From at least 1784 to 1806, George Hanny was guardian of the poor house and responsible for the payment of 3s 1d per half year land tax. (39) By the early nineteenth century, the inmates were being employed in the pot works of the area under the supervision of Christopher Preston, guardian of the poor. In 1802/3 government returns list one hundred and ninety-five as having received workhouse relief, with over three hundred receiving only occasional relief. The total expenditure on poor relief amounted to 5,116 5 4d the largest recorded in the Pirehill, North Hundred followed by Burslem at 2,141 2 7d. (42)

From Tudor times the category of impotent poor, the aged, the sick and lame were all accepted as in need of care and assistance. The worsening social conditions of the 1790s, however bought another group into the public eye, namely those in work but unable to earn enough to survive. The problem was con- fronted firstly by the magistrates at Speenhamland in Berk- shire in 1795, who decided to “top up” local wages by a supplement, regulated according to the price of bread. The answer found in Speenhamland to the problem of poverty amongst the working classes was copied in many other places. Many farmers thereby reduced their agricultural labourers’ wages to a minimum, thereby pauperising the farm workers. Unrest followed in many rural areas as a direct result of the Speenhamland policy, which brought many families to the poverty level needed for parish relief. If the system had not been implemented, however, poverty would have been more serious with consequential civil unrest. In 1832 a commission was appointed to investigate the situation and their subsequent report became the basis of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Two principles adopted in the Act were the “workhouse test” and “less eligibility”. By the first, all out-relief to able- bodied persons and their families was to be abolished. By the second, conditions for the inmates were to be more miserable than those of the lowest paid labourer. In the words of the report:

by the workhouse system, is meant having all relief through the workhouse, making this workhouse an uninviting place of wholesome restraint, preventing any of its inmates from going out or receiving visitors, disallowing beer and tobacco and finding them work according to their ability; thus making the parish fund the last resource of a pauper, and rendering the person who administers the relief the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster that the idle and dissolute can apply to.

The commission also concluded that paupers were often responsible for the position in which they found themselves: one of the most encouraging of the results of our enquiry is the degree to which the existing pauperism arises from fraud, indolence or improvidence.

The Poor Law Amendment Act and the Poor Law Commissioners went beyond their published ideas. The relief of the able-bodied poor was to be restricted to relief in the workhouse. The Poor Law Commission emphasised the point of absolute destitution as the only grounds for relief in its correspondence with the Board of Guardians at Stoke. It was intended to make relief of the able-bodied poor so undesirable that only those whose need was desperate would take advantage of it.

The logic displayed in the “workhouse test” cannot be denied. The objective was to deter those with the potential to work. The principal problem was that the Act only specified that the less eligible of the able-bodied, but in the event, it applied to all. In future, the relief of the able-bodied would not interfere with the labour market, since the workhouse effectively took them out of society altogether. Workhouses were established where the quality of life would be so low that only the genuinely destitute would allow themselves to become a burden on the parish rate.

The Act also simplified the Law of Settlement, but the principle of a settlement was not abolished. All were to have settlement from where they were born, except wives and children under sixteen years who had the same settlement as the husband or father.

Under the new Act the parish system of poor relief with its overseer and select vestry were replaced by an elected Board of Guardians. One of its objects was to reduce the abuses of local and individual interests. The old system had become inadequate and inefficient, and with national expenditure in 1832 amounting to nearly 7 million demands for change had to be met. Government returns on Poor Relief provide the following information with regards to the annual expenditure on Poor Relief and the number of inmates in the Penkhull Poor House.

As the parish of Stoke was in its own right large enough to maintain a large workhouse, no amalgamation with a neighbouring parish was necessary. The overseer of the poor received only a minimum wage. In 1824/5 the total amounted to only £179.18. 9d p.a. which included sums paid to his staff for the collection of poor rates. Two years later, with the appointment of the new overseer, Mr. G. T. Taylor, the amount increased to £269 13 3d, followed by a further significant increase in 1827/8 to £451. 3 0d. It continued to increase in 1831/2 to £568 15 1d. In 1833 the figure paid was described as “very great”. After considerable criticism in the local press, Mr Taylor reduced the collectors’ wages, saving the parish up-wards of £100 during the year 1833/4.

In 1828, Simeon Shaw wrote of the Penkhull Workhouse: The parish workhouse is on an elevated spot, and will be inspected with pleasure by the philanthropist for the cleanliness and comfort here afforded, to the aged and the infirm, the week minded and the destitute. In fact, all the attentions of humanity are supplied to them. This idyllic summary of the workhouse conflicts wildly with the report of the assistant overseer in 1833, when he refers to the old workhouse in Penkhull: …. full of idle and insolent paupers, without the least desire to quit their abode or to amend their condition and there found numerous children running up the same way.

This local report of 1833 is comparable with the Poor Law Commissions report issued the following year in their general assessment of a parish poorhouse.

A large almshouse, in which the young are trained in idleness, ignorance and vice, the able-bodied maintained in sluggish sensual idolence and the aged and more respectable exposed to all the misery that in incident to dwelling in such a society without government or classification.

Out of a total expenditure on poor relief in 1832/33 of £17,011 0 5d, the sum of £8,107 18 1d was paid for out relief, which included 1,038 1 0d for the upkeep of paupers from other parishes. The amount spent on the provision of the workhouse was £1,364 2 10d.

Applications for poor relief were considered just as likely to stem from bad characters as genuine misfortune. Nassau Senior describes how in his opinion a misguided allocation of relief had in the past ensured that the poor were protected from the consequence of: …idleness, improvidence, prodigality and dishonesty.

Poverty itself was not considered to be an evil, indeed it was commonly believed to be inevitable. Again, Nassau Senior makes his comments with obvious disapproval of the situation before the Poor Law Amendment Act: ……it was believed that by means of an agent, possessed of inexhaustible resources, called ‘the parish’, the entire population of England could be ensured a comfortable subsistence” (54) Yet the argument remained that it was possible to be poor and yet remain respectable, was presented by Rose:

Self-help and independence were praised as virtues and those who failed to exhibit these characteristics were regarded with a degree of contempt. (55)

It was also the practice of the parish to charge the father where possible for the maintenance of his illegitimate children. Two documents have survived, providing an insight into these activities. Both relate to the same account, whereby George Lynam is charged the sum of 2s 0d per week for maintenance of his illegitimate child, Ann Bradbury. Although the day to day business of poor relief was undertaken by the Select Vestry, the officials did not have the powers to make important decisions without a General Meeting of parishioners. To qualify as a voter, property to the value of 10 per annum or more must be held. Shortly after 1819, Sturges Bourne’s Act was adopted, whereby the parish could elect a Select Vestry to manage its affairs but under this Act the wealthier residents of the parish had more votes. The voting system was scaled from six votes for property over the value of 150 to one vote for property under 50.

In 1832, Josiah Wedgwood II, spoke out against the system – whereby a parish the size of Stoke could hold a General Vestry Meeting with so great a number of persons attending who are not rate payers and therefore were not entitled or fit to exercise any influence in the concern of the parish, but who may overpower the actual rate payers by their numbers.

Before the Reform Act of 1832, the representation of local interests for the parish of Stoke-upon-Trent had to be represented either by the county member or by the representation of the neighbouring borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. Ward writes: The two members for the county of Stafford, returned under the old system did not enjoy very idle or enviable situations, in consequence of the multiplied demands which the manufacturing interests now comprised with the North and Southern Divisions of the county, made upon their time and attention; And, with respect to the inhabitants of the Potteries, they had for many years looked upon the election at the neighbouring Borough of Newcastle as an affair which so far concerned them, as to justify their active interference in it whenever the opportunity arose. (59) This quotation of Ward makes it quite clear that the non-representation of Stoke was not only a slur on its important manufacturing interest – the pottery industry – but also threatened the representation of the agricultural interests in the county and the hatting interests in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme. Accordingly, the M. Ps of both the County and Newcastle were likely to support the separate enfranchisement of Stoke.

Lord John Russell introduced a scheme in 1831 for “purifying the House of Commons of corruption that had continued for centuries”. The inhabitants of the Potteries hailed this announcement as likely to exalt them in national importance. The first draft of the reform bill however, omitted the Potteries, but it was included soon afterwards with single member representation. The government later satisfied the demands of the local inhabitants for an additional M.P. and thereby two members of parliament were elected, Mr. Josiah Wedgwood II of Etruria and Mr John Davenport of Longport, both prominent pottery manufacturers.

Under the provision of The Reform Bill eleven townships, vills and hamlets were united to form the Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent. The number of qualifying electors paying a mini- mum annual rent of 10 amounted to between fourteen and fifteen hundred, small compared with the fifty-three thousand head of population of the new borough and thereby reflecting the extent of poverty in the district. (61) As the towns within the Borough of Stoke grew, so did the provision for paupers become of wider concern to the Select Vestry. Accommodation in the Penkhull Poor House proved inadequate to meet the demands of the day.

(Extracts from M.Phil Thesis at Keele University – © Richard Talbot)