Thursday, August 19, 2010

National Archives publish Victorian Poor Law records

Way back in 1985, I wrote my dissertation for my Certificate of Sixth Year Studies History paper on Poverty and the Poor Law, charting the circumstances behind the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and its implementation.  I remember being both heartbroken and outraged at some of the stories I read, thinking at the time how my dogs led a better life than many of the Victorian poor.

Today's tabloid narrative, which stigmatises benefits claimants, virtually all of whom are trying to do the best for their families, is nothing new when you consider how in Victorian times some considered inactivity and poverty as a moral failing.

Those feelings of heartbreak and outrage resurfaced today when I had a quick look round the material released today by the National Archives which includes correspondence from a number of Poor Law Unions in England and Wales.

Because we lived for 11 years in North Nottinghamshire, I decided to look at Mansfield's records first. I came across a letter from the local Poor Law Union to the Poor Law Commissioners in London concerning a George Riley. He had 4 children and his wife had recently died "after a severe illness, leaving him in a poor or destitute state."

The Commissioners granted what was termed "outdoor relief" - which meant food, basically, but no accommodation for a period of one month. Chillingly, they said that if further help was needed after that, then some of his children could be admitted to the harsh world of the workhouse.

I don't think our current benefits system provides enough help for those in most need, but a month's basic assistance before you lose your kids, on top of losing your wife, is just brutal and inhumane.

When I have more time, I will look more closely. All of the items are free to download and they provide a real  insight into the lives of people like George Riley. I wish I knew what had become of him and his 4 children. I'd like to think that they got through it and he was able to find work to support his family again.

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