How best to support the poor and needy is at the heart all political thought in a civilised society. For local and family historians the process generates sources which give an intimate window on life at the level of the parish. Yet, they are probably under-used. A fruitful starting point is the website and related books created by Peter Higginbotham over the past 20 years. As well as a detailed account of the statutary and administrative background, it provides a mass of information on workhouses in Hampshire and other counties.
The poor law, as legislation on welfare is called, has often been controversial. In mid-Victorian Britain the heart of the nation was touched by the line ‘It’s Christmas Day in the workhouse’. Penned in 1877 by campaigning journalist George Robert Sims(1847-1922), it was directed at the Poor Law reforms of 1834. These were based on the idea that life in the workhouse must be worse than that supported by outdoor relief given to people in the community.
Attempts to eliminate poverty have a very long history. It was once aimed at keeping ‘vagrants and beggars’ off the streets. Then the dissolution of the monasteries created a new crisis, as hospitals and other charitable offices disappeared. In 1597 a law obliged every parish to appoint an Overseer of the Poor and in 1601 an Act for the Relief of the Poor permitted parishes to raise rates to provide funds for supporting the needy. This was the start of what is termed the Old Poor Law. Many overseers’ accounts are held by the HRO.
The development of measures to combat poverty has a complex history (see more detail by selecting “MEASURE THE COMBAT POVERTY” section)
The complexity of the poor law and the variety of documentary sources it involved make it a rich area for researching the social history of particular places. The National Archives website has a useful guide to its poor law records These include correspondence between individual Unions – each of which has a reference number – and central government (ref. MH 12, more than 2,400 items), and records of workhouse staff (ref. MH 9, 16 items). But a great many local sources are held by the Hampshire Record Office. They document the lives of many individuals who would otherwise be unrecorded. Also they reveal the lot of the people who staffed the workhouses, and the frustrating links they had with central government, as told in Basingstoke Workhouse and Poor Law Union, by Barbara Large (The History Press, ISBN 9780750962407).
Welfare was, of course, revolutionised in the last century, but the spectre of the poor law and the workhouse did not finally fade until after WWII, and all legislation was not finally repealed until 1967.
In 1662 the Settlement Act obliged individuals in need to seek help from their parish of origin. But these and other measures, including a law of 1697 to badge the poor, did not solve the problems of administrating help to the needy. For many years there were tortuous disputes about an individual’s proper parish, and rate-payers engaged in creative penny-pinching. The HRO holds many settlement examinations which detail a person’s life story – generally very sad – and were used by overseers to decide whether or not the individual was entitled to benefit
Under the Old Poor Law, Hampshire had a number “houses of industry” and similar institutions for the needy. Inmates received basic food, worked at such things as spinning, weaving and wire-pulling to earn money. Some, like Hinton Ampner were tiny, others, like Alverstoke, were huge. But they were located haphazardly and run by local volunteers, without proper regulation. It was clear to some that the Old Poor Law had run its course.
There were various attempts to improve the law, largely with the aim of improving administration and reducing cost to ratepayers, but they had limited success. The Knatchbull acts of 1722-23 instituted the ‘workhouse test’, which meant the poor could only obtain relief if they agreed to live in a workhouse. The Gilbert act of 1782 allowed parishes to be incorporated to set up their own workhouse, as at Aldershot and Alverstoke, or to unite with other parishes to share the expense of a common workhouse, as at Farnborough and Headley.
In 1818-19 the Sturges Bourne acts were passed, named after the liberal Tory politician, William Sturges (an inheritance obliged him to add Bourne to his name), the son of a Winchester Cathedral canon. He was seated at Testwood House, Southampton, now a site of gravel extraction! His measures improved parish administration of the poor law, outlawed badging and to some extent continued to play a role until overtaken by the Parish Councils Act of 1894.
However, they were insufficient, and many parishes failed to provide adequate relief for the needy. Matters came to a head in Hampshire in November 1830 during the Swing Riots, when starving agricultural workers rioted and broke up threshing machines. To vent their anger, they also trashed the workhouse at Headley, near Alton, and tore off its roof. The next day they went on to Selborne to make a similar demonstration.
In total, there were about 30 such workhouses constructed in the county. Their elegant, geometric structures are prominent on maps of the period – most have a central hub from which the Master and his staff could keep a watchful eye on inmates. But the regime they harboured was extremely harsh, based as it was on the assumption that the poor were to blame for their predicament. It was the stuff of novels like Oliver Twist, which fuelled the career of Portsmouth-born Charles Dickens.
The new workhouses were in the hands of Guardians, whose activities are recorded in the minutes, accounts and correspondence they generated, many of which are held by the HRO.
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 the mistreatment of boys in Fareham was taken up by MP John Walters, owner of The Times.
But the most shocking scandal, which gave Hampshire a major, if unedifying role in further changes to legislation, concerned the workhouse at Andover. It was run by a drunken, dissolute Waterloo veteran ex-sergeant major and his wife, with inmates so hungry that they chewed the bones they were set to grind up for fertiliser. Tipped off by one of the Guardians, Andover’s scandal reached Westminster and the outcome – spurred on by the Press – led to a more tightly regulated system under a Poor Law Board. The full story is told in The Scandal of the Andover Workhouse by Ian Anstruther (1973, ISBN 9780713805901).
There are many stories waiting to be told from material in the HRO, like the libel case of 1855 between the Rev. George Bradshaw and the Independent newspaper, and the forced sale in 1755 for £8 of the garden and cottage of Robert Hutchins in Titchfield, to pay for his maintenance in the workhouse. Wills of the masters of workhouses, and of some inmates; lists of orders to workhouses; a paper on ‘the best method of maintaining the poor and keeping records’; records of the sale of workhouses and inventories of furniture and much else all await further research.
One enduring story about the poor law is the murder in Gosport of a young boy, John Valentine Gray, a former inmate of the Alverstoke House of Industry, by his employer, a chimney sweep (Lesley Burton, Gosport Records, 1979, No. 15, pp.27-32). The event, which is recorded on a plaque beside Workhouse Lake, is widely regarded as having influenced Charles Kingsley, the Christian Socialist, in his writing of the Water Babies, published in 1863. A replica gatehouse marks the site of the workhouse, which was demolished in 1989.
Like Alverstoke, most workhouses have gone; others acquired infirmaries, like Moorgreen Hospital, West End (from the workhouse that originally served the parish of South Stoneham) and others budded children’s homes, like Hollybrook Children’s Home at Shirley Warren, Southampton (which boasted a brass band). The oral memories of someone who as a young boy went from the Stockbridge Union Workhouse to Hollybrook can be found online.