Instalment 3 from guest blogger Holly Furneaux – Dickens’s attack on the New Poor Law
April 16, 2012
3. Dickens’s attack on the New Poor Law
The Poor Law Report of 1834 recommended that all ‘outdoor’ relief (eg. food, fuel, medicine, or money, given outside the workhouse) be abolished. As Dickens puts it in chapter two of Oliver Twist, “they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they,) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or a rapid one out of it.” “The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.” The Poor Law Report reflected widespread attitudes about the undeserving, idle poor, and exaggerated the supposedly demoralising effects of existing provision. “Let”, it proposed, “the labourer find that the parish is the hardest taskmaster and the worst paymaster he can find, and thus induce him to make his application to the parish his last and not his first resource.” “In abandoning punishment we equally abolish reward [. . .] idleness, improvidence or extravagance occasion no loss, and consequently diligence and economy can afford no gain.”
Dickens’s critique of the resulting workhouse system and the attitudes behind it was so powerful that The Times reprinted the early sections of the novel almost as soon as it was published as part of their anti-poor-law campaign. Other anti-poor law publications included G. R. Wythern Baxter’s, The Book of the Bastilles; or, The History of the Working of the New Poor-Law (1841) – its title picking up the frequent comparison made between workhouses and prisons. Baxter drew together an extraordinary range of documents (often difficult to authenticate) which report the poor preferring theft, prostitution, starvation, suicide and even child murder, to entry to the workhouse. Here are just a few, characteristically lurid, examples:
“In the parish of Bourne, in Lincolnshire, a poor man who was out of work applied to the Guardians of the poor for relief. They offered him admission into one of the union workhouses. He declared he would rather die than enter such a place, and refused to accept the offer. Within a week afterward the man was found dead in a field, having absolutely chosen to submit to death by starvation than enter one of the workhouses established under the present system.” [Genl. Johnson at the Crown and Anchor, 9Feb 1838]
“The general feeling of the poor is, that they will rather starve, or commit suicide, than go into these prisons and many are willing to emigrate.” [Extract of a letter from Mr John Percival to Mr Oastler, 18 Feb 1838]
“Here is the appalling fact, that the New Poor-Law is indirectly demoralising a very large proportion of children, whose destitute parents, rather than encounter the persecutions of a Whig workhouse, permit them to become habitual thieves.” [Times, 21 Aug 1840]
“It is not very long ago since an industrious and well-behaved labourer, in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, having become involved in debt and misery during a long illness, was driven into such a state of despondency by the anticipated separation and imprisonment of himself and his family in a Union gaol, that, in a moment of frantic agony, he strangled all his children then in the house, three remarkably fine boys, to whom, as he proved in evidence, he had always been fondly attached.” [Times, 21 Aug 1840].
Discussion points: See the Facebook discussion about how the original illustrations also offer a critique of the workhouse system. What kind of comparison does Cruikshank draw between the ‘care’ and provision that Oliver receives at the workhouse and that he has at Fagin’s?
Elaine Hadley has a great chapter (3) on this in her book, Melodramatic Tactics. You can read part of this via google books: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=q7SeVU477N4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=elaine+hadley+melodramatic&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qraFT87XCofV8QOj4o3iBw&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=elaine%20hadley%20melodramatic&f=false
The Victorian Web, a fantastic free resource, has some interesting material about the social context of this novel: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/olivertwist/index.html
And Phillip Allingham gives a good brief introduction to the working relationship between Dickens and Cruikshank, for those interested in the illustrations: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva55.html