Modern Times, Victorian Minds.


(First published March 24th 2013)

On Saturday, I awoke to the news that Ukip were announcing their plan to prohibit benefit claimants from purchasing cigarettes and alcohol at their party conference later on in the day. Coincidentally, I have also just finished reading ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’ by the late Jennifer Worth. It occurred to me that attitudes towards poorer members of society by the majority of politicians and, sadly, many members of the public today are no different to the attitudes of many people in Victorian England.

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 vs The Welfare Reform Act 2012

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 required parishes to be put in to ‘poor law unions’ with each union to have a workhouse that met the principle of ‘less eligibility’ i.e.; in order to deter people from claiming poor relief, work in the workhouses had to be worse than the worst jobs outside of the workhouses. True to their promise, work in ‘the house’ as it was often referred was indeed worse than one could imagine. Author and former midwife Jennifer Worth in her book ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’ explained that: “The workhouse represented not a safety net, but a dark and fearsome abyss from which, should they fall, there would be no escape.” She went on to state: “The atmosphere inside a workhouse was not only stifling to the human soul, but destroyed the last shreds of human dignity… One hears about ‘the insane’ crowded in to workhouses. I think workhouse life bred and fostered its own insanity. I once heard in the 1950s, what used to be called ‘the workhouse howl’ emitted from the throat of a woman who had been a workhouse inmate for about twenty years in the early twentieth century. It was a noise to make your blood run cold.”

​Similarly, in recent years a number of politicians and newspapers have suggested that more should be done to deter people from claiming benefits since some people are actually financially better off on benefits than in employment. This is also known as the ‘benefits trap’. In some cases, this was true and whilst this revelation could be attributed to, at best, an oversight or at worst, poor decision-making on the part of government ministers, politicians have instead laid the blame with the claimants focussing on the tiny number of people who ‘cheat the system’ and ‘refuse to work’ . The result…? The introduction of a more draconian and quite frankly, ludicrous system in the form of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, with the aim of disadvantaging and humiliating people in receipt of state benefits and deterring new claimants.

​One example includes the £500 per week benefit cap, which at first seems more than generous until it’s revealed that the current price of rents in London means that families are being forced by Local Authorities to move out of, not only their borough but London as a whole, to live in cheaper accommodation in other cities in the UK if they wish to continue receiving housing benefit. Aside from the practical and emotional upheaval this will bring to families forced to relocate, there is also the question of how Local Authorities outside of London are expected to re-house newcomers when many are unable to accommodate their own residents given the national shortage of affordable housing.

​Then of course there is the ‘Bedroom Tax’ which will affect people like Marie Burrows  and thousands more in a similar situation.



People in workhouses were referred to as ‘inmates’. This is not surprising considering that at this time, poverty was akin to a crime and workhouses had a similar design and operated in a similar fashion to prisons. There was also the practice of ‘Farming the Poor’. According to the author of the ‘Workhouse Encyclopaedia, Peter Higginbothom: “Farming the poor was the practice of contracting out parish poor relief administration to a third party, an early example of privatisation.” A modern example might be A4E or one of the many other organisations contracted by the government to get the unemployed back in to work and we all know how well most of those have worked out!)

​The key issue here though is the terminology – farming the poor – in addition to the animal connotation is the idea that this group of people need to be ‘farmed out’ – palmed off on others for the sake of making a profit. Although the term isn’t used today, the practice still exists only now it’s re-packaged as being beneficial to claimants which in most cases are untrue.

​Historically, derogatory terms like ‘The great unwashed’ and ‘Plebeians’ (plebs) have been used to describe people from a working class background but we’re not short of terms today, many of which are purposely used in the propaganda war on benefit claimants. ‘Benefit cheats’, ‘scroungers’ ‘chavs’ and ‘fraudsters’ are a few, and claimants are also accused of receiving ‘handouts’ despite the fact that many of them have been working and paying into the system for a number of years so technically are entitled to a little something back in return after falling on hard times.


There are some grossly inaccurate perceptions of people on benefits and poorer members of society in general. The usual is that people on benefits are lazy, unhealthy, unambitious, uneducated and feckless. Ukip’s plan to effectively ban people on benefits from buying cigarettes and alcohol, should their party ever be in a position to make such decisions, is one example of how out-dated and primitive some people’s attitudes are. (‘Well poor people wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t spend all of their money on fags and alcohol’). Sensationalist headlines such as ‘Scrounger: I want £2m house back’ and Dole Scrounging mum of 11 makes £66,000 a year’ where very rare and outrageous situations are highlighted then accepted as the norm amongst claimants don’t help either.

​Much like now, politicians of the past were concerned with making dependency on the state as unattractive as possible. As the British philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham put it: “If the conditions of persons maintained without property by the labour of others were rendered more eligible, than that of persons maintained by their own labour then…individuals destitute of property would be continually withdrawing themselves from the class of persons maintained by their own labour, to the class of person maintained by the labour of others.” In other words, if being looked after by others appears to be more appealing than looking after ones self, then people would simply resort to being looked after by other people.

​This is true of some people but for the most part, the majority of people want to work. They want the satisfaction of earning their own money and being financially independent. Whilst the benefits system should not be appealing, surely it should not be a source of shame or a symbol of failure either. Anyone can fall on hard times and may need to access the system, which was what it was created for, so why make people feel ashamed of doing just that?​

​Iain Duncan-Smith has been quoted as saying: “For families across the UK who are income poor, but more than that, whose lives are blighted by worklessness, educational failure, family breakdown, problem debt and poor health, as well as other problems, giving them an extra pound – say through increased benefits – will not address the reason they find themselves in difficulty in the first place.” Again, there is some truth in this, but the point of accessing the benefit system is to be able to manage financially until personal circumstances improve. Most claimants are not asking for huge sums of money, merely enough to help them live. If the government is not prepared to ensure that people can support themselves financially while on benefits then what is the point of the system?

Property of the State​                                                                           Image

According to Wikipedia: “…By entering a workhouse paupers were considered to have forfeited responsibility for their families.” which explains the separation of children over the age of two from their parents – sometimes for life. Workhouse ‘inmates’ were properties of the state and were treated as such. They had no choice but were simply told what to do and subjected to the whims of the state. Similarly, orphaned children could be sent to various British Colonies such as Canada or Australia if the state saw fit. Higginbotham states that… “In 1843, Member of Parliament Charles Buller, claimed that Britain’s emigration policy was one of ‘shovelling out paupers to where they may die without shocking their betters with the sight or sound of their last agony’”

​Today we have the case of Cait Reilly who was forced to volunteer in Poundland or risk losing her Job Seeker’s Allowance. This was despite the fact that she already had a voluntary placement in a museum, a role connected to the career she hopes to have one day. She and others in similar positions brought a case against the Department for Work and Pensions and won but should she have needed to? Then there’s the relocation mentioned earlier where people are being forced to move out of London, away from their support networks or risk losing their housing benefit, the fact that claimants are now expected to pay money from their benefits towards Council Tax and rent and of course claimants who were barely managing on what they received in benefits before are now being asked to cough up as much as £80 extra a month to pay for any spare rooms they may have or risk losing their homes. ‘Fairly simple, just downsize to a one bedroom property’ some people will say, except what happens when people are told by their housing association or council that no one-bedroom properties are available? And what happens to disabled people who have had their homes adapted to meet their needs?

​And we haven’t even touched on childcare costs and how expensive that is.  Even two-parent households are struggling to meet those costs yet many stay-at-home parents are being forced out to work by the government despite the fact that salaries are not usually enough to cover the costs associated with childcare, but being employed means that they’re no-longer to the full childcare allowance.  While amendments have been made to the amount families can claim for childcare costs, many poorer families will still find themselves at a disadvantage.  You can read more about the changes and their effects here. 

​David Cameron has said, “On the one hand we have got to ask, are there some areas of universal benefits that are no longer affordable? But on the other hand let us look at the issue of dependency where we have trapped people in poverty through the extent of welfare that they have”. They key point here is that they – the government have ‘trapped people in poverty’ so they need to take responsibility for this and stop blaming claimants by suggesting that the majority are work shy and irresponsible. The government have ‘trapped people’ not by paying out too much in benefits as Cameron is trying to imply, but by not ensuring that contributing factors such as the availability of jobs, the cost of living and travel costs, to name but a few, are consistent and that benefits are in line with these costs. ​

​​Given that living costs are high, thee also needs to be a gradual cut in benefits for people returning to work.  At the moment wages are not in line with inflation meaning that people often find themselves worse off when they do return to work.  A gradual cut in benefits gives people a chance to adjust financially while still receiving the support they need from the state until they are paid a wage that can cover all of their basic living costs.  Some help is currently available but more is needed.  You can read about what’s available at the moment here.

​​The workhouses were awful – possibly even evil – but at least they had the excuse of being at the forefront of something new and therefore it’s slightly understandable that mistakes would have been made. It should also be noted that these reforms were present in the Victorian era, a time when the divide between the classes was not only apparent but also encouraged. The fact that the poor were stigmatised, abused and humiliated was reflective of Victorian British society of the time. The fact that the poor are stigmatised, abused and humiliated today is a disgrace given that we claim to live in a ‘civilised’ society.​

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