Protesting About Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870-1900.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: LoPatin-Lummis, Nancy
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Protesting about Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870-1900 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Hurren, Elizabeth T.
Accession Number: 230778715
Full Text: Protesting About Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870-1900. By Elizabeth T. Hurren (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007. xii plus 296 pp.).

This examination of poverty and the ways in which the public, government institutions and the poor themselves tried to define poor relief and agitate for equitable financial assistance, raises provocative questions about nineteenth century values and the differences towards urban and rural poor relief. Elizabeth Hurren provides a needed examination in the historiography of relief and the welfare state by looking at the later nineteenth century when the controversy of the New Poor Laws had died down, urban pauperism was recast in terms of moral failing and reformers like Charles Booth were initiating the crusade against outdoor relief, distinguishing it from the bureaucratic agencies of the first half of the century, dependent upon strict bureaucratic control under the watchful eye of elected officials watching the rate-payers' money Hurren argues that far less has been done in the revision of the scholarship on poverty and relief than one might have expected. While Sidney and Beatrice Webb's work is clearly incomplete, Hurren suggests work by others does not present a complete picture of the challenge of rural poverty, local government and the moral crusade campaign. The central purpose of her book, therefore, is to test the argument char local democracy at the rural level, growing out of both the Third Reform Act of 1884 and the Local Government Act of 1894 which brought the urban system of locally officials into controlling poor relief via rate-payer councils, transformed both attitudes towards and reactions against, administration of poor relief in rural areas. It explores, "... whether political activism developed in a linear fashion, starting with agricultural trade unions and culminating in working-class representation in the poor law union boardroom [and] whether Liberalism ... managed to contain and address the aspirations of working people." (p. 11) To this end, Hurren uses Brixworth in Northamptonshire as a microcosm of England, seeking to examine more critically the crusading experience of poor relief and to reinsert it into the historical arguments concerning the rise of the welfare state. To that end, she looks specifically at crusading initiatives by specific groups at the local political level, their failure in alleviating rural, but their impact on the poor for decades to come.

The book is divided into two parts. The first does the necessary, but exceedingly detailed job of providing the backdrop to poor relief generally, and the local political application of post 1834 policy, specifically, in Brixworth. Comparisons between the Liberal and Conservative parties, ideologically and in terms of electoral domination, demonstrate the complexity of the social issue of poverty on the one hand and political reality, on the other. As a result, the realities of shifting to indoor poor relief as the exclusive means of poverty assistance were doomed to inefficiency, if not failure, given regional differences and the extent of local representation in Poor House administration. In examining Northamptonshire, Hurren shows that the crusade impacted the traditional order of landowning elite dominating the poor relief boards, despite a significant population participating in manufacturing and urban life, removed from the anachronistic landed gentry governing at the county level. Socio-economic divisions, the extension of the vote through the three Reform Acts, all contributed to class divisions and antagonism with patriarchal poor relief administration. Poor relief distributed as though it were a gift or favor granted by one particular social order, smacked of the pre-re-form system of privilege, patronage and corruption. Brixworth also had the embarrassment of two deaths occurring in 1874 at is workhouse, both deemed by the local press to be due to medical negligent. At the same time, poor law guardians on the Brixworth union board began crusading policies with harsher and more stringent criteria for relief. The increasing cost of relief resulted harsher evaluation of need and charity relief that might be offered, if not accepted, by the rural poor applying for union assistance. As most had no political voice, reforming the system or changing its administrative personnel were not realistic. Popular protest and the threat of violence, however, could do much before and after an extension of the vote to rural society.

Popular protest in Northamptonshire and the transformative change on union officials following the democratization of local government is the focus of the second part of the study. Chapters examine the organization of resistance to the crusade campaign. Even after 1885, elected officials tried to relegate poor relief to the bottom of political agendas. Coalition and caucus politics took up specific issues, such as medical and burial expenses and turned them into political issues which reflected the divisions between efficiency-oriented relief administrators and those arguing for greater humanitarian expenditure. Rural protests and the coverage by the national press propelled such seemingly mean-spirited regulations into the national political debate and the need to replace crusading spirit with a singular, humanitarian relief system providing assistance indoor and outdoor, urban, and rural throughout agricultural and manufacturing downturns in economic security.

Hurren certainly does provide a thorough scholarly examination of the link between the two most-examined areas of English poverty and poor relief. While Brixworth cannot possibly provide the whole story, she is right to argue that the mixed economy and existing political structure, struggling through the nineteenth century to change with political reform and shifting party alliances, make it a very useful example of challenges on the national level, ideologically, economically, politically and socially. Well researched and clearly written, this is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the intersection between political and elected political action on the one hand, and the power of democratization on socio-economic policy on the other, in the late Victorian period.

Nancy LoPatin-Lummis

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.