Recent headlines regarding poverty in Britain offer a picture with almost Dickensian qualities:
“Food parcels in Aberdeen to soar to 10,000 a month as poverty gap widens”
“Families too poor to heat up food given by charity”
“Britain’s hungry children: Desperate schoolkids forced to steal leftovers”
“Almost one in three children in Britain living in poverty”
According to research conducted by The Trussell Trust, over 6000 Scots children needed food parcels in the past 5 months alone. Of the 16000 adults requiring such help, 3200 were in work. For the first time since the Second World War, the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels to those in need in the UK this winter. Further, it’s been reported that parents are going without food for days to ensure that their children are being properly fed. This is not 19th-century Britain, but Britain in the 21st century.
Victorian Britain is often thought of as an era of punitive attitudes to those in poverty and where care of the poor was left to those with a conscience and to charitable institutions. Yet how far has our state welfare provisions advanced from the seeming indifference of the Victorian era to the plight of the poor, and particularly to child poverty?
The spectre of poverty also loomed large in the lives of the working class in industrial Scotland over 100 years ago. The insecurity of work and the pressures of parenthood, coupled with authorities’ increasing paranoia over the nature of the family (sound familiar?), meant that working-class families fell under the gaze of the state as the 19th century progressed. An inadequate welfare system that relied on permissive funding became more and more stretched just as the need for social security became more vital. The most powerless members of the working class were undoubtedly children, particularly those from Scotland’s larger urban centres. There had been a shift in the discourse of the child in Scotland from 17th century concepts of the ‘innately evil’ to the concept of ‘born innocent’, which dominated 19th-century thinking. This discourse coupled with late nineteenth-century and early twentieth- century concerns about the health and wealth of the nation resulted in a keener interest in the health of the child, so that as the 19th century progressed more and more children fell under the control of parish authorities.
In 1895, nearly 5,700 children were ‘under the parish’. Of this number, 2994 were orphaned, 1322 deserted and 1357 separated from their parents by the poor relief administrators. This figure does not include the children within families in receipt of assistance. Separation (remove from your mind images of children being torn from the grasp of failed parents) was largely a consensual affair, driven by poverty, desperation and imposed definitions of bad parenting. However, the parish authorities were loath to intervene unless absolutely necessary. The poorhouse was the least used option for children; Sir John McNeil, the Chairman of the Board of Supervision remarked in 1868: ‘I would rather no child were in any poorhouse. Every child that is brought up in the poorhouse is in heart a pauper’. Thus, the Scottish authorities much preferred the system of boarding-out: the placing of a child with a foster family, or with relatives. However, this was not always a possibility; perhaps due to parental refusal, or because the child in question was not obviously disadvantaged by familial circumstances. In such cases children were directed to attend ‘ragged schools’. In Scotland children in receipt of indoor or outdoor relief received educational support, and three meals a day. In 1853 the school day went as follows:
7:30am-9:00am Washing and play
9:00am-9:30am Breakfast (Porridge and Buttermilk)
9:30am-12:30pm School, secular and religious education
2:00pm-2:30pm Dinner (Barley, Bullock’s Head & Vegetable Soup, bread)
6:30pm-7:00pm Supper (Porridge and Buttermilk)
7:00pm – Change of clothes and dismissed
There were some objections to state intervention when children from the working class were offered funded support for education and nutrition. However, poor law officials viewed such support as a matter of dignity, a necessary investment and a moral obligation. One poor law official commented that there was ‘no question as to the moral obligation which lies with all Parochial Boards to see to the education of all poor children’, and that it was ‘a great surprise to us that any Board would hesitate for a moment to pay school fees in addition to the alimentary allowances’.
Even the embryonic welfare provisions of the Victorian local state, in the shape of the poor relief system, advocated that no child should be in want of proper nutrition and it was viewed as a national disgrace if the future generation of Scots were to be denied such a basic and fundamental human right. Despite the panoply of contemporary state welfare provision that exists today, it seems that such a basic and fundamental human right is being left to voluntary and charitable agencies.