Tag Archives: scotland

Immigration and Elections, Then and Now

As the 2015 General Election approaches, immigration has become a central feature of political discourse, a trend increasingly evident over the past decade or so. Immigrants and immigration have been discussed in each of the ‘leaders’ debates’, and have crept into the manifestos of all major parties. The emergence of UKIP as a new, minor, political force in Britain saw immigration become a hot potato, with each of the major parties giving more space to discussions of immigration. Recently, the Labour Party caused some controversy by revealing a party mug for sale which is emblazoned with party ‘Pledge 4’: ‘Controls on Immigration’. The Conservative Party have reiterated their desire to clamp down on so-called benefits and health tourism. According to UKIP leader Nigel Farage parts of Britain have been ‘taken over’ by foreigners, leaving areas of major towns and cities ‘unrecognisable’. Worse still, according to UKIP, economic migrants were stealing ‘British jobs’ and ‘British benefits’.

While Scotland has a relatively liberal voice on immigration in this on-going debate, this has not always been the case. A century ago the main focus of the hysterical anti-immigration lobby in Scotland was the Irish. Irish migration into Scotland had peaked in the late 19th century, and by 1911 there were around 175,000 Irish people living in Scotland; 4% of the population. Throughout this period immigrants were the subject of discriminatory discourses, being accused of changing the face of Scottish towns and cities, corrupting our language, and ‘bleeding’ our welfare dry. Then, just as now, critics of immigration were unable to provide incontrovertible evidence to support these claims. An editorial in the Dundee Courier from May 1923 lamented the increasing threat the Irish posed to Scottish workers, and called for stricter controls over our borders. In a letter to the Dundee Evening Telegraph, from May 1929, ‘Scoto Scotorum’ lamented that if Irish migration – and it seems reproduction – was not checked Scotland would become swamped and its glorious heritage lost for future generations. In another letter from the same edition of the Dundee Evening Telegraph, ‘Pro Patria’ claimed that Irish Catholic immigrants were stealing bread from the mouths of Dundonian families, with ‘hundreds of Scotsmen in Dundee alone idle and looking for work: men who have paid rates and taxes in their own native town for years back, yet ‘Pat’ can come and get the work from under their noses’. Substitute ‘Pat’ for Polish joiners or Romanian fruit pickers and we see a trend here.

Just as immigrants in Britain today have been used as political fodder and sometimes as scapegoats, the Irish in early 20th-century Scotland faced the same fate. John Gilmour of the Scottish Unionist Party, who was later to become Home Secretary, promised if elected to ‘send back to their native land those people who, either lazy or incapable of contributing anything to our economic life, come over here, often purposely, for the sake of parish relief’. Reid Miller, a Tory candidate for Shettleston, who ran a vitriolic campaign against John Wheatley of the Independent Labour Party in 1924, also whipped up fear by claiming that unless Irish immigration was more strenuously regulated Scotland would fast become ‘merely a colony of the Irish Free State’. Critics of Irish immigration were not limited to fear-mongering politicians and pseudonymous letter writers. Reverend Duncan Cameron of the Church of Scotland was a fierce opponent of immigration from the Irish Free State. Cameron saw Irish immigration as the ‘tragedy of the Scottish race’.

Just as extremist political movements in Britain have fixated not only upon ethnic origin but religion too, much of the opprobrium directed at the Irish related to their Roman Catholicism, and links were also made between Irish immigrants, Roman Catholicism, and political agitation. The Free Church of Scotland saw a threat not only from immigrants’ religion but from ‘Romanist’ political influence, which it hinted had led to the formation of a ‘socialist’ government in 1923. According to an article in The Scotsman, from July 1928, a strain of thought dominated in Scotland which saw the Irish as ‘a pestilential lot who make it their business to stir up strife in politics and industry’. Here we see the immigrant not only as a ‘job snatcher’ but one who occupies the fringes of so-called religious and political extremism.

Such anti-Irish rhetoric was by no means universal, and letters pages also contained counter arguments, but these were in the minority. The pejorative discourse on Irish immigrants demonstrates that concerns over immigration over the last century tend to be very similar no matter who the immigrant is, or where they are from. The immigrant is perceived by some to be a threat to ‘indigenous’ culture, religion and politics with alarmist predictions offered by the likes of ‘Scoto Scotorum’, ‘Pro Patria’ and the rest, that the Irish would soon smother Scottish society. Yet this vitriol ignored the fact that in places such as rural Angus, Irish labour was instrumental in supporting agriculture, while in the central belt the economic success of the Second City of the Empire owed much to Irish immigrant workers who provided the labour force for much of the unskilled work in the docks, mines and shipyards whilst receiving low pay that forced them to live in poor quality housing. The argument that immigration poses a serious threat to Britain is nothing new, and just as disingenuous as it was 100 years ago, but it still gets used as a political football, which dehumanises the thousands of men, women and children who contribute significantly to the nation’s social, cultural and economic life.

Marriage, Family Life and Childhood Experience

As a part of the History of Working- Class Marriage project, my PhD research is investigating the effects of marriage and family life on children in Scotland between 1920 and 1970. At this point in time there is no comprehensive history of childhood experiences in Scotland, and very little existing information on the experiences of children growing up in different family forms and circumstances. ‘Family breakdown’ is something that we are hearing more and more about, and there is increasing political and media interest in the affect that this is having on children specifically. However, historically the family has been a lot more diverse than previously understood and family dissolution is not a modern phenomenon. Whilst there is a considerable amount of research into the effects of family breakdown on children today, there remains little historical research to contrast this with and the voice of the child has often been obscured in these studies. Before we can begin to examine the effects of family breakdown on children, we must first attempt to understand the experience of childhood in general, particularly in the recent past given that families were often much more flexible and complex than previously thought.


In order to find out more about this lived experience of childhood, oral history interviews are being undertaken with volunteers born anywhere in Scotland between 1920 and 1960. In talking about their childhood, respondents have shared stories of their daily family life and routines, the homes they lived in, as well as experiences at school, and tales of playtime and leisure. In gathering people’s stories it becomes possible to build a picture of the changing experience of childhood over the course of the last century, as well as seeing if we can establish any common elements of Scottish family life. In sharing their stories of a childhood spent in Scotland, participants are enabling us to develop key elements of Scotland’s social history in general, as well as a much-needed understanding of the local history of childhood.


Although my research is mainly informed by oral histories, these are being supplemented by published memoirs. In recent years, autobiography and the memoir have become a democratised genre of writing; the autobiography is no longer the preserve of the rich or influential, and popular areas for the memoir have gone beyond experiences of individual historically and culturally significant events, such as the Holocaust or evacuation during the Second World War, to include wider and more common experience, such as childhood. Childhood is a particularly popular site for the memoir for several reasons: firstly, childhood is a period of shared experience that, for the most part, people enjoy reflecting on; conversely, accounts of traumatic childhoods have become particularly successful, tapping in to readers’ enjoyment of tales of triumph over adversity. ‘Misery literature’, as it is has been dubbed, has become increasingly popular since the publication of Angela’s Ashes in 1996 and was hailed as the book world’s biggest boom sector in the mid 2000s. For the historian, the memoir is especially useful as it not only allows for an in-depth access to the personal and everyday experience of a variety of different individuals but also gives an insight into the feelings, emotions, and personal experiences surrounding a specific time in the author’s life.


In recent years, events such as the ‘London Riots’ in 2011 have highlighted the political and media concern over the effects of family breakdown on children and youths. Media outlets focused blame for the riots on the family, citing “absent fathers” and the lack of appropriate male role models . More recently, Britain has been dubbed ‘The Single Parent Capital of Europe’  and campaigners are calling on the government to do more to ensure that couples marry in order to provide their children with the best start in life. However, as previous blogs have discussed, an examination of the census records reveals that single parent families, often headed by women, and complex stepfamilies are not that uncommon in the past, including Scotland’s past. In Govan alone, the project has uncovered, 1 in 5 households in 1881 were single-parent households and nuclear families only accounted for 45% of total households in 1901, increasing to 50% by 1911. When we begin to think about the fact that the family has consistently been more diverse than previously thought, in addition to there being no systematic historical evidence of a relationship between family patterns and wider social problems, we cannot draw a direct line between family breakdown and societal breakdown. Heading into the final year of my PhD, I have begun to identify and combine some of the themes of Scottish childhood that have emerged from my research and have begun to examine what they mean, and what they can tell us, in regards to the effects of marriage and family life on children in Scotland between 1920 and 1970.


Research suggests that socio-economic considerations might have more of an impact on experiences of childhood than the form or structure of families. Indeed, interviewees have highlighted the importance of familial relationships, parental relations, and material circumstances in the experience of their childhood. In addition, education, gender, and housing have also emerged as being highly influential. Therefore factors other than the structure of the family would appear to have more affect on experiences of childhood. Perhaps media concerns about the adverse impact of single-parent families, stepfamilies, and broken homes on childhood experiences are somewhat misplaced.


Felicity Cawley

’A Woman Married to a Woman’: Shock Revelations and Intrigue in Victorian Scotland

History has shown us that same-sex relationships were not uncommon in the past, although different meanings have been attached to them.  There has been a good deal of debate about whether the many men and women who had intimate relationships with their own sex in the past were all in fact homosexual, or whether some of their relationships were intimate but asexual.  The example that we have unearthed which we outline below, raises similar questions. However, in this case, one of the parties identified, for much of her life, as a man.

When John Campbell, a 21 year-old Renfrew shipyard worker, fell ill with smallpox in November 1871, few could have foreseen the startling story which emerged. A well-liked young man, John had been lodging with the Early family in Pinkerton Lane, Renfrew since the summer of 1871. Like many young men his age John had been ‘adher[ing] to the old habit of loving and associating with the lassies’. He made himself an invaluable member of the Early household: Mrs Early was impressed by John’s helpful nature, especially his willingness to assist in the home, even helping fellow lodgers with repairs to work clothing. When Mrs Early had fallen ill, in the winter of 1871, John was a tower of strength, tending to his landlady’s needs, so much so that Mr Early had grown jealous of the attention John had lavished upon his recuperating wife.

What his landlords did not know was that John was married, and had deserted his wife Mary Ann in Kirknewton in May 1870. John left behind a pregnant wife and 2 children. The Reverend Henry Smith had married John and Mary Ann in December 1869, and after some relatively happy months John had deserted his family. He had initially made his way to Tranent to work on a farm but attracted by the promise of higher wages, John left Tranent and headed to Renfrew where he secured employment with Henderson, Coulborn and Co., working in the forge of the local shipbuilding firm. Higher wages and reasonably secure employment meant that John chose to settle in Renfrew and began a relationship with local lass, Kate Martin, taking her on occasion for romantic trips to Edinburgh. Well-liked by his work colleagues and by his housemates, all was rosy. However, a smallpox infection mean that John’s life in Renfrew was about to disintegrate.

On calling at Pinkerton Lane, Dr Allison insisted that John needed hospitalisation. John was insistent that he could not be admitted to Paisley Infirmary. When the doctor pressed, John agreed but only if he could be transferred and admitted fully clothed. Dr Allison’s suspicions aroused, he queried whether this was a result of his sex. While others had briefly wondered about and then dismissed suspicions of John’s sometimes ‘feminine’ qualities, the doctor was not fooled. Realising that his cover was blown, John admitted that he was in fact Marie Campbell, and that she had been dressing as a male since the age of 13. The reasons she offered were that she had worn male attire due to ‘bad usage’ when a child, or that her brother, on his deathbed, had advised her to wear his clothing as that would ‘probably enable her the better to make her way in the world’.

revelationsjohncampbell - Copy

Meanwhile in Kirknewton the parish authorities sought to establish the whereabouts of Mary Ann McKenna’s missing husband. When they received word that a woman named Marie or Maria Campbell had been posing as a man, John Campbell, they were stunned. Although Mary Ann had claimed that John was in fact a woman, the parish authorities had quickly dismissed the revelation. As Mary Ann had admitted that her children were not John’s and were illegitimate, they had questioned her character and decided that Mary Ann’s accusation was nothing more than diversionary bluster. Suitably humbled by the revelation the parish authorities requested that Mary Ann should accompany the Inspector of the Poor and another, Will Waddell who had been a witness to the wedding, on a trip to Renfrew. When they visited Paisley Infirmary both witnesses positively identified Maria alias John. Maria, on seeing Will exclaimed ‘Is that you Will Waddel; how’s the wife and bairns?’

womenmarried1 - Copy

With identification confirmed, the investigation then sought to discover whether both parties had contracted marriage in full knowledge that John Campbell was a woman. Campbell claimed that McKenna knew that she was a woman, and the wedding had been undertaken as a result of a ‘mutual understanding’. Campbell also claimed that the marriage ‘was to make us more comfortable that we lived together’. McKenna, however, denied this assertion claiming that she only became aware of Campbell’s true identity some days after the wedding. The fact that they had remained together in the marital home for some months before Marie’s disappearance suggests otherwise. Whatever the truth, the Kirknewton parochial board was relieved that Campbell was not the father of McKenna’s third child, born after the wedding, and thus was not chargeable to the parish.

Campbell’s former work colleagues in Renfrew, although disappointed at the deception, started a subscription for her, stating that ‘a more kindly and obliging worker never was engaged in the yard’, and that they regretted hearing about ‘her unfortunate apprehension.’ As a result of a police investigation Marie was charged with contravening the Registration Act. As one newspaper at the time commented, the surprising revelation had brought an ‘unhappy termination to an extraordinary career’.

Unhappy Termination1 - Copy

Photographing History

In the first of three blog posts, we examine the use of photographs in historical research and ponders what they tell us and, importantly, what they might not tell us.

Photographs are often used to create memories, record events and enhance remembrance of those events. Common ideas about photographic images are that the camera, a mechanical device which captures an instance in time, never lies; that a photograph can speak a thousand words; and in some cultures it is believed that a photograph steals your soul – that your image is your inner essence.  Historians often use images to illustrate past conditions, to bring the past alive, create empathy and to highlight continuity and change over time. However, photographs are not undiluted images capturing past events as they actually occurred. Since the early days of photography, images have been manipulated.  Photographs can eliminate certain elements while emphasizing others. Photography does more than reflect reality; it also creates and interprets it.  For example, take the photo opportunity used by celebrities and politicians to create and enhance their public image and consider what is included and what is absent from these images.

Photographs capture a particular moment in time which is not necessarily a true representation of the subject’s past or even the event captured. They are our means of commemorating and remembering the past at a specific moment in time and like written records they are produced by individuals for a specific purpose. So we have to consider what they highlight and also what they omit. We also have to think about not only what the photograph shows, but also where and when the photograph was taken and by whom. Take for example these Cartes de Visite which are dated from the 1880s to the 1890s.



See more of our cartes de visite here.

In the Victorian and Edwardian period these images were used as visiting cards. They were fashionable and with new technology in photography reducing the cost of production they became accessible to working-class people as well as the wealthy. They were produced in large quantities by professional photographers, particularly between 1860 and 1900. They were not high art, but a provided a likeness of the sitter that could be produced inexpensively and were generally sold by the dozen. At a time when the cost of a camera and film development was out of the range of many working people, they could obtain twelve of the card images for as little as 6d. They then placed these cards on the hall tables of family and friends whom they visited or else sent them from other destinations within Britain and overseas. The images were collected and displayed publicly making these the equivalent of an early form of the social media ‘following’ used today. While people in the past did not ‘follow’ each other on Facebook or Twitter they did interact through these cartes de visite.

However these are only a snapshot as the images are all posed. They were all taken in studios with particular furniture and decor used to enhance the picture which often bore no relation to the living conditions of those they portrayed. The people being photographed were often wearing the only smart outfit that they owned and had obviously taken time to enhance their appearance for public consumption and memorabilia.  The images above are from our own scanned collection of visiting cards covering the late 19th century and early 20th. The vast majority are of working-class Scots.

Occasionally, these cartes de visite were also an amusing snapshot of time, place and personality, as in this late 19th century image sent from India to a Scottish family. Many photographs from the Victorian period are either intensely sober and, occasionally,  bizarre but the little boy on roller skates hints at mischief and a keen sense of humour.


In our next blog post we will examine photographic representations of family and masculinity.

Mapping the melting pot: plotting historical census data on a map

Our recently-launched interactive map is based on the 1881 census data, and offers facilities to search Govan’s immigrant population of the day by surname or birth nationality. Each census record refers to an individual person living at a given address at the time of the census, with records grouped into households. These data, however, presented a number of technical challenges as we worked to plot them on a modern Google Map.

Irish in Govan, 1881

First, the geography of the parish of Govan has changed quite significantly over the years. While it might be unfair to suggest that Glasgow enjoys a propensity for tearing down its past, it is undeniable that large portions of the parish – which includes the entirely redeveloped Gorbals area in the south east of the city – has seen significant regeneration in the period since the 1881 census. So, the modern Google Map doesn’t entirely resemble the geography to which the data refers. A straightforward part of the solution was to use the National Library of Scotland’s excellent Historic Maps API*, which allowed us to layer a slightly more contemporaneous map (from the early twentieth century) over the jarringly modern Google version. This gives a more authentic flavour to the presentation, but does not address the altogether trickier issue of street names that have changed over the years.

The process of geocoding refers to converting a street address, such as those recorded in the census, into geographic coordinates, such a latitude and longitude, which may be plotted on a map. For this process to work, the Google Geocoding API, the service we used to generate our latitude and longitude values, must recognise the address. For those streets that had been renamed since 1881, then, our research team had to generate a sort of gazetteer that linked the original 1881 street names with their modern, Google-friendly equivalents. With this conversion done, we were ready to begin the process of geocoding.

Barr in Govan, 1881Now, however, we faced problems with the sheer quantity of data: our original Govan dataset comprised nearly 200,000 census records, while the Google Geocoding API imposes a daily limit of 2,500 geocoding requests. Maths might not be my strong suit, but one of those numbers is significantly greater than the other. The solution was to first rationalise the data and geocode only unique addresses, since each address might refer to a six apartment tenement building with each apartment housing families of various sizes and compositions. Then, we had to be patient. A script was written to go off and geocode around 2,500 addresses at a time, and the script run each day until all of our address records possessed latitude and longitude values.

With the geocoding complete, the remaining challenges related only to determining exactly how we should present the data, and manually correcting some of the latitude and longitude values generated by Google. I say “only”, but it is the finer points of how the map looks and feels that, arguably, require the most significant thought and discussion…

* An application programming interface (API) is a means by which a software-based service such as Google Maps may be access by other website and applications.

Household Complexities, Fluidity and Single-Parent Families

There has been much hand wringing, particularly in sections of the tabloid press, about the rise in the number of single-parent families over the past half century. This has been variously attributed to a decline in moral standards, the introduction of permissive reforms during the 1960s, the rise of consumer society, or the supposed devaluation of marriage as a bedrock of Western society. However, just how accurate are concerns that the once solid and steadying influence of the nuclear family has been diminishing in modern times?

Part of our research project involves examining census records for families living in our chosen parishes throughout the period 1861 to 1911. This analysis will offer us an accurate picture of the complexities of family forms in Scotland during this period. However, census records offer us only part of a picture; they do not, on their own, reveal all forms of living arrangements experienced in Scotland in the past. Nor do they tell us explicitly, the immediate histories and futures of the men, women and children living in a given street at a given time. They are, in effect, a snapshot of a specific time and place. So, how do we flesh out these records?  One method is to compare what is printed in the census enumerators’ books and what is held in parish records. As we are focusing on working-class families a significant number of these will have applied to the parish for support at some point in their lives, therefore, we have undertaken significant research using poor relief material, which often throws up more information about how families were constituted, and how their lives together changed over time. By using some examples from our databases we will demonstrate that census records can often hide the complexity and fluidity of families.

Even in cases where there is no related parish record material we can uncover the complexities of households through careful analysis of census records. In the following example from Thistle Street, Gorbals we have a stepfamily which is relatively complex. We can deduce from the material that both William and Catherine have been married before, as the children have two surnames: Lamont and Greenfell.  By accessing prior censuses we discovered that Catherine was widowed in 1870, when she was 24, and her first husband, John, was just 31. John Greenfell was a lead miner and a contributing factor in his death were diseases of the lungs (most likely silicosis), and liver (lead poisoning). Catherine remarried, this time to William Lamont, on December 31st 1876, Hogmanay being a popular date for marriage. William’s first wife Margaret, the mother of David Lamont and 3 other children, died at 37 in 1869 from Phthisis pulmonalis (Tuberculosis).

PTDC0030[click to make larger]

The following entry from George Street, in 1881 is an example of two families living in one flat, or of families within families. However, one can deduce from the information presented that Thomas (28) and John (26) are possibly brothers, cousins, or even uncle and nephew – the differing countries of birth, although not discounting siblingship, allows us to speculate on other connections. However, the census reports only offer us information relevant to the evening of the 3rd of April, 1881. By examining parish records for applications for poor relief we learn that John had, at some point in 1881, deserted his wife. We also learn that Catherine’s children may not be John’s. Parish records inform us that Margaret was born of a previous marriage and suggest Catherine Junior was illegitimate, and most likely was not John’s otherwise her birth would have been legitimated by their subsequent marriage. From marriage records we are fairly sure that John and Catherine were married in 1880. Stepfamilies, where the father has married a widow with children are usually easier to determine as the children, in many cases, retain the surname of their biological father, but this is not always the case, and makes identifying the number of stepfamilies, purely from the census, quite difficult.


The 1881 census records for the Lindore family of Blackburn Street offer us only basic information. Tracing the family to the 1891 census we find that they have moved but otherwise little has changed.


However, the parish records for Govan inform us that in 1881 Margaret had moved her daughters to a new address in Dale Street. This was because her husband was now in prison for wife beating. William had previously been a serial deserter, leaving Margaret and family to seek support from poor relief. Interestingly, in the census of 1891, William is still living at home, evidence that the options for abused wives were seriously limited during the late nineteenth century.

In the following example from 1911, this household appears to comprise of a widowed father, his 4 children and a live-in housekeeper and her daughter. However, with a little digging through parish records we have discovered that this is a form of nuclear family. William and Annie are cohabiting and have 2 children together. The other children are William’s by his late wife. Social conventions of the period likely led the census enumerator to ‘invent’ a household composition as there was no category for unmarried couples living together. Of course, census records mask the true level of couples living together for this reason, and enumerators required no proof of marriage so many cohabiting couples might have indicated that they were in fact married.


Single-Parent Families

There were multiple reasons for working-class lone parenting, including desertion, separation, death of a spouse, a change in circumstances, financial uncertainties and the inability/unwillingness to marry. We read much these days about the how ‘modern’ life has led to an explosion in the number of single-parent families, which has often been framed within a discourse which suggests that this thoroughly modern development has had a deleterious impact upon the traditional nuclear family. In the table below we can see that single-parent families were certainly not rare in late 19th-century Scotland (today single-parent families account for around 1 in 5 households with children in Scotland).

Table5* in relation to households with children

Relying solely on census information, again, often tells only part of a story.  The census entry for Sarah Milligan and family suggests that she is ‘acting’ head while her husband is away at sea. Yet, by tracing her to the Govan parish records we discover that Sarah’s marriage was irregular, and according to those records both her children are illegitimate, despite irregular marriage being legally valid in Scotland. Perhaps these children were born to a previous partner. According to parish records she is listed as a lone parent.  There was no category in the census for deserted wives and many would have been recorded as still married or even widowed. Thus we can see that the census seriously underestimated the extent of desertion and separation.


Similarly, in the following two examples, although both female heads are listed as married in the census, their spouses are absent. In such examples the census may lead us to believe that these men are simply away, perhaps working. However, in both cases these women are separated from their husbands. In the case of Annie Houston, desertion by her husband would lead to the breakup of her family.


A family requiring some detective work is the Bigley/Begley family of 40 Dale Street. According to parish records one of Bridget’s daughters had an illegitimate child who resided with the family at 40 Dale Street. It is difficult to ascertain the identity of this grandchild, or indeed whether the child was born to Sarah or Mary, as according to the census there were no grandchildren living at this address at the time. If not yet born then undoubtedly one of the daughters was with child at the time of the census enumerator’s visit. Illegitimacy may have carried a social stigma during this period but was much more common than what we have perhaps believed. For example, in 1881 illegitimacy rates fluctuated dramatically in Scottish parishes between 4% and 30% of all live births.

Tabl7 Not all single-parent families are easy to spot within the census. The next example of the McCarthy family in Thistle Street looks like a fairly straightforward extended family with a single parent head. Yet, what we have here is a single-parent family (Mary’s son James and his daughter) within a single-parent family, headed by Mary. However, daughter Catherine was pregnant with an illegitimate child and would soon extend the household to include a single-parent family within a single-parent family living alongside another single-parent family.


Our research is demonstrating that family and household composition in Scotland between 1861 and 1911 was much more complex and fluid than traditional explanations have suggested.  The nuclear family may have been the most numerous within Scotland but it rarely comprised over 50% of all households in our parishes, drawn from the north, south, east and west of Scotland, including both rural and urban areas. In Govan, a significantly large and industrial Scottish parish, nuclear families (those containing parents and children) accounted for 45% of all households in 1901, and 50% in 1911. In rural Perthshire nuclear families never accounted for more than 40% of households until a small rise in 1911. Our research is also demonstrating the dynamic quality of households over time, in the manner by which they could be shaped and reshaped by economic and material conditions, and the way in which families adapted their own households in an effort to provide economic and emotional support.

Food Parcels, Poverty and Poor Relief

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.

Food Parcel

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

12:30pm-1:00pm Play

1:00pm-2:00pm Work

2:00pm-2:30pm Dinner (Barley, Bullock’s Head & Vegetable Soup, bread)

2:30pm-4:00 School

4:00pm-4:30pm Play

4:30pm-6:30pm Work

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.