So Very Silent
- Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c.1834-1929 by Elizabeth Hurren
Palgrave, 380 pp, £65.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 230 21966 3
- Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson
Oxford, 370 pp, £16.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 964588 6
The last year of the workhouse was 1929. The old-age pension, introduced twenty years earlier, was still only ten shillings a week. George Orwell hadn’t imagined that anyone could live on it, but when he went slumming he discovered that people did, thanks to a diet of bread, margarine and tea, dirt-cheap lodgings and clothes from charities. By now, the unemployed could draw insurance benefit, and the destitute Public Assistance; so the workhouses were either demolished or adapted to other purposes. But they bequeathed a vivid legend. Recent redevelopment of the Middlesex Hospital site in London revealed that its outpatients’ department used to be the Strand Union Workhouse. It’s also been discovered that Dickens once lived in the same street, and the Georgian workhouse has been saved from demolition because it’s reckoned, on evidence detailed by Ruth Richardson in Dickens and the Workhouse, that it must be the most famous workhouse of all – the one in Oliver Twist. The claim isn’t convincing. Oliver Twist’s workhouse is 75 miles north of London and if it ever existed outside Dickens’s imagination it’s more likely to have been in Aldeburgh. Although Dickens never went there, he knew and admired George Crabbe’s The Borough, which describes Aldeburgh’s workhouse as archetypically grim and penitential: ‘That giant building, that high-bounding wall/Those bare-worn walks, that lofty thund’ring hall …/… a prison, with a milder name’. Still, this game of identification shows how strong the legend of the workhouse is, and how obsessive the need to commemorate an iniquity long since ended, but never completely atoned for or sufficiently deplored. We admire the Victorians for the Crystal Palace, but can’t forgive them the workhouse.
Vol. 34 No. 21 · 8 November 2012
From Paul Thomson
I was intrigued as well as enlightened by John Pemble’s assumption that ‘Christianity has nowhere been more deeply rooted than in Britain’ (LRB, 25 October). How does this square with Keith Thomas’s claim in Religion and the Decline of Magic that this country was never fully Christianised?
Vol. 34 No. 22 · 22 November 2012
From Giancarlo de Vivo
John Pemble represents David Ricardo as an intellectual father of the New Poor Law of 1834, which he was not (LRB, 25 October). According to Ricardo, Pemble writes, ‘all those who were fit and out of work were either malingering or expecting too much. Work was always available for anyone who was healthy and prepared to accept a subsistence wage.’ Ricardo argued no such thing. The real intellectual father of the New Poor Law was the Reverend Malthus, with his immensely successful Essay on Population, where he wrote that if a man ‘cannot get subsistence from his parents, on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, he has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him.’ Even in Malthus’s case there is no claim that ‘work was always available’: unemployment would not be eliminated by what today’s economists love to call ‘flexibility’, but by the physical elimination of the workers who could not find employment.
Giancarlo de Vivo
From Donald Winch
David Ricardo died in 1823, a decade before the Royal Commission that proposed the Poor Law amendment and wholesale reform was established; and nobody has yet succeeded in finding any direct evidence of Malthus’s opinions on the 1834 Act before he died later that year. The sample of what purports to be Ricardo-Malthus thinking offered by John Pemble confuses provisions drawn from the 1834 Act and much older abolitionist arguments of a kind that Malthus had abandoned by the early 1820s. It also elides the major issue on which Malthus was in sharp disagreement with Ricardo: the possibility of general overproduction.
Cooksbridge, East Sussex
Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012
From John Pemble
Commenting on my comments on Ricardo and Malthus, Giancarlo de Vivo recycles the old caricature of ‘Parson Malthus’ – a final solutionist in a dog collar preaching ‘physical elimination’ of the unemployed as a remedy for unemployment (Letters, 22 November). Elimination was never a part of the Malthusian agenda; it was a natural catastrophe that the agenda was designed to avert. The claim that Ricardo wasn’t an ‘intellectual father’ of the Poor Law of 1834 is equally odd, given how far policy was governed by his diagnosis. Ricardo’s was the classic indictment of the old system, which subsidised low wages from taxation: ‘The principle of gravitation is not more certain than the tendency of such laws to change wealth and power into misery and weakness … until at last all classes should be infected with the plague of universal poverty,’ he wrote in Principles of Political Economy. He joined with Malthus to urge reform, but they differed on fundamentals, and Donald Winch rightly criticises me for not making this clear. AlthoughRicardo agreed that the poor would benefit if they were less inclined to marry, he didn’t regard population pressure as a primary cause of dearth and famine, which he saw as mostly unpredictable and unavoidable. Like Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, he reckoned that since every producer is also a consumer with a limited stomach but an insatiable appetite for commodities, the risk of famine in advanced populous societies is outweighed by the impossibility of general overproduction. I erred where the legislators of 1834 led. By trying to be both Ricardian and Malthusian they perpetrated, inevitably, a botch.