So Very Silent

John Pemble

  • 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
  • BuyDickens 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.

In the 1830s, Tocqueville noted that British society, vexed by ‘evils which were not even recognised elsewhere’, was ‘continually examining itself, probing its wounds, and undertaking to cure them’. The wound he especially had in mind was poverty, the Condition of England question, but he clearly misjudged the level of international recognition. Not long after, Engels would write The Condition of the Working Class in England and the subject would also be uppermost in Marx’s mind when he was writing Das Kapital. But Tocqueville was right to diagnose a British fixation. If the Victorian poor had been less poor, English literature would be a lot less rich, British history very different and British historians short of inspiration. The amount of investigation, debate and legislation on poverty in the 19th century is matched only by the historical research on the subject that has been piling up ever since.

This fixation is fundamentally religious. Christianity has nowhere been more deeply rooted than in Britain, where even agnosticism is traditionally pious; and Christianity is fatalistic about poverty: ‘The poor ye shall have always with you’ – poverty is incumbent on a humanity that has lapsed from grace. Yet equally incumbent is the obligation to relieve it; and in Protestant Britain, where being saved was as much about being chosen as about doing good, obligation became vocation: Britain was mandated to alleviate suffering through welfare. This sense of mission has adopted various ideological guises: mystical-conservative in Burke, radical-utilitarian in Bentham, racist-imperialist in Kipling. But it’s always been driven by the same imperative: ‘Fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease.’ That was the ethic of the British Empire; and when the empire was broken up, the welfare state took pride of place as the great British rectification.

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