Portrait of the Scottish Poor

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The State of the Scottish Working Class in 1843 by Ian Levitt and Christopher Smout
    Scottish Academic Press, 284 pp, £7.50, December 1979, ISBN 0 7073 0247 1

This book is based on one of the most thorough of 19th-century government inquiries, the six volumes of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (Scotland) of 1844. The Commission had, the year before, put out an elaborate questionnaire to the 906 parishes of Scotland, usually to the minister, with 70 questions on it, most of which were answered for almost all the parishes. There was also the more usual information-gathering exercise by interview. The result of the inquiry is an enormous stock of detailed information covering diet, prices, wages, amenities, facilities for saving and social policy. The authors, supported by a grant from the Social Science Research Council, have analysed the replies with the aid of the SPSS computer programme and mapped the results. They have then set out to display and discuss the total picture. Proffessor Smout’s is the most original and creative mind at work on Scottish social history, and the discussion has depth and perception as well as human warmth.

The report, broken down by modern methods, has made possible detailed examination of the material quality of life in a way not yet achieved for any comparable area in the British Isles, and the authors have seized on its possibilities. They have fulfilled the ambition of all social historians and held the life of an instant under total review. The detailed amassing of facts by the Commission was coupled to a half-hearted programme of reform in which the need of relief for the unemployed in an industrial economy was denied as incompatible with the traditional practices of the Scottish Poor Law, so that the historian has at the same time to praise the enterprise of the investigation and to damn the scheme to which it was applied. Perhaps the Commission, a small body of four politicians, two parish ministers and an English civil servant, selected because he had experience of the Scottish relief system at its cheese-paring worst, hoped to stun the public with the quantity of information and to deflect attention from other shortcomings. But perhaps its factual emphasis was inherited from the very real tradition of parochial survey and investigation which had already brought forth the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland. The more famous report of the vast Royal Commission which had reformed the English Poor Law in 1834 to make life as disagreeable as possible for the unemployed, and which has drawn from later historians the descriptions ‘wildly unhistorical’ and ‘wildly unstatistical’, may by 1843 already have begun to draw criticism. Its nine volumes of evidence selected to suit a party line must have taken some digesting even in a period which took Blue Books as literature very seriously indeed. In any case, the New English Poor Law which it had created had roused hot feelings over central control and local expense. Perhaps it is of significance that the earlier report coincided with the founding of the London Statistical Society. Manchester, of course, had got in even earlier with its own Statistical Society, and Glasgow was to follow promptly. So the Statistical movement was under way and by 1843 had arrived at sufficient intellectual maturity for some of its members to realise that it was not good enough simply to collect the figures and facts which supported theories already held, but that the facts had to be allowed to bring home their own message. Not all practitioners of statistical science, particularly not those who worked on ‘moral’ statistics, were able to make this progression, and one can sympathise with those who failed. A real statistical inquiry not only was likely to give a jolt to preconceived ideas but was also a lengthy and expensive task.

The existing Scottish method of gathering information through the parish minister could work well, provided the questions were clear, the topics ones on which ministers had the opportunities to be properly informed, and the parish population moderate in size. Presbyterian discipline and the practice of annual catechising meant that the ministers were hard-working men familiar with the insides of their parishioners’ houses. In most cases they were closely involved in the existing system of relief and knew where need lay. The authors have had to abandon nearly half the questions as ambiguous or repetitive, and to admit that for the larger towns precise information is not to be had, though in some cases the interviews and further correspondence of the report can be used to supplement the questionnaire. But still Edinburgh and Glasgow were too large for any group of ministers to be expected to give detailed information and the wide scale of Dissent in the West of Scotland has created further difficulties for the more industrialised areas. And there is, as with all 19th-century inquiries, the problem of how reliable middle-class information is on the domestic features of working-class life.

Obviously the local minister could be expected to know about the numbers of savings banks, friendly societies or pawnbrokers in his parish, but he may well have been less reliable on the amount of meat eaten, the use of vegetables or the habit of tea-drinking. Doubts on these matters are at least partially allayed by the remarkably coherent geographic patterns revealed by the answers. For instance, the way the North-East went in for milk-drinking and oatmeal and made little use of potatoes is clearly shown and is consistent. It looks as if town dwellers still followed a diet similar to that of the local countryside, but of course they could not keep their own pigs or might find access to fresh vegetables difficult. The late 19th-century urban diet of wheat bread and tea had not yet taken over. Skilled workers could live well and eat meat as a matter of course, while at the other end of real income Highland crofters had to export their protein foods to pay their rents. The answers remind us also that the system by which the Scottish farm labourer received most of his income in kind insulated him from the worst effects of price variation.

The authors are not just content to show the facts of material life but also go into the mechanisms by which these were likely to be changed: the opportunities to save or squander, the rising problem of unemployment, the pattern of emigration, the whole area of voluntary charity and the poor law. Nothing complimentary to the Scottish civilisation of the day can be said about the poor law’s treatment of the unemployed. It had become accepted that ‘the able-bodied’ were not eligible for relief, and ‘able-bodied’ was interpreted as meaning anyone not permanently disabled. A man with a broken leg or suffering from a severe attack of fever would be classified as able-bodied in many parishes. The Scots had had a large share, through Adam Smith, Samuel Smiles and Thomas Chalmers, in the fashioning of a theory of economic individualism, and their working class was now paying for it. The special and appalling hardships of Paisley, which had forced on Peel’s government the decision to tackle the Scottish poor law – Westminster government then as now preferred to neglect Scottish affairs – showed that in the extreme circumstances of prolonged depression the self-help concepts of thrift, industry and self-supporting labour were annulled by the inadequacy of welfare. Professor Smout sums up: ‘what availed respectability if you ended up sleeping on a pile of straw and queuing for a chopin of soup like your most drunken neighbour?’ Yet so strong was the complacency of the Scottish middle class, so firmly held the myths which it had created, that this basic gap in the structure of welfare remained uncorrected by the new law of 1845.

The book ends with a comparison of the material quality of life in different areas. Real wages, diet, poor law scales and the two important services of friendly societies and licensed premises (the only outlet for spare money in most districts) are taken as correlating with material advantage, the more of them the better for the local population, and the propensity to emigrate as an inverse evaluation of the life of a district. Not surprisingly, the South-East comes out best and the North-West Highlands worst, and the North altogether shows up as a harder place to live in than the South. The Dunbar area in East Lothian stands nearly at the top of the rich South-East, except that it has slightly fewer ale-houses than it might have had, though it had enough in all conscience for serious drinking to Scottish standards. It also had almost the lowest tendency to emigrate. Set it against Nairnshire, from where hardly anyone emigrated but where in all material terms life for the unskilled was hard and the returns for long labour low. Happy East Lothian might be the conclusion. Yet from this area we have the sour autobiography of Alexander Somerville, which shows how tough his youth had been as the child of an agricultural labourer some twenty years earlier. Insofar as Dunbar had a more prosperous work force than had Southern England at this time, this was because in Scotland the device of the annual hiring fair prevented the continuation of surplus labour in the countryside. Men who could not be hired had to leave. The slack was taken up, and that in itself was a fairly brutal process. East Lothian was a high wage area, but at a price in social terms.

The authors also discuss the effect of economic growth on regional inequality, a subject of national and international concern today. Wages had been diverging for seventy years or so: the gap by the 1840s may have been, as they suggest, at its widest, but further economic growth has not closed it.

This book raises two general questions for social historians. One is whether other Blue Books are capable of a similar treatment. There is a great amount of 19th-century Parliamentary paper concerned with two major areas of concern: urban housing and the condition of agriculture and agricultural labour. Some of these reports may be systematic enough to yield to analysis, at least for a region, and give us further detailed pictures of working-class life at various dates. It would be particularly valuable if some such study could be made which would set out both rural and urban life in the late 19th century, when a more complicated infrastructure of welfare had been built up, to compare with the 1840s.

The other question is whether this book will make the impact which is its due on English historiography. Far too often, significant work on Scottish history is ignored by those who work on similar topics for England. This insularity may be justified in early periods where Scottish archives cannot yield the same riches as English, but for the 19th century not only has Scotland better recording in certain aspects of life but also the small size of the country enables topics to be grasped in their full complexity. The differences between the laws and institutions of the two countries itself turns the Scottish experience into a useful alternative sample and gives a means of evaluation which historians should be ready to grasp.

I suspect that this book will not receive the attention that is due to it as a pioneer study with a new technique – a demonstration of the way to combine mechanisation of material with humane understanding. I would like to be proved wrong.