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
  • 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.

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.

The welfare state is the welfare parish magnified, and the welfare parish arrived with Protestantism itself. Maintenance and medical care for the destitute were made a communal responsibility in the 16th century with the Old Poor Law. The only substantive difference is that whereas the welfare parish was financed from taxation (the poor rate), the welfare state is in principle financed through insurance (the 1946 National Insurance Act inaugurated universal state insurance against unemployment, sickness and old age). In between came the New Poor Law of 1834, which universalised the workhouse and betrayed the nation’s mission. It was the Old Poor Law with a lot more parish and a lot less welfare. Parishes were grouped into Poor Law Unions, each with a workhouse and an elected board of guardians who were under strict instructions to cut expenditure. The population possibly doubled between 1785 and 1817, but the poor rate quadrupled, and ‘outdoor relief’ (extra-workhouse doles and wage subsidies) was blamed. The Poor Law Commission reported in 1833 that it was

a check upon industry, a reward for improvident marriage, a stimulus to increased population, and a means of counterbalancing the effect of an increased population upon wages; a national provision for discouraging the honest and industrious and protecting the lazy, vicious and improvident, calculated to … ruin the taxpayers.

Under the New Poor Law the destitute – sick or fit, old or young – would face a stark alternative: the workhouse, or a choice between beggary, charity, crime and starvation. And life in the workhouse was intended to be less pleasant (‘less eligible’) than the life of the lowest-paid workers outside, with convict labour for the fit, and loss of voting rights, confiscation of personal property, communal prayers, compulsory uniform, silence at meals and a diet of bread and gruel for everyone. The object was to drive away able-bodied paupers. According to Ricardo, 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. The wage fund was limited, since circulating capital became fixed as civilisation advanced; yet consumer demand always rose to match industrial supply, so overproduction was impossible. But not, Malthus added, over-reproduction. There would be no famine – or war or pestilence – if the poor would stop increasing faster than their food supply. So sexual segregation was added to the workhouse disincentives, and families were torn apart.

The New Poor Law was always controversial. Dickens was only the first of many critics. Carlyle, Disraeli, Kingsley, Ruskin, Morris, Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Churchill, Beveridge – all arraigned it as morally indefensible. It punished not only the ‘undeserving’ poor (the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’ of incorrigibles) but the ‘deserving’ poor too – those indigent through no fault of their own. For a while the draconian system operated as intended, and in the prosperous mid-Victorian years the able-bodied disappeared from the workhouses. But from the late 1870s they reappeared in ever increasing numbers, especially in London, where the East End became a byword for proletarian misery and a phenomenon called ‘unemployment’. Pressure on places was so acute that guardians had to break the rules and distribute outdoor relief. The New Poor Law was collapsing: victim, according to the new economic thinking, of a fundamental misunderstanding of labour market laws of supply and demand. So public policy again changed track, and moved not towards socialism, but towards liberal-collectivist state welfare and a planned economy as advocated by Beveridge and Keynes.

We thought we knew every vale of tears in this landscape of despair, but one of the darkest is being explored only now. The workhouses collaborated with the medical profession to supply anatomy teachers with corpses for dissection. In Dying for Victorian Medicine, Elizabeth Hurren uncovers a sordid trade that commoditised human remains. At the consumer end of the market were the medical schools, avid for dissection material following increases in 1858 and 1885 to the part played by anatomy in the medical syllabus. At the supply end were the destitute, unable to afford funerals and compelled to surrender their relatives’ corpses to parish authorities for pauper funerals and, at the parishes’ discretion, ‘anatomical investigation’. Often they weren’t told that ‘a pauper funeral meant anatomy first and burial later’ and were fobbed off with funerals using substitute bodies. In the middle there was a shadowy, mercenary network of parish officials, undertakers, hospital porters and coroners’ clerks, who arranged the collection at workhouse and hospital back doors of what looked like laundry baskets but weren’t. The railway companies operated a discreet distribution service. Passengers travelling from Liverpool Street to Cambridge were unaware that a consignment of corpses was regularly hitched to their train.

There were limits: in 1858 the master of a London workhouse was convicted of selling human remains for personal gain. But he was acquitted on appeal, and generally a blind eye was turned. The official attitude was that this way of supplying anatomy’s needs was far better than what had come before: the ghoulish racket of bodysnatchers or ‘resurrectionists’, and the ‘burkers’ who murdered their victims to sell their corpses. In Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987) Ruth Richardson described how the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed Poor Law guardians to consign unclaimed corpses for dissection, was carried through Parliament on a wave of middle-class revulsion and fear. The crimes of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh had been followed by the murder in London of ‘the Italian Boy’, a victim of body traders who may have been serial killers. The New Poor Law, she argued, worked in tandem with the Anatomy Act by herding the poor into workhouses that prefigured Nazi concentration camps. Together, they streamlined the anatomy business and inflicted the ultimate stigma on the poor. Without their consent (most consented by default, Hurren claims, because their right to refuse was obscured by legal jargon and bureaucratic obstruction) and with cruel disregard for religion, custom and the vulnerability of the bereaved, medical science subjected them to what in English law and popular understanding was ritual defilement and erasure of identity. An act of 1752 had defined dissection as anathema by directing that the corpses of executed murderers be delivered from the gallows to anatomists. But this source of supply had been inadequate, and constituted a threat to public order because friends and relatives of culprits would fight with anatomists for possession of the corpse. So the act of 1832 ended the practice, and substituted bodies from the workhouse.

Hurren amplifies Richardson’s indictment by exposing the moral murkiness of the Victorian medical establishment. She shows that private medicine was prepared to exploit the underprivileged for the advantage of the privileged few. Some 125,000 corpses were traded under the terms of the Anatomy Act. Despite grand talk about benefits to humanity, it goes without saying that the poor weren’t the beneficiaries of the medical advances they were forced to assist. ‘If you have none but ignorant medical men it is you who will suffer,’ MPs were told by Astley Cooper, sergeant-surgeon to George IV; ‘The want of subjects will soon lead to your becoming the unhappy victims of operations founded and performed in ignorance.’ Yet if Victorian anatomists come across as callous, arrogant and ruthlessly ambitious, Hurren argues, it’s at least partly because of the stresses of the macabre and dangerous nature of their work, lack of facilities, low professional prestige and a public image sullied by memories of bodysnatchers. All this needed saying, and it needed fortitude to excavate the grisly evidence and say it. But when you read of ‘a vibrant historical literature on those who struggled to pay for funerals’; that ‘new research rediscovers what it was like to be dissected’ and that you are about to ‘look up from the perspective of the corpse on the dissection table’; and most of all when you find yourself in the middle of a detailed digression about the mutilation techniques of Jack the Ripper, you begin to feel uneasy for reasons over and above the subject itself. What, exactly, does all this fascination with death and dissection add up to?

Hurren’s book falters where it claims to be strongest. It begins with a big promise: ‘Meticulous preparation for the case studies … will reveal … a crowd with individual stories to tell about their broken lives’; and it ends on a note of triumph: ‘Out of the shadows, from crowded lodging houses, busy red-light districts, slums filled with migrants, have emerged the faces and names of hidden lives.’ What comes in between shows that the book promises a lot more than it can deliver. It offers ‘lateral thinking’ that turns out to be improvisation, nudging, tweaking and stretching evidence until it means what it’s required to say. ‘Lost stories … about resilience in the end but … fraught with pain along the way’ are conjectured from scraps that could mean almost anything or almost nothing. The evidence follows rather than leads the agenda, which is to construct a paradigm of Victorian poverty around ‘the bereaved living in destitution anxious to prevent the dissection of a loved one’. Hurren is right to talk about ‘a history of silence’. She’s less justified in claiming that it’s now at an end.

Like everyone who has written about Victorian poverty, she’s obstructed by the problem identified by the Liberal politician Charles Masterman in 1902. ‘We are very silent,’ the collective poor say in Masterman’s From the Abyss; ‘so very silent that no one to this hour knows what we think … or why we think it.’ That remains true even now. From all the multitude of workhouse voices, not one has yet been recovered that says ‘this is how it was,’ ‘this is what we did,’ ‘this is how I felt.’ Victorian poverty is mute either because, in Masterman’s words, it was ‘living for the most part with no articulate expression’, or because it was too ashamed to speak. The Victorians who wrote about it were strangers in its midst: either middle-class missionaries, philanthropists and sociologists perceiving the London slums as ‘the undiscovered country of the poor’ and ‘the dark continent … within easy walking distance of the General Post Office’, and casting themselves as intrepid explorers or scientific investigators; or slumming journalists (James Greenwood, Jack London, Robert Sherard and, later, Orwell) trying to share an experience that they could never penetrate because they knew they could always escape. And there was Dickens, who lived in denial about his childhood labour in a blacking factory and displaced his trauma onto martyred surrogates in other hells – the workhouse, Yorkshire schools, Lancashire mills, slums like Tom-all-Alone’s. Dickens confronting his own past is Oliver Twist confronting his. Having escaped into bourgeois security, Oliver revisits the town of his childhood, but he sees the workhouse only from outside, and his old acquaintances only as faces at the windows.

Victorian poverty was besieged by outsiders looking in. That’s why something was done about it, and why it has a history. But it’s a history of investigation, quantification, recommendation, legislation and imagination. As a history of human experience it doesn’t exist. This is what sets it apart from the other calvaries of the modern age – the slave plantations, the trenches, the Gulag, the concentration camps. We can be sure that workhouses could be as odious as the legend says. But we don’t know, and are warned not to suppose, that all workhouses were as bad as those that are legendary. They are legendary precisely because they were the worst; and even the worst got better after the system was reformed in the 1860s. Orwell wrote that it was ‘difficult to enter a workhouse without being reminded of Oliver Twist’. How did he know? He never entered one. But he did spend a night in the ‘spike’, or casual ward (an annexe for tramps and vagrants), of a workhouse just outside London. Having shared the workhouse food and chatted with some of the inmates, he reported that the meal was ‘fit for a boa-constrictor’ and that the uniform was what was most disliked: ‘If the men could wear their own clothes or even their own caps and scarves, they would not mind being paupers.’ Reaction to the idea of dissection could be less than anguished – even playful. In 1885, an old inmate of the Colchester workhouse told a reporter, in answer to his question, that she’d sold her corpse in advance, for sixpence. She was obviously having a bit of fun at the expense of a nosey intruder. It’s typical of Hurren’s approach that she takes the answer seriously, and infers ‘a world of meaning about the central part that dissection played in meagre death rites … Aged paupers … sometimes took a financial incentive, sixpence a corpse, to ensure that they were not a financial burden to their loved ones after death.’ This particular aged pauper joked that she’d done it to pay for snuff. Most writing on Victorian poverty, it seems, says more about the people who write it than about the Victorian poor.