Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An Alphabet Of Pauperization : Illness, Heredity And Drink

I was on my way somewhere when I got distracted by the big book yesterday. The book - the one illustrated at the top of yesterday's post - is one of the early 19th century minute books of the Ionian Bank Limited. Most of the early minute books have been digitised and are available in an on-line archive held by the London School of Economics. I was merely browsing through the collection when I got side-tracked and started wittering on about big books. Where I was actually heading for was another of the LSE's on-line digital archives : the archives of the great Victorian philanthropist and social reformer Charles Booth. If you have never visited the Charles Booth Archives do take a visit. It is a place I return to again and again : it is the kind of place you need to go to when you feel sorry for yourself or when you imagine times are hard.
The particular collection I would refer you to is the Stepney Union Casebooks - a series of six notebooks which contain detailed case histories of the inmates of Bromley and Stepney workhouses and of people who received outdoor relief from the union in the late nineteenth century. You can stop at any page and read the reports ... and weep. I have included a reproduction of just one of the hundreds of cases - the case of Frederick Andrews. Frederick was 52 and worked as a carpenter until rheumatic gout meant he could no longer work. It appears that he sold his tools to pay for treatment and later he applies to the Poor Law Guardians for a grant to buy new tools so he can work again, but the Receiving Officer (RO) discovered that he was "living with a woman that had taken to drink". No tools, no work, rheumatism returns and Frederick is going to just one place - Bromley Workhouse,
On the inside cover of the Case Books the Officer - in this case a Mr J Jones - records the abbreviations that are used throughout the book. In effect it is an alphabet of pauperization, a lexicon of misery. The list says so much about our Victorian ancestors and how they viewed poverty. Whether it was through drink (D), Immorality (J), Recklessness (R) or Laziness (L), pauperization would get you in the end. And if you managed to avoid all of these there was always Misfortune ("Ye Gods") (Y) which could dispatch you to the Poor House. Poor Frederick Andrews was classified as I, H and D : he was the victim of illness, heredity and drink. What became of him I do not know but it can be safely said that few people left the workhouse to go on to a life of luxury and plenty.
Last night my good friend Tim and I were having a discussion - admittedly a discussion which was fueled by home-made cocktails and beer (D) - about post-modernism. Was progress now an illusion? Perhaps ... that is until you return to read the Stepney Union Casebooks.


  1. Don't you find postmodernism is so .... yesterday?

  2. Anonymous2:25 PM

    Lordy lordy, this is a great post. I just watched a program on TV about inmates and then just finished reading Albert Speer's "Spandau" about his 20 years in prison there with other Nazis like Hess. Amazing life people in prison lead.

    Masturbation was, during the Civil War, called, "Body Abuse."

    I am still making history on my Pick a Peck of Pixels blog. Today I posted a Zebra Butterfly with long tails. He is as big as your hand. Most have never seen one. Now you can see one at
    Pick a Peck of Pixels

  3. Sad contents for such a lovely big book.

  4. I agree with Abraham Lincoln--great post. What an interesting window on conditions from a primary source.

  5. Thanks for the comments:
    Bill : even worse - day before yesterday.
    Abe & John : Thank you. It's just great that the archive is being more widely used.
    Willow : Even sadder if it were forgotten.

  6. on the surface the pages are lovely in script...its what is contained that saddens and reminds us to appreciate our tough times...

  7. Anonymous9:55 AM

    After postmodernism come altermodernity, performatism, hypermodernity, complexism, digimodernism - so many competing heirs hoping to inherit postmodernism's crown. RIP Pomo.

    The Digimodernist


Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...