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Reviewed by:
  • Women,Welfare and Local Politics, 1880–1920: ‘We Might Be Trusted.’
  • Kathleen C. Martin
Women,Welfare and Local Politics, 1880–1920: ‘We Might Be Trusted.’ By Steven King (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2006. 364 pp.).

In this examination of the life and papers of Mary Haslam, poor law guardian and leader of the women's movement in Bolton, Steven King sets out to elucidate a number of contentious debates over the influence of women on poor law policy and the development of feminism at the local level. In this as in so many areas of British social history, far more is known about national figures (usually based [End Page 440] in London) than about local leaders. What makes Mary Haslam so valuable is not only her long service as a poor law guardian in the manufacturing city of Bolton, but the detailed working diary she kept during those years, which is reproduced in this volume. We can know precisely what Mary Haslam did and why she did it, from the time she became a member of the Bolton Ladies Workhouse Visiting Committee in 1893, through her election to the Board of Guardians, to the early months of 1905. To illustrate Haslam's activities and the principles behind them, King also makes effective use of her travel diaries and her papers on the campaign for women's suffrage in Britain. Hers was not only an interesting but also a well-documented life.

King makes a strong case that, at least in Bolton, female guardians were not passive accessories to male leadership. On the contrary, they had a noticeable impact on the administration of the workhouse, on poor law medical services, and on specialized services for the mentally ill and the developmentally handicapped. They took a practical interest in the smooth functioning of these institutions and pushed for reforms, even against resistance.

One area of particular interest to King is the complex relationship among philanthropy, political activism, public service, and the women's movement. Not surprisingly, Mary Haslam and many of her colleagues had considerable experience in philanthropy before they stood for public office; many were the daughters of families long involved in philanthropic and reform activity. Some had prior political experience on behalf of male candidates, both Conservative and Liberal. King does a particularly effective job of testing various theories about the pathways to feminism against the career trajectories of Mary Haslam and her fellow female guardians, showing in the process a commendable reluctance to take his conclusions beyond his evidence.

King also examines the relevance of the "separate spheres" perspective to Haslam's experience. While she saw her supervision of workhouse management practices and her desire to improve the morals of the inmates as properly feminine concerns, she had no hesitation in serving on subcommittees that oversaw the finance and construction of new buildings—distinctly unfeminine concerns, by traditional standards. King is wise enough to realize that no tidy conclusions can be reached here without ignoring the complexity of Haslam's life.

Like so many others concerned with the poor law, Mary Haslam was a Unitarian. King skillfully links her life to the strong tradition of "Nonconformist progressivism," tracing her campaigns to improve workhouse living conditions and medical care. Yet in the end this work is far more about women and local politics than about the poor law. Despite his meticulous and informative presentation of the causes and extent of poverty in Bolton in the 19th century, much of it related to industrial working conditions, wages, and cyclical fluctuations, King neither finds nor seeks any evidence that Haslam ever questioned the fundamental premises on which the poor law was based. Her diary entries show her concerned about the farming out of pauper children as servants to unsuitable masters, struggling to improve medical treatment and maternity services in the workhouse, inspecting and criticizing workhouse dietary and cooking standards, and arranging picnics and outings. They also document her efforts to insure that the mentally ill and the feeble-minded receive specialized treatment in appropriate [End Page 441] facilities and to make outdoor relief payments to the elderly and to families with children more adequate. What they do not show Haslam...


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pp. 440-442
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