- Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870
In 1869 George Goschen, MP for London and President of the Poor Law Board, urged, in what historians remember as his famous circular, guardians of the poor to relieve only those paupers who inhabited the workhouse and parochial authorities to be much more discriminating between worthy and unworthy recipients of relief. Reflective in part of the Chadwickian principle of less eligibility which inspired the New Poor Law, Goschen’s circular also captured the political climate of the late 1860s, which had witnessed a surge in the cost of maintaining the Victorian social welfare state. The circular also contributed to an ongoing public preoccupation and debate over poverty and pauperism. The vagaries of the mid-nineteenth-century marketplace, with its booms and slumps, and the compelling works of such writers as Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli had shaken contemporary confidence in the Victorian argument that those who applied for poor relief did so because they wilfully accepted destitution as a career or lifestyle choice. [End Page 136]
David Green’s impressive Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870 focuses on the ways in which Hanoverian and Victorian Englishmen and women came to terms with the myths and realities of poverty and pauperism between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth century. As the title suggests, the volume concentrates on the importance of the metropolis and its environs in the reconfiguration of poor relief policy in the years before and after the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Configured to consider poor relief from Gilbert’s Act of 1782 and the outset of severe economic hardship in the 1790s through the financial confusion and the economic slump that Goschen and William Gladstone had to face in the later 1860s, the book “is less about pauperism per se than it is about the relationships between place and policy and the actions and intentions of those individuals involved in the operation of the poor law—as overseers and guardians, as paupers and paid officials” (xiv). Green’s conclusion that relief recipients and rate-payers recognized and were “linked together in a set of mutual rights and legal obligations” reconfirms for London and its surrounding suburbs what other historians toiling further afield on the poor laws have been arguing for the last decade or so (22). Equally reflective of broader national and provincial conclusions for both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, moreover, Pauper Capital confirms the gendered and life-cycle dimensions of poverty in the so-called Great Wen by showing that sixty-nine percent of those relieved by poor law authorities were women and that many “drifted in and out of poverty just as they drifted in and out of the workhouse” (159). Proportionally, poor relief and poor law expenditure reflected, furthermore, the size and national significance of the city. But in London the indoor relief of the casual poor took on a greater emphasis than elsewhere in the country. These metropolitan circumstances owed much, as Green shows, to rapid urban growth and large-scale migration from the provinces. Both factors made it difficult to provide outdoor relief to paupers without easily identifiable parishes of settlement. Since the removal from London of paupers to their settlement parishes proved impossible, other strategies—indoor relief, paid officials, pauper farming—were adopted to prevent the tide of paupers from overwhelming individual parishes. The random but increasingly routine recessions of the early nineteenth century did not initially precipitate a structural reorganization of parish authority and administration, but merely a search for scapegoats—more often than not select vestries, corrupt officials, and parochial incompetence.
1834 did not sweep away these local interests nor perceived parochial incompetence, and Green helpfully reminds readers that the New Poor Law was permissive rather than obligatory and that about a third of London parishes refused to adopt the terms of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Nevertheless, as Green also notes, “vestries in non-adopting parishes acted entirely in accordance...