User talk:Parrot of Doom/workhouse

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A Few Illustrations for Mr Warburton's Bill, William Heath (1829). The illustration features the role of workhouse, hospital and prison staff in procuring bodies for anatomical research.

Pauper burials[edit]

Great importance was placed on funerary rites, but while the wealthy placed their dead in triple coffins and sealed them in large cemetery monuments, the poor were accorded much less respect. The creation of the so-called pauper funeral helped reinforce the idea that to die in penury was a social offence. As part of general cuts in expenditure on the poor made during the late 18th century, the New Poor Law administration attempted to save money on funerary items like shrouds, coffins and graves, while the use of palls or bellringers was banned. Coffins were piled sometimes 20 or more deep, in numbered (but otherwise unmarked) graves treated with quicklime for easy re-use. Such burial grounds were often attached to the workhouse.[1] For those in regular employment burial insurance was available, but these schemes were beyond the reach of the poor, whose income was often seasonal.[2]

Fear of post-mortem dissection was another important factor in the desire to avoid a pauper's funeral.[3] The passage of the Anatomy Act 1832 gave anatomists access to the workhouse dead,[citation needed] and so keen were people to not to die in a workhouse that some were induced to starve themselves. Others emigrated, became prostitutes or even committed suicide.[4] Fear of dissection led to a disturbance at the Swansea House of Industry in 1817. A visit by surgeons led to a rumour that the inmates were to be dissected, prompting much "anguish and distress ... there was not a poor creature in the house who would not have preferred dying for want in the streets, to the enjoyment of relief upon terms so repugnant to their feelings."[5] The inmates of the workhouse at St Paul's in Shadwell were similarly-minded. In May 1829, a new inmate caused a disturbance when he read details of an anatomy bill presented to Parliament. The orator also voiced his suspicion that the workhouse food contained human as well as animal remains, for which allegation he was taken before the local magistrate. Keen to disprove the existence of "Nattomy Soup", the workhouse's master took a bowl of broth to court. The inmate was sentenced to 21 days in a House of Correction.[6] Historian Ruth Richardson suggests that the reaction to the case is "eloquent testimony to the poor's understanding that they were regarded as bestial by their social superiors".[7]

The general fear of parish burials persisted into the 20th century; a study made by the Fabian Women's Group shortly before the First World War reports that Lambeth women spent about 10 per cent of their income on burial insurance.[8]

Some workhouses proved uncooperative in their dealings with anatomists. For instance, worried that "the whole parish would be up in arms", in 1832 the master of Whitechapel workhouse ignored the anatomists. In an attempt to circumvent such views, James Somerville, Inspector for Anatomy for England and Wales, invited the Boards of Guardians of the "principal parishes in London" to send delegates to the Home Office. Ruth Richardson suggests that the resulting 1833 "ample supply [of cadavers], at an expense so reasonable" was in part due to Somerville's promises of secrecy and general public ignorance of the scheme, but also "name-dropping, influence, and manipulation of power which was quite frequently based on bluff."[9] Somerville hoped not only to claim parish corpses for anatomy, but to create a mechanism whereby a fair system of distribution could be created. His tactics failed in some London parishes, including Spitalfields. There, the Reverend Gregory kept a register which recorded the wishes of workhouse inmates, who evidently chose to be buried.[10]

Quotes lifted[edit]

"None the less, mortality in the workhouses was so high that William Farr estimated in 1837 that cholera mortality was probably raised 50 per cent 'by confinement within their walls'49 and in 1841 Wakley was to call them, with barely controlled anger, 'ANTE-CHAMBERS OF THE GRAVE'.50 Mortality is amenable to statistical analysis of the sort Farr was adept at, but no one sought to measure the mental anguish of workhouse inmates or of those who shivered with fear outside. The deliberate creation of the myth of the cruel workhouse should not blind us to the actual cruelty and misery a 50 per cent rise in mortality represents.51"[11]

  1. ^ Richardson 1987, pp. 272–274
  2. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 276
  3. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 279
  4. ^ Richardson 1987, pp. 279–280
  5. ^ Sockett, H (March 1829), Letter, Morning Herald 
  6. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 221
  7. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 222
  8. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 280
  9. ^ Richardson 1987, pp. 240–241
  10. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 241
  11. ^ Richardson 1987, p. 270