This week we've been looking at a wide range of poor law records in preparation for the launch of a new project (coming soon: watch this space). The records of the Board of Supervision - which among other things was responsible for oversight of the operation of the poor relief system in Scotland following the Poor Law Act of 1845 - make for fascinating reading. There are obvious parallels with modern welfare systems, and the tensions inherent in them.
The Board's Sixth Annual Report, published in 1851, includes a report on the Easter Ross Combination Poorhouse, which had been opened the previous year. Written in a dry, slightly bureaucratic style, it describes the progress of what was the first poorhouse in the Highlands:
The Easter Ross poorhouse was erected by nine contiguous parishes. The house was opened on the 1st of October 1850, and the first pauper was admitted on the 11th of that month. I visited the house on Monday and Tuesday, the 4th and 5th of August, and communicated with the inspectors of Tain, Tarbat, Fearn, Logie Easter, Kilmuir Easter, and Rosskeen. Since 11th October 1850 to 5th August, forty-eight paupers had been admitted to the poorhouse, some of them having in the course of that time, left the house, of their own accord, and been again admitted. Five of the forty-eight paupers died at the ages of 70, 50, 71, 20 and 72 years. The immediate causes of the deaths of four were bronchitis, hydrothorax, dysentery, chorea, or St Vitus’s dance. In the fifth case, the cause of death was not entered in the record, the pauper having only very recently died. Three of the forty-eight paupers had been removed elsewhere – one of them to a lunatic asylum – four had left the house of their own accord, and had not applied for re-admission: thus at the date of my visit, there were only thirty-six paupers in the house, leaving accommodation vacant for upwards of 120. The appearance of the inmates was good, and the cleanliness maintained throughout the establishment unexceptionable. The governor appears to be well suited for the office, and keeps all his books with great neatness and regularity. The objectionable points of the management are:
The complaint that inmates are often free to come and go as they please suggests that the reporter, Mr Peterkin, was of the view that paupers should be kept out of sight. Another obvious concern - a common theme today for welfare systems - is the cost. Peterkin continues:
During the first two quarters of the operation of the poorhouse, the parochial board of Rosskeen issued sixty orders for admission to paupers on the roll; of that number, only ten availed themselves of the order – all the others refused to enter the house, and were consequently struck off the roll. Seven of them were, however, subsequently admitted to outdoor relief, but four at smaller allowances than they formerly had. All the others, forty-three, have supported themselves since without parochial assistance. It appears, too, that adding the out-door allowances, which (if there had been no poorhouse), would have been payable to the paupers who took advantage of the orders of admission, to the allowances of the paupers who have supported themselves without parochial relief, for two quarters and a half, a sum would be given equal to £59 19s. whereas, the exxpense of the paupers in the poorhouse, for maintenance and general expenses for three quarters, amounted to only £58 8s 1 1/4d. Thus Rosskeen has afforded relief to their paupers, under a poorhouse system, for three quarters of a year, for a less sum than that which would have been required to give outdoor relief for two quarters and a half, supposing no poorhouse had existed.
This also shows that refusal of a place in the poorhouse could lead to all poor relief payments being withdrawn. The fact that many people chose to do so suggests that the poorhouse was viewed as a last resort by desperate people. The Board of Supervision handled appeals from people claiming the relief offered them was inadequate. Many of these appeals were rejected on the basis that the applicant had been offered a place in the poorhouse.
Peterkin's closing remarks also have contemporary counterparts, in the notion that those on benefits have it easy compared to the working population:
Another subject was frequently touched upon by those with whom I conversed on the matter of poorhouses, namely the diet of the inmates – in regard to which, a rather general misapprehension seems to prevail, many conceiving that the diet in a poorhouse would be of such a superior description to that of the people of the country where the poorhouse would be situated that a desire would be created among the paupers of participating in it, although they might have serious objections to the confinement and discipline of the poorhouse itself. Should poorhouses ever spring up in the Western Highlands, the dietary of the Easter Ross house, which is appended, might be adopted by them, except perhaps barley-broth and pea soup, neither of which, so far as I know, are articles of food in general use among the people of the Western Highlands and Islands. Potatoes, herring, oatmeal, and mil would seem to be the requisites of a diet-table for a poorhouse there.
So what was the menu provided for inmates of the Easter Ross Poorhouse? Residents were grouped into three classes: aged and infirm; adults; and children.
Class 1: Aged and infirm persons
Class 2: Adult persons
Class 3: Children
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