We came across one noteworthy case which illustrates several aspects of the operation of the Board of Supervision and the workings (or, in this case, failings) of the poor relief system. The case first appears with no mention of the name of the poor man:
Thursday 30th November 1871
Urquhart (Inverness) – A letter from Dr John Fergusson, dated 27th November, requesting the Board to investigate death of a pauper alleged to have been wrongously removed to the Poorhouse was submitted. The Board directed the Secretary to transmit a copy of Dr Fergusson’s letter to the Procurator Fiscal, and to enquire where he is to make an investigation, as in that even the Board will suspend their action until the Crown Officers have either taken proceedings or have resolved not to do so.
Thursday, 11th January 1872
Urquhart (Inverness) – The letter of Dr John Fergusson, dated 27th November, respecting the case of Alexander McDonald, alleged to have been wrongously removed to Inverness Poorhouse, which caused his death shortly after his admission to the Poorhouse, which was before the Board on 30th November, and letters from the Governor of Inverness Poorhouse, dated 30th November, Mr Charles Stewart, Procurator Fiscal at Inverness, dated 2d December, Mr G Ellice, dated 4th December, Mr Charles Morton, Crown Agent, dated 27th December, and Inspector of Urquhart, dated 4th January 1872, thereanent, were submitted and directed to be circulated among the Legal Members.
Wednesday, 7th February 1872
Urquhart (Inverness) – The documents which were before the Board on 11th January, respecting the case of Alexander Macdonald, whose death is alleged to have been caused by his removal to Inverness Poorhouse, the same having been circulated among the Legal Members, were again submitted, and remitted to the Chairman to draft a Minute.
Thursday, 15th February 1872
Urquhart (Inverness). The documents respecting the case of Alexander McDonald, whose death is alleged to have been caused by his removal to Inverness Poorhouse, which were before the Board at last meeting, were again submitted (together with a Draft Minute by the Chairman). The Board approved the Draft Minute, which is as follows:
The Board have carefully perused the Precognition taken by the Procurator-Fiscal of Inverness-shire regarding the death of Alexander Macdonell or Macdonald, which was transmitted to them by direction of Crown Counsel for their consideration, and in order that they might take such steps as they might think proper. The Board regret to find that the conduct of the Parochial authorities in this case has been most unsatisfactory, and far from creditable to themselves.
It appears that Macdonell was a pauper belonging to Urquhart who resided with his sister in the Parish of Kilmonivaig. He was about 75 or 76 years of age, very frail in body, having been for a considerable time troubled with a severe chronic cough, and much confined to the house and bed, and almost am imbecile in mind. The Parochial Board of Urquhart, being dissatisfied with the amount of outdoor relief which the pauper was receiving, ordered his removal to his own Parish and subsequently to the Poorhouse at Inverness. The Medical Officer of Kilmonivaig certified, of date 15th June 1871, that the pauper was “in an unfit state to be removed”, and of date 24th August 1871, that he was “not in a fit state to be removed to the Poorhouse without serious injury to his health”. Both these certificates were given on soul and conscience. The Parochial Board of Urquhart, nevertheless, resolved to adhere to their previous determination, and on the 2d October 1871 they requested their Chairman and Deputy Chairman to arrange with their Medical Officer and Inspector for the pauper’s immediate removal from Glengarry to the Inverness Poorhouse. Accordingly upon the 17th or 18th of October the Medical Officer of Urquhart visited the pauper at his sister’s house in Glengarry, and granted a certificate, of date 18th October, to the effect that he considered him “a fit case for Hospital or Poorhouse treatment”. This certificate was not given on soul and conscience, and it was also defective in respect it did not bear that the pauper could be removed to Inverness (a distance of upwards of 40 miles) without injury to his health, and did not prescribe (as in such a case it should have done) the mode of conveyance to be used in effecting the removal.
The Inspector of Urquhart proceeded to Glengarry on the 25th of October, and forcibly removed the pauper to Glen Urquhart upon a wet stormy day in an open conveyance, although it appears that at Glengarry the defective character of the certificate upon which the Inspector was about to act was pointed out to him, and it was further suggested to him that the pauper, if removed at all, should be conveyed either in a close carriage or by the steamer.
On the 27th of October, the pauper was forwarded from Glen Urquhart to the Poorhouse at Inverness with the concurrence of the Medical Officer of Urquhart, but again he was conveyed in an open carriage, notwithstanding his delicate state of health and the inclemency of the season.
The unfortunate pauper died in the Poorhouse on the 25th November, but there does not appear to be evidence directly and distinctly connecting the death with the removal, and it is probably on that account that Crown Counsel have directed the Precognition to be transmitted to the Board, instead of ordering proceedings to be taken as a criminal charge. On the other hand, it is obvious that the removal and the manner in which it was executed could not have been beneficial to the health of the pauper, and there is but too much probability that they must have been prejudicial to it.
The Board are of opinion that this was not a case in which the power of removal should have been exercised at all. It was not a case in which the application of a test was requisite, and no reasonable person could suppose that the poor old man’s comfort would be increased by removing him from his sister’s care to a distant Poorhouse. The sole reason for removing the pauper was a difference of opinion between the Parochial authorities of Urquhart and Kilmonivaig as to the proper amount of outdoor allowance, and that question might have been settled by an appeal to this Board. As regards the mere matter of expense, the last month of the pauper’s life (including the cost of removal and the Poorhouse charges) was probably after all more costly to the Parish of Urquhart than any previous month of the pauper’s chargeability. It appears, therefore, to the Board that the Parochial Board of Urquhart acted neither wisely nor humanely in ordering this pauper to be removed to Inverness.
The Board are further of opinion that the Inspector or Urquhart committed a grave error of judgment in removing the pauper upon a manifestly defective certificate, and in a manner obviously improper in the circumstances of the case. The Inspector appears to have had at the time some misgivings as to the propriety of the course he was pursuing, and he seems to have considered that he was bound to carry out the wishes of his Chairman and Deputy Chairman, and that he would not have been justified in incurring the additional expense of a journey in the steamer or a close carriage. It is, therefore, necessary to inform him that even in executing a competent and legal order of the Parochial Board, an Inspector of Poor is responsible for carrying out his instructions in a legal, proper and humane manner. The Board consider the conduct of the Inspector of Urquhart in this case to have been highly culpable, and they hereby censure him for it.
The Board of Supervision had a dual role - providing guidance to the local officers responsible for the operation of the Poor Law, and acting as an appeals body for applicants dissatisfied with the amount of support they received. We are currently indexing the appeals cases considered by the Board from its inception in 1845 to its abolition in 1895, and will be publishing the index in the next few months. Watch this space!