Regional Patterns of Poor Relief in Britain, Ireland and Germany

Regional Patterns of Poor Relief in Britain, Ireland and Germany

University of Trier, SFB 600: ‘Armut und Fremdheit. Wandel von Inklusions- und Exklusionsformen von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart / Strangers and poor people: changing patterns of inclusion and exclusion from classical antiquity to the present day’; Department of History at Oxford Brookes University
Vom - Bis
25.11.2005 - 27.11.2005
Christiane Swinbank, School of History, The University of Reading

The conference on 'Regional Patterns of Poor Relief in Britain, Ireland and Germany' (Trier, 25th -27th November 2005) was the third conference organised jointly by two research groups, the SFB 600 ('Armut und Fremdheit. Wandel von Inklusions- und Exklusionsformen von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart / Strangers and poor people: changing patterns of inclusion and exclusion from classical antiquity to the present day', involved here: groups B3, 4 and 5) at the University of Trier and the Department of History at Oxford Brookes University.

After focusing on the experience of the poor, the change from traditional to modern welfare, the functions of the workhouse and the image of the poor in 2003 and exploring the role of ill health and medical care in poverty and poor relief in 2004, this year's conference tested new methodologies for comparative studies in European welfare history by choosing regions as the unit of comparison and analysis.

In his book Poverty and Welfare in England, 1750-1850: A Regional Perspective, published in 2000, Steven King (Oxford Brookes) put forward the concept of 'regionality' in welfare, developed by sampling local parish records across England. King identified a clear distinction in 'welfare cultures' between two broad regions, the north and west versus the rural south and east of England. A harsh regime in the north and west which extracted maximum self-reliance from the poor contrasted with a regime in the south and west that accepted a wider, more benevolent role for the communal welfare system. Within these macro-regions King detected 'complex and often contradictory intra- and inter-county differences in the role and character of both the old and new poor laws' (p. 260) which raised the question of the existence of sub-regional patterns. King's hypothetical proposal in the book of eight distinguishable sub-regions within the English welfare system underlies his central claim that 'complex local diversity can yield wider patterns of welfare experience' (p. 266).

The conference was designed to explore the transferability of the 'regionality' concept to regions across Europe, in particular to those considered to be on the periphery, and to extend the time period under study beyond 1850. The conference sought to answer two questions, firstly, whether in the long term welfare practice owed more to path-dependency or to new developments connected with the ruptures of industrialisation and urbanisation, and secondly, whether a change in the unit of analysis from a national to a regional level could be fruitful and offer fresh perspectives on welfare history. In taking comparative work to the regional level, including rural and urban areas as diverse as the wine-growing areas in the Prussian Rhine Province, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, County Donegal in Ireland and a selection of British and German towns, the conference broke new ground. The conference also operated a slightly unusual format. Papers were pre-circulated, but not presented at the conference. Each session started with a substantial comment followed by short replies by the authors of the papers, while the bulk of the time was given over to plenary discussions. This format was highly successful in stimulating wide-ranging and vigorous exchanges of ideas which were developed collectively throughout the conference.

The conference was opened by Beatrix Bouvier of the Friedrich -Ebert-Stiftung / Karl Marx Haus, which provided a very pleasant environment for this conference, and by Andreas Gestrich, University of Trier. In his opening lecture Steven King developed the 'regionality' concept in the light of work done since 2000, embedded his work in current welfare historiography, outlined the main points where he differs from others in the field and moved further towards an explanation of the spatial differences observed. Whereas his tentative sub-regions in 2000 still had some links to socio-economic and cultural characteristics he now proposed to concentrate on welfare outcomes and the 'ingrained sentiments' of both the poor and the administrators of poor relief that underpinned these outcomes. He suggested a list of eight criteria that could be used to classify local poor law regimes: who controlled relief, the ratio between indoor and outdoor relief, the extent of inspection and surveillance, how predictable the system was for the poor, how much stigma was involved, the adequacy of relief granted, the extent of partnership between officials and paupers in addressing the poverty problem, the nature of intent and sentiment. From the application of these criteria to the range of existing micro-studies of English poor relief systems King develops a model of four types of English welfare regimes: an 'entitlement regime' which recognised a right of the poor to make claims on the community and granted substantial and regular relief, an 'exclusion regime' which questioned the right of each applicant to make claims in order to keep the burden for the rate-payer down, an 'obligatory regime' that bound paupers and community in a system of mutual obligations and strove to meet the needs of the deserving poor in an individualised fashion, and lastly, a 'disciplinary regime' which aimed at wholesale deterrence and a change in attitude of the poor towards self-reliance. Furthermore, and this is the crucial point in King's argument, these regimes have a spatial dimension and can be mapped. Similar work done in Swedish welfare history has convinced King that England is not unique in this and that his model can be used to approach cross-European experiences of poverty and poor relief in a new way. The initial discussion raised some of the reservations participants had which would be discussed throughout the conference. While talking about 'regimes' seemed generally unproblematic, 'regions' met with a more mixed response. The definition of regions by welfare outcome alone was a particularly sticky point, seen as in danger of ignoring socio-economic and demographic context. Participants also stressed the importance of local actors and queried the long-term stability of regimes.

The first session dealt with regional differences in welfare systems in Britain and Europe during the Ancien Régime / before the New Poor Law. Sebastian Schmidt (Trier) discussed the denominational character of poor relief in the ecclesiastical electoral states of Mainz, Cologne and Trier. Although these Catholic areas were no different from Protestant areas on a semantic and normative level, on an institutional and practical level significant differences existed. Catholic states found it difficult to establish centralised systems, and monasteries and hospital foundations continued to exist alongside state welfare institutions dispensing alms to pilgrims and other excluded groups according to their own criteria. Although there was much misuse of funds and an emphasis on the spiritual needs of the giver rather than the material needs of the poor, the church institutions provided much needed and flexible assistance which in some urban areas and along pilgrim routes added substantially to the aid available to the poor. Apart from the influence of religion Schmidt also pointed to the importance of local socio-economic structures and the needs of the local labour market in shaping welfare systems. The two other papers in this section (Steven King/Margaret Hanly, Oxford Brookes, Tying the regions together: out-parish relief under the old poor law and Tim Philippson, Oxford Brookes, Regional patterns of poor relief in England, 1800-1850) contrasted the German Rhine Province with English regions. [Unfortunately, both Hanley and Philippson were prevented from attending the conference, but their papers had been distributed.] King/Hanley looked at the practical mechanics of out-parish relief, a major instrument in coping with migration under both old and new poor law, choosing three Lancashire parishes which tied rural and urban areas together. One outcome of this research was the warning that extremely haphazard recording practices in this large chunk of poor law expenditure (perhaps 20-40 per cent) could possibly account for some of the inter-regional differences observed. Philippson's paper used three series of pauper letters, one each from Essex, Northamptonshire and Lancashire, to show regional differences in the rhetoric of sickness, which he explained with different sentiments of entitlement of paupers generally, different scale and speed of medicalisation of the poor law and regionalised notions of dignity and respectability. In her comment on the three papers in section I Elizabeth Hurren (Oxford Brookes) suggested that even widely varying mixes in the 'mixed economy of welfare' still seemed to arrive at very similar welfare outcomes. Systems as diverse as voluntary monastery or foundation-based relief in the Rhine Province and obligatory municipal relief in England's northwest dispensed far less than they were capable of (Michèle Gordon's paper showed the same for Scotland) and much assistance was given - but also received - for its symbolic rather than its material value. In the discussion the role of the mixed economy of welfare was further pursued: was regionality an expression of how well an area was provided with charitable resources? And was this an argument for a 'German exceptionalism' which made generalizations above the local level impossible?

Section II: 'Regional Patterns of Poor Relief in the Prussian Rhine-Province: Questioning the 1885 Statistics' was a collaborative effort by Beate Althammer, Peter Hintzen, Martin Krieger, Katrin Marx and Tamara Stazic-Wendt (all Trier) to reconstruct this census of the poor, the Statistik der öffentlichen Armenpflege im Jahre 1885, on a local level and for different types of communities (urban, rural, rapidly industrialising) in order to explain the regional differences apparent in the statistics and made visible in an accompanying map which showed a veritable patchwork of light and dark, but one with a recognisable pattern that was clearly linked to varying degrees of urbanisation and industrialisation - yet not exclusively so. The results were felt to be disappointing: reliability and accuracy of the statistics themselves were sometimes problematic and the statistics were of very limited value for a discussion of welfare regimes going beyond an administrative perspective. Although notionally starting with welfare outcomes as suggested in the Oxford Brookes approach, all the papers stressed socio-economic variables to the extent of making these their organising concept (see the typology of communities compared). Krieger/Marx in their paper on rural villages perhaps came closest to accepting other defining factors when they found that communities with similar socio-economic structures still exhibited remarkable differences in outcomes and then included 'general lifestyle' and 'different traditions of poor relief' in their list of possible influences. Yet they were still unable to find 'welfare regions' in the sense of 'larger contiguous areas with uniform implementation of poor relief' and were left with a variety of local support traditions shaped by local conditions and attitudes. Furthermore, they offered some evidence that the 'regionality' visible on the 1885 map is merely a result of aggregating local statistics on a district level and thus illusory. The comment by Ewald Frie (Essen) returned to the role of the voluntary sector and the question of conflict and cooperation between the sectors. He drew attention to the renewed interest in and intensified use of the Elberfeld system in the 1880s (a development that is perhaps not recognised enough in British historiography). He also asked whether the failure to find regional patterns in rural areas might have something to do with our 'urban gaze' on rural societies and suggests looking to early modern studies of village society to further our understanding. Hintzen's study of a single case file of an applicant for poor relief illuminating the negotiating and decision-making process was seen as a more promising route into the heart of 'welfare cultures' and 'sentiments' than the statistics could offer. The discussion also pointed to the failure of the 1885 map to make an impact: German contemporary discussions showed no consciousness of regionality in welfare.

Sections III (Scotland) and V (Ireland) moved the focus of the discussion to the 'Celtic fringe'. Particularities of the Scottish system included the refusal of relief to the able-bodied, the continuation of voluntary contributions instead of or in addition to rate assessments, and regular and significant central government subsidies to local funds. Michèle Gordon (Trier) took administrative boundaries as her definition of 'regions' and based her discussion of Scottish poor relief on the counties of Caithness and Wigtownshire, plus three Glasgow parishes. Her paper aimed to start with regional similarities (demographic, socio-economic, and geographic) and compare outcomes in the context of these similarities. Open questions included why, despite the existence of - largely empty - poorhouses, the rural system was predominantly one of outdoor relief while Glasgow made as much use of its poorhouses as possible and admitted about a quarter of its paupers, and how gender and age differences in rural and urban parishes can be explained. Jens Gründler (Trier) concentrated on medical relief in the same rural counties and found variations within counties as well as parallels across counties, but no indication of 'specific regions of medical relief'. The thinly populated Highlands and Islands lacked access to medical care almost completely as late as the early 1900s due to their remoteness and topography. John Stewart (Oxford Brookes), comparing Glasgow and Edinburgh, stressed the relative strength of local authorities and the weakness of the central poor law authority in Scotland which resulted in high degrees of local autonomy and idiosyncrasy. Some of this localism can be seen in the way that the normative 'harshness' of the Scottish poor law was circumvented by reclassifying unemployed applicants as 'sick', the only passport to relief for the able-bodied. Differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh poor law practices were linked to the much higher incidence of structural poverty and of Irish migrant poverty in Glasgow. The Edinburgh poor law administration, much less crisis-driven than that of Glasgow, could afford a systematic and purposeful policy which included reforms and experimentation that were instigated partly by a higher than usual representation of women on Edinburgh's boards. The Scottish poor law system appears less unique in its welfare outcomes (but not in the routes it took to get there) than is commonly assumed. Andrew Blaikie (University of Aberdeen) commented from a sociological perspective. He supported the use of 'meso-level' studies as an important tool in bringing together micro-level studies of local communities and the macro level of the state. The discussion of differences between the Scottish, English and German systems raised the question whether England was a special case because of the longevity of its social structures.

Ina Scherder (Trier) added an overview of the welfare landscape available to the Irish poor in County Galway in her paper 'Differences between urban and rural welfare provisions in county Galway in the 19th century'. Ireland, which had relied entirely on the voluntary sector before 1838 for its day-to-day relief activities (but supported by government grants in times of crisis), showed a continuing and even increasing involvement of religious institutions in poor relief after the introduction of the poor law, but also an extension of the authority of the poor law guardians after the famine, assisted to some extent by an overlap in personnel between charities and poor law officials. Mel Cousins (Oxford Brookes) focused on a specific divergence of the Irish experience from that of the rest of Britain. In his paper 'The rise in outdoor relief in Ireland after 1860' Cousins showed how Ireland, which in 1859 followed a 'harsh' policy of refusing outdoor relief to able-bodied persons, experienced subsequently a rise in outdoor relief that ran counter to the English 'crusade against outdoor relief' of the 1870s and 1880s (see Hurren/Balmer paper below).The observed regional variations can be partly explained by the relative wealth of a union (western and northern unions were too poor to add outdoor relief to their range of provisions), by ideological opposition (northern unions) and by labour market requirements (unions with high numbers of farm workers: Leinster and north Munster). In her comment Virginia Crossman (Oxford Brookes) returned to the importance of medical relief and the interplay of the 'mixed economy of welfare'. The rise in outdoor relief took place despite a tighter supervision of Irish local boards by the central authorities and, surprisingly, almost 'unnoticed', that is in the absence of any public debate. The discussion also stressed the dynamism of the Irish situation, the general lack of research to date and the close link between politics and welfare in the Irish case.

Sandwiched in between the 'Celtic fringe' sections was section IV: 'Regional Patterns of Poor Relief in 19th and 20th century-England'. The paper by Steven King, John Stewart and Richard Biddle (Welfare in the borderlands: the new poor law in Lancashire, Shropshire and the Welsh borders) brought in the last part of the 'Celtic fringe' via the proposal of a cross-border welfare region that embraced unions in the Welsh borders and north-west England. In terms of outcome this region concentrated on children, the old and above all the sick, while the able-bodied -although not excluded like in Scotland- 'got no more than a nod towards subsistence' as a minor contribution to their 'economy of makeshifts'. The region also shared resistance to the new poor law as a southern or, in the case of Wales, a 'Saxon' device. The English north-west macro region is identified as part of a general 'peripheral' type.
Steven King and Alison Stringer's paper on 'Paupers and medical welfare in Northamptonshire 1750-1850' offered further support for the feasibility of constructing a typology of relief policies with a spatial basis and related these 'ideal-types' to topography and socio-economic characteristics. Elizabeth Hurren and Bruce Balmer looked at regional patterns in the crusade against outdoor relief and discovered not 'one crusade … but many crusaders … and crusading techniques'. Crusading is seen as a 'distinctive retrenchment pattern', a cost-cutting ethos that was much more wide-spread than previously thought and that was particularly evident in those regions that traditionally offered only minimal relief, although, again, there was great local variability in the range of crusading techniques being taken up and the enthusiasm with which they were pursued. In his comment Peter King (Open University) drew attention to the close link between policing and welfare, the need to integrate the treatment of life-cycle stages into the analysis, and the difficulties of defining regions - as seen in the variety of 'regions' from parish to nation offered in the course of the conference. He asked about the relationship between economic structures and 'regimes' and summed up the centre-periphery question as 'there is no decent welfare in the wild west'. He preferred a model that viewed welfare practice as a cluster of welfare decisions which were influenced by too many factors to allow for classification into types or regimes.

In the concluding session on day 3 of the conference Inga Brandes (Trier) expressed continuing scepticism about the concept of 'regionality' in welfare. She reviewed the contrasting approach of the SFB 600 of direct cross-European microhistorical comparisons of localities chosen for their structural and cultural similarities. For Brandes, constructing types rather than regions seemed to be the way forward. Though conceding that 'regions' seemed to make sense in the English case, differences in the historiographical tradition and the availability of sources made the transfer of the concept difficult for Germany - regardless of the theoretical difficulties. The discussion noted further differences in the consciousness of regionality (very small local areas with a strong identity in the German case) and the nature of the central state and its relationship with the localities. Attention was drawn to the importance of local leeway and its link to the characteristics of the local administrative personnel. The 1890s were seen as an important period of change across European welfare policies. In summing up Lutz Raphael (Trier) stressed again the differences between the British and the German cases and pointed to the role of church and religion, the state and its bureaucracy, welfare patterns, and available source material as the main areas of differences. A variety of approaches to 'regionality' had been employed: a holistic one that focused on 'sentiment' or 'habit', a statistical one that looked at a mix of variables, an individualistic one directed at categories of cases, a dynamic one concentrating on processes, and a typological one that used a combination of features fixed in a locality (King's four types). 'Habitus', although all important on the local level, was the endpoint and not the beginning. Steven King questioned the importance of the differences identified by observing that similar structures could produce quite different outcomes and defended the importance of 'sentiments' by pointing to their long term stability. Peter King suggested a research 'journey' which should start with the economic structure, then turn to the decision makers and their interests, followed by an examination of local sentiment before arriving at the central level.

Although some participants continued to have reservations about the spatial aspect of King's 'regions' and preferred to use 'regimes' or 'tendencies', it was generally accepted that further research using the concept of 'regionality' would be both feasible and valuable as an experiment that would help to progress European comparison in welfare history. Specific suggestions for further research included the incorporation of London into the argument, an examination of the Northern Ruhr as the location of the 'real boom towns', and the need to look at the 'mixed economy of welfare' holistically rather than studying public relief in isolation. Because German research currently is at a much earlier stage and more restricted in its methodological approaches one could imagine that once a range of micro-studies comparable to that existing for England is available, that the German researchers will also feel a more pressing need to make sense of the vast variability of local studies by making attempts at classification and the construction of typologies, of which 'regionality' is certainly one that deserves attention.