Resisting the workhouse: poor relief in nineteenth-century Cornwall

On 17th February 1837 a riot occurred at Camelford in north Cornwall. There were also reports of disturbances at Stratton, further north. These events were caused by the establishment in that year of Poor Law Unions, following the implementation of the New Poor Law of 1834.

This reform transferred responsibility for poor relief from the local parish vestry to Boards of Guardians elected by ratepayers in groups of parishes (there were 13 in Cornwall). It also included plans to build a centralised workhouse in each union. It was this combination of centralisation and the fear of the workhouse that triggered widespread protests in 1837. Henceforth the intention was that the able-bodied poor would only receive help by entering the workhouse, which was made deliberately grim.

Camelford Workhouse in 1881:
handy for the pub!

Its critics pointed out how the new system was too inflexible to cope with short-term or temporary unemployment. It was little surprise that slate quarriers from Delabole, liable to be laid off in bad weather or during building slumps, were prominent among the rioters at Camelford. In the event, the authorities found it impossible to stick to their principles. Out-relief (cash or kind given to those living in their own homes) continued for some at least of the temporarily unemployed and at Camelford the workhouse wasn’t even built until 1858.

There were further reports of riots over the New Poor Law in the summer of 1837 at St Ives and Perranarworthal in the west. But why did the first and most active opposition arise in north Cornwall in the two smallest (in terms of population) Poor Law Unions?

The answer is simple. Before 1837 these were the districts with the highest per capita poor law expenditure in Cornwall. Poor relief was relatively high because wages for farm labourers were notoriously low. The poor justifiably suspected that the farmers who would now control the boards and paid the rates would not spurn the opportunity to reduce spending.

In fact, there were two contrasting poor relief regimes in Cornwall. In east Cornwall expenditure was close to rates in Devon. Further west expenditure was much lower. There, competition for labour from a growing mining industry into the 1860s kept wage levels up. In addition, there was more access to smallholdings and potato patches. These were in turn bolstered by Methodist teachings about self-reliance and a tradition of resolute independence and community/family support that avoided dependence on poor relief.

The imposing entrance to
Liskeard’s workhouse

The main purpose of the Victorian workhouse was to discipline the able-bodied poor. We now have universal credit which has a similar function.

A disturbance at Camborne in 1874

Camborne in the 1870s, a time of economic depression, could be a rough place. Here’s one incident reported in the West Briton of March 26th, 1874.

A man named Webster, a resident of Crowan, who has not the reputation of being the quietest character in the neighbourhood, and who, on account of certain pugilistic propensities, is known by the nickname of ‘Nipper’, … having got drunk, found his way  … into the kitchen of Abraham’s Hotel, where he became so noisy that, after some trouble, he was turned into the street. He next favoured Mr Arthur of the White Hart Inn; but here he made himself singularly obnoxious, and a second time he found himself ejected … He then commenced kicking with great violence at the door, and made such a disturbance that the attention of the police was called to his conduct.

The police officers – Gill and Sobey … endeavoured to persuade the man to go quietly home and took some pains to induce his friends, who were now collecting around him, to take him away. This was not a very easy thing to do, but eventually two men led him away, and the police took no further notice, although the fellow was swearing all the way going through the street. Gill and Sobey followed slowly in the same direction as Webster was taking … when he suddenly broke away from the two men, turned back and struck Gill a severe blow on the face. The policeman drew his staff, and hitting Webster over the head, knocked him down.

Immediately, there was a cry that the police had killed him and in two or three minutes an immense mob of excited men and boys had collected around the two policemen who were endeavouring to handcuff ‘the Nipper’ … But in this they failed, for Webster was forcibly removed from their grasp, and he went off, carrying with him the handcuffs that were fastened to one of his wrists. The unfortunate policemen were then hustled and jostled through the streets until at last they found themselves within the shop of Mr Eddy, P.C.Sobey taking in with him a man who gave the name of Williams, and who, while in the street, had been beating Sobey about the head with his fist.

Stone throwing was then commenced, but this was soon discontinued and the only damage done was the breaking of a pane of glass over the door of Mr Eddy’s shop. The mob, however, found out that Williams was in custody, and they thenceforth set up a cry for his release. … Fearing that further mischief might probably be done, the police took the advice of Mr Eddy and set their prisoner at liberty, … the two policemen remained in Mr Eddy’s shop until after midnight, eventually leaving by the back door and reaching their homes by a circuitous route.

This took place five months after serious anti-police riots had convulsed Camborne in 1873.