The Making of the Poor as Biological Subjects in 19th Century England

Thursday 26 October
Room 16, Medecroft, King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester, Hampshire SO22 4NR

​This talk will be given by Dr Carl Griffin (University of Sussex).

The post-Napoleonic (cost) crisis in the old poor law of England and Wales encouraged poor law officials and statutory policy makers to extend systems of measurement to their logical conclusion. Notoriously, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 moved beyond monetary relief to establish precise dietaries for the poor ‘relieved’ in union workhouses, out relief now something only to be given in absolute emergencies and then with permission of the Poor Law Commission. By dictating what the poor ate, as opposed to what they might eat, workhouse dietaries established an absolute biological minimum for bodily survival decided by individual poor law unions within perimeters set by the central state through the Poor Law Commission/Board. As is well known, such dietaries had profound consequences, both in terms of driving popular revulsion of the workhouse and in terms of high profile scandals, the publicising of inmates at the Andover workhouse notoriously gnawing at green bones to supplement their diets leading to the replacement of the Poor Law Commission with the Poor Law Board. While the implications of workhouse dietaries have been subject to careful study, not least through the study of workhouse scandals, this paper takes a broader perspective. It examines the makings of the idea of the dietary, analysing debates and discussion concerning both the physiological and practical science of pauper diet. In so doing, it analyses earlier antecedents as operated by separate parishes and pre-1834 poor law unions, before going on to explore the implementation of workhouse dietaries in the new centrally-controlled but still locally operated system. It shows that this tension between the ideals of Somerset House – the administrative heart of the New Poor Law – and individual Boards of Guardians, who almost invariably were concerned more by economy and the politics of local provisioning, led to constant revisions and the refining of the model. What emerges is a highly uneven system, patterned by varying ideological, practical, economic and political imperatives.​

This is part of the Centre for Medical History. For more information about the centre, click here​​​​​

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