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Society, Politics & Law

Family, kinship and the Poor Law

Updated Wednesday, 13th June 2012

What counts as family? Where does kinship begin and end? Dr Megan Doolittle explores these questions in the context of the Poor Law

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Workhouse Memorial Creative commons image Icon Albert Bridge under CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The 'First Day at the Workhouse' memorial in Banbridge. The Irish Poor Law was closely modelled on the English Poor Law. Tracing a family tree – that apparently fixed list of ancestors reaching back through generations of connectedness – has become a popular leisure pursuit, just as social scientists are increasingly challenging the idea that ‘family’ is something that can be easily fixed and labelled. In most people’s lives, ‘family’, however understood, holds an important place, whether deeply integrated into their everyday life, or on the periphery, or even resisted or rejected. The experiences of family in Britain today encompass a fascinating diversity of relationships, and historians have established that in the past, fluidity and flexibility also characterised the close ties of blood, intimacy and contract that connected people to each other. Yet the notion of family as an enduring structure with relatively fixed obligations has been at the core of many of our current and historical legal and policy practices, and these have in turn shaped the ways families are lived.

We can see these processes at work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century English Poor Law which determined that all families must strive to support themselves. Underpinning this assumption was the ancient and universal common law duty to provide for family members, which by the nineteenth century was defined as one’s spouse, children and parents. But the state also had an obligation, established in Elizabethan times, to provide for the poor – widely understood to be a right to subsistence from the local parish (later Poor Law Union).  However, this was not seen as an individualised right to maintenance, but a last-ditch provision for those left alone and utterly destitute, with no family able to provide shelter and subsistence. 

The Poor Law shamed and punished the poor by intervening in their family lives: destitute families were broken up, with husbands, wives and children separately incarcerated in the workhouse. Any other family members such as adult children or aged parents who could be traced were forced to pay for their keep, and fathers who deserted their wives and children were criminalised.

The fluidity of the family lives of the poor, exposed in such publicly humiliating interventions, sat uncomfortably with the dominant family paradigm adopted by most middle and upper-class welfare providers and policy makers – and which was also widely embraced by the ‘respectable’ working class. This was based on fairly rigid hierarchical divisions between the father and husband as breadwinner, the mother and wife who managed household resources and the children who respected and quietly obeyed their parents. This model was predicated on a notion of masculinity that relied on marriage and children to indicate a man’s entry into a recognised adult masculine identity.

However, in the majority of working-class families and even some in the middle classes, breadwinning was rarely the sole province of the man of the family.  Highly variable and changing labour markets, particularly for women and young people, meant that earnings from other family members could be the norm, notably in textile-producing areas. Where there was limited waged work for young people and married women, less visible occupations supplemented family incomes, such as laundry work and taking in lodgers. With the expansion of light industry and the feminisation of clerical work, the earning capacity of young women expanded beyond domestic service. For young men, there were growing concerns about the increase in casual work which did not lead to an apprenticed trade or longer-term employment prospects and which, as with young women, freed them from the authority of a master. In such cases, younger adults were able to help support their parents and younger siblings, but this independent earning power could also undermine the father’s position of authority in the family. While men’s earnings were significantly higher than women’s and young people’s, and those in regular skilled employment might be able to ‘keep’ a wife and children, for many men this was difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain over the whole life course.

In addition to these deviations from the sole breadwinner model, many families, and particularly the poor, experienced instability due to disability and death. Michael Anderson estimated that in 1891, by the age of 25, 26 per cent of children had lost their father and 22 per cent had lost their mother, with 6 per cent losing both. Loss of a parent brought with it potential hardship and weaker protection from the vicissitudes of life for any child. Dislocations of kinship networks as people moved to find work or escape debts were also among the perils more likely to be faced by the poor. Separations between spouses, casual or bigamous relationships, and illegitimate children were also not unusual among those who were unable (or unwilling) to conform to ‘respectable’ standards.

The Poor Law authorities stepped into these shifting sands to regulate family obligations and minimise public spending on the poor. Fixed ideas about families, with rigid, hierarchical kinship relations and responsibilities, may have dominated welfare practices, and therefore also shaped the experiences of those who were in need. But the economic and social realities of life for those at the sharp end meant that ‘family’ rarely coincided with such ideas. 

Thus a family ‘tree’ may appear to show a unified whole, with an ancestry and a present linked by fixed and labelled genetic or marriage connections. However, for most people, there will be missing branches and concealed roots as their predecessors shaped their families lives around the contingencies of everyday struggles to survive and prosper, to avoid social shame and present a respectable front. What counts as family? Where does kinship begin and end? Both present-day and historical experiences show that we should expect that answers to these questions will be complicated. 

Further reading

Doolittle, M. ‘The Duty to Provide: Fathers, Families and the Workhouse in England 1880-1914’, in At the Margins of the Welfare State: Changing Patterns of Including and Excluding the »Deviant« Poor in Europe 1870-1933, eds: Althammer, B., Gestrich, A. and Gründler, J., Palgrave MacMillan, forthcoming 2012.

Ribbens McCarthy, J., Doolittle, M. and Sclater, S. D., Understanding Family Meanings: A Reflective Text, Policy Press, forthcoming 2012.

Doolittle, M. (2011) ‘Time, Space and Memories: The father’s chair and grandfather clocks in Victorian working-class domestic lives’, in Home Cultures, Vol. 8.

Doolittle, M (2009) ‘Fatherhood and Family Shame: Masculinity, Welfare and the Workhouse in Late Nineteenth Century England’, in The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain since 1800, eds Lucy Delap, Ben Griffin and Abigail Willis, Palgrave MacMillan.

Doolittle, M., Davidoff, L., Fink, J. and Holden, K. (1999) The Family Story: Blood, Contract and Intimacy in Modern England, 1840–1960, Addison Wesley, Longman.




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