Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 24 - The Relieving Office

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THE relieving office stands as the dreary toll-house that marks the entry to the last stage upon the downward journey of poverty. From this point the road of life lies through the gloomy regions of pauperdom. It may end in the workhouse, or it may be in that "pauper's drive," in connection with which the poor are given to make small but bitter jests turning upon the point of paupers being in their carriage.
    To the poor and those working among them the relieving office is a highly important institution, and it seems to me that, having regard to the nature of the public duties discharged through its agency, some account of its work will not be without interest even for the general reader.
    The office of my district is a new one, and is very completely fitted up after its fashion. It is plainly and stoutly built, with its gates and doors noticeably strong, and furnished on the inside with sliding reconnoitring gratings. It presents rather a fortress-like appearance, and the situation strengthens this impression. The structure has, so to speak, been dropped down into the very heart of a network of narrow streets and alleys, by two of the narrowest of which it can alone be approached. It is strong, [-346-]  could be easily defended, and would be hard to operate against, for in its gorge-like approaches "a thousand might well be stopped by three." To the uninitiated this may seem a curious rather than a practical point, but it is of material importance nevertheless. In specially hard times, such times as, by driving the less patient of the honest poor to desperation and affording the more ruffianly of the no-visible-means-of-support classes an excuse for violence, lead to bread riots - in such times as these the relieving office is always in danger of attack. Nor is this danger one that affects property only. Bread or blood is the war-cry of the rioters on these occasions; but there are generally those amongst them whose desire is for bread and blood, and rather more for blood than bread. It is one of the functions of the relieving officer to thwart the designs of idle and habitual charity-hunters when they attempt to prey upon the forms of charitable relief by law provided. For this he is held in hatred by them, and a bread riot, in which members of this class are always lending performers, is looked upon as an excellent opportunity for executing vengeance.
    The interior of the office is a large, lofty-roofed oblong, with boarded floors, white-washed walls, and abundance of window light and ventilation. It is divided into two unequal compartments by a passage running across its width. The larger compartment is the general waiting-room, where applicants wait their turn, and those on the books for outdoor relief assemble each Friday to receive their weekly doles. It has a large fireplace, and is liberally furnished with seats in the shape of long forms. Its floor is at all times kept well scrubbed, and in periods [-347-] of epidemic diseases, which are very frequent in the neighbourhood, is plentifully bestrewn with disinfectants.
    In one corner of it stands a weighing-machine, used for verifying quantities of goods delivered. In another corner are piled up sundry little lots of furniture and bedding belonging to aged couples or "lone lorn" women, who, though at present in the workhouse or its infirmary, have hopes of coming out again and once more having a home of their own. The smaller compartment is the office proper, the place wherein the routine work of the practical administration of the Poor Laws is carried on. It is a good-sized office, and occasionally serves as a boardroom for the guardians, though their regular board-room is at the workhouse, a mile and a half away.
    In the centre of the apartment is a large double desk, at one side of which works the relieving officer, and at the other his assistant. One wall of the office is entirely occupied from floor to ceiling by a range of bread-shelves, on which are stored the hundreds of loaves distributed each week as part of the outdoor relief. Opposite the bread-shelves are the capacious drawers in which are stored the made-up packages of tea, sugar, sage, oatmeal, and the other like light "nourishments" of the non-perishable kinds, which are served out direct from the office, instead of by orders on tradesmen, as is the case with meat and milk. Under the windows opening into the passage which separates the office from the waiting-room are counters supplied with a number of good-sized money-tills, and the windows are also counter-ledged, for it is through these windows that relief, whether in money or kind, or both, is [-348-] paid out. A specially constructed case holds the numerous books and forms required in the business of the office.
    But the thing that would be most likely to attract the first notice of a stranger visiting the office is the strait waistcoat hanging from the wall. The conveyance of pauper lunatics to the asylums to which they are assigned is one of the duties of the relieving officer, and hence the presence of the strait-waistcoat as part of the equipment of his office. It is made of canvas, and fastened with stout tapes; and is a much more humane contrivance than was the horse-harness-like arrangement of padded straps and iron buckles which formerly did duty as a strait-waistcoat.
    A notice board on the outer wall of the office announces to all whom it may concern that the hours during which application can be made are from nine to one, and three to six ; and to this is added an intimation to the effect that on no account are children to be sent to the office. This latter is a wise and salutary regulation. The relieving office is the Rubicon between independence and pauperisation. The self-respecting poor will make the bitterest struggles to avoid crossing it, but those who do once cross it rarely fail to cross it more than once, even if they do not remain permanently on the pauper side. The atmosphere of the relieving office seems to have a morally enervating effect. It is highly desirable, alike in the interests of the children and of society at large, that the offspring of those receiving public relief should be kept clear of the relieving office. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the pauper question is that so many of the pauper class are bred and born in it.
    [-349-] Though, having regard to its nature, the work of the relieving office is always painfully large, it is not a fixed quantity. The law of its fluctuation is that of an inverse proportion to the fluctuations of work generally, its busiest periods being those of unusual trade depression. Large numbers of the working-classes are constantly upon the verge of pauperdom, and any lengthened "spell" of dull trade is certain to bring a considerable percentage of them "upon the parish" in some phase, for the forms of relief are many.
    The first daily proceeding of the relieving officer is to get out his pile of order books - orders for medical attendance, a separate one for each of the several doctors who divide the district between them; orders for milk, for wine, for brandy; orders for meat alone, and combination orders for bread, meat, tea and sugar; orders for admission to the workhouse and to the workhouse infirmary; orders for the fever or small-pox ambulance, and orders for the cabs for the removal of cases of non-contagious diseases; labour orders for the stone-yard; and orders for a variety of other things, including the last orders that will ever be required on behalf of those for whom they are made - orders for coffins and funerals.
    As soon as the doors are open applicants begin to arrive at the office. The first-comers - among the habitués, at any rate - are those seeking orders for medical attendance for themselves or friends. This class of order is only issued between the hours of nine and ten, not with any view to limiting the output, so to speak, but because the doctors must be informed in time of the cases they are called upon to visit. In cases that are represented [-350-] as urgent, however, the regulations as to medical orders are relaxed. In ordinary cases the orders are given almost without question, no relieving officer caring to risk the consequences that might arise from any delay in giving, or from a refusal to give, an order. The position on this point is quite understood by the regular pauper classes, and they, as a body, make the most of it. They freely call in medical attendance where the struggling but unpauperised poor would "doctor themselves," or be entitled to the assistance of the provident dispensary, or some other form of sick benefit society. One chief reason for the run upon medical orders is the hope that they may lead to nourishment orders - a hope that is often enough realised, as at all times a large percentage of the very poor are unmistakably underfed and "low," even when not suffering from any specific disease.
    After the first hours the more miscellaneous applications begin to come in. Most of them are to "go before the board" on the ensuing weekly board-day. These are entered in the application book - a bulky volume, with a formidable array of tabulated columns. In many instances the applications are merely for renewal or continuance of relief, the periods for which it had previously been granted having expired. These are entered up offhand ; but in new cases the applicants are pretty closely put to the question, chiefly with the view of ascertaining, firstly, whether they are really in destitute circumstances, and, secondly, whether they have relatives who, if in a position to assist them, are legally bound to do so. If the applicant is a deserted wife the questioning is particularly stringent. Genuine cases of wife desertion are [-351-] of daily occurrence, but cases in which the alleged desertion is a plot between husband and wife are by no means unknown in relieving office experience; and even where there is no suspicion of collusion it is generally found that the women are very reluctant to give any information that may lead to the apprehension of their runaway husbands.
    The bulk of the applicants for regular outdoor relief are widows with two or more children dependent upon them. Women under sixty years of age, and having no child, or only one, under fourteen years of age, are classed as "able-bodied," and are not entitled to outdoor relief. The only form in which they can claim relief is in the shape of an order for the "house." Men under sixty are also accounted able-bodied; but with them there is an alternative to accepting the "house," namely, to accept an order to labour in the parish stone-yard.
    Beside the callers for the various orders, and applicants wishing to be "took down" for the board, all manner of odd and incidental visitors put in an appearance at the relieving office. One woman comes to complain that there is an unfair proportion of bone in the two pounds of beef supplied to her under a meat order; and the beef, which she produces, bearing out her complaint, a letter is at once despatched to the offending butcher. Another comes to ask what she is to do with a nurse child, on whose account she has received no payment for two months past, and whose mother has moved away and gone she knows not where. A third, who has heard that the relieving officer had been taking a case to the county asylum on the previous day, and knows that it is his [-352-]  practice on such occasions to make special inquiries about all inmates of the institution coming from his district, calls to ask for news of her husband, who is a patient there. A fourth woman wishes to know on what day she may be allowed to visit two of her children who are in the district school. And then, by way of variety, comes a man who desires to be officially informed if it is not "the law of England that you can place a drunken wife in the workhouse if you are prepared to pay five shillings per week for her keep."
    Occasionally an indignant ratepayer or a spiteful neighbour turns up at the office to denounce, as an impostor or something worse; some individual who is receiving outdoor relief. But as a rule this kind of denunciation is accomplished by means of anonymous letters. There is probably no other public official who receives so many or such ill-written and ill-composed communications of the anonymous order as the relieving officer. To the relieving office also come, to gain or give information, or compare notes, charity organisation officers, vaccination officers, school-board officers, and others. By working in combination such officers are enabled to do a good deal in the way of checkmating the professional charity hunters, whose weak point generally lies in variation of their story.
    I have here but briefly described the machinery of the relieving office. With how much of misery, how much of suffering, of sorrow, of sin, its working is associated, may I think be easily imagined.