TIMES are hard and money is pitifully scarce. Work’s hard to come by and the slippery slope to poverty is one which few manage to scrabble back up.
A state of affairs that a few today might be familiar with. At least as they log on to one social networking site they can content themselves with the knowledge that, whatever bills drop through their letterbox, they won’t have the horror of visiting the Poor Inspector to beg for help or, worse, the poorhouse to worry about.
Regular updates detailing the dire straits faced by West Lothian families in the late 1800s – from penniless mothers abandoned by wayward husbands to families in ruin because of unemployment – are being posted in just 140-character snapshots on Twitter, bringing to a modern generation an age when austerity meant much more than forgoing the family summer holiday in the sun. Sourced from the records of the West Calder Parish Council’s poor law application records and council minutes, the tweets are in the name of Poor Law inspector Alexander Smith – a real life 19th-century character appointed by the council to distribute financial aid to the area’s needy.
And each one provides a fascinating insight into the desperate hardship faced by a long-gone generation years before the UK’s welfare state was created.
The Twitter account, @poorinspector, was launched by West Lothian Council’s archive service after archivist Emma Peattie and volunteer Stephen Thomas realised the wealth of information held within the records – from desperately sad stories of families plunged into poverty by illness to others of women left to fend for themselves and their children by wayward husbands.
According to Emma, there are also intriguing glimmers of kindness and heartbreaking tales of families split apart.
“When I originally catalogued the reports, I was struck by the tragic stories of people applying for poor relief,” she says. “One in particular that stuck out involved a woman whose husband had deserted her. Every time he deserted her, she had to apply for poor relief.
“Eventually the decision was made that, if she was deserted again, they were not going to give her any relief and she would be sent to the poorhouse.”
Encouraged by the feedback from Twitter followers, the archive department has launched a second account, @ptejack, in which diary excerpts written by local First World War soldier Private Peter Jack as he fought in Gallipoli and Egypt are condensed into 140-character tweets.
According to Emma, the social network site is an ideal way to bring history to life for a modern generation: “This kind of thing has the power to reach so many people and make history real for them,” she adds.
Alexander Smith’s tweets are taken from the Poor Law application registers and the minutes of West Calder Parish Council, dating from the 1890s.
“Alexander Smith didn’t leave a diary behind so there will obviously be some poetic licence involved, but the tweets are firmly based on the entries,” she adds. “These records provide snapshots of the lives of paupers, their family, occupation and financial circumstances and as such are a rich historical source.”
Included in the papers are stories of families driven into poverty by illness or injury, fever, lunacy or bronchitis. Many are widows who list their disability as “children”. Some are awarded tiny sums to tide them over. For others, the only option is the poorhouse in Linlithgow.
Perhaps one of the most harrowing stories is that of the Gordon family. It was mid June, 1897, and Hendry Gordon, a 42-year-old father of six from Harbourn Rows, West Calder, arrived at the Poor Inspector’s office to ask for help. The records show an ankle sprain left him unable to work, plunging him and his wife Margaret, 42, and their children, ranging in age from 12 to just two years old, into poverty.
He received seven shillings per week – the equivalent of £20 today.
But the family’s fortunes did not improve, says Emma. By July the following year, Mr Gordon, whose work as a quarry labourer typically earned him 15 shillings a week, was a widow and suffering from bronchitis. Too ill to attend in person, it was his daughter Catherine who pleaded with the Poor Inspector for help and was awarded six shillings a week.
The family crops up again in the records just two months later, and this time events have deteriorated further. The children are now orphans and the Parish Council decides to pay seven shillings a week until they can eventually be placed in an orphanage in Lanark.
Clearly, there was compassion for their plight, in particular for Catherine, who was later removed from the orphanage by a Mrs Wylde of Clydebank. This lady agreed to maintain her as her own family free of charge. It’s not known whether she ever saw her brothers again.
There are, says Emma, many tales which show the terrible plight of women left without a breadwinner to care for them and their children. Among them, Margaret Mullen, 34, who in 1894 was granted just four shillings a week – £11 in today’s money – to care for her four young children after her husband John, a miner, deserted her for the second time.
One of the most interesting applications was from Galway-born Thomas Kane, 40, who lived with his wife and seven children in Couper’s Close, West Calder, and who asked for help in December 1870 after illness prevented him working. The family received just three shillings a week – around £9 in today’s money.
His start in life may have been one of poverty but for one of Thomas Kane’s children, there would be better fortune to come. John Kane emigrated to America where he became a famous artist whose work was feted by critics and owned by the Rockefellers.
* Follow Alexander Smith at www.twitter.com/poorinspector and Pte Peter Jack at www.twitter.com/ptejack