A record a mile long

// 25 February 2009

In this guest post, Rachael Jolley from the Fabian blog Next Left explores the history of the Daily Mail of blaming poor people for being poor, and poor mothers in particular

You might imagine that the Daily Mail suggesting that the country is full of benefit “freeloaders” who are living a life of luxury on benefits is something new. But it isn’t.

Back in the first decade of the 20th century when social reformers such as Beatrice Webb and Maud Pember Reeves were out in the poorer boroughs of London doing research about the living conditions of the poor, the Mail was up to the same tricks as it does today; Filling the heads of its readers with ideas that the poor had caused their own poverty and poor health by deliberately taking their wrong path in life.

While another favourite theme is that life on benefits is and has always been easier and more comfortable than working.

In 1905, the Mail ran an article headlined “The Workhouse De Luxe”, suggesting that workhouse was a palace where residents luxuriated with music, drama, hot and cold baths, while wearing tweed suits.

They called it the “Poor Law Elysium” and suggested it was a restful haven from the real world, where others toiled to keep themselves alive.

On another page, it ran a story about how a boy loved his life at the workhouse so much he walked twenty miles to return to it, rather than go back to living with his family.

In a scene which sounds like it might have been plucked straight out a novel, the Mail story records a conversation between the Workhouse Master, the Workhouse Chairman and the 12-year-old boy.

“The Chairman; ‘Have you not sufficient food at home, my boy?’” Answers Jim (the boy); “Yes , but I like the workhouse food better. Please sir, let me come back.”

This relentless theme is pursued in another article of 1909, where a Mail article which argues: “We are only now beginning to cause of this infant mortality is the lack of proper care and nourishment – the mother is the key of the situation.”

It adds: “Over 100,000 babies doomed every year through the ignorance of their mothers; are these mothers whom the State has hitherto neglected to educate, entirely to blame?”

But when Pember Reeves carried out her research on poverty in Lambeth, published in 1912, she found that it was not that mothers didn’t understand their children would be healthier if they were fed milk, rather than water, but they were unable to afford the milk. And families on tiny budgets were doing a sort of Russian roulette when deciding whether to live in a smaller home with better light and cleaner air for a higher rent, or save money by living in a basement flat with poor air and light, leaving them more money for food.

Those children who lived in a home on an upper floor invariably had better health results, Pember Reeves and her Fabian women found during their researches, later published as Family Life on a Pound A Week.

Meanwhile, refer to Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report on the Poor Law to discover the appalling conditions that poor women were living under at the time. Women, of course, were hardly acknowledged as separate beings at the time, acknowledgement of their existence came via their status as married, unmarried or widowed.

Unmarried women with children were not allowed any kind of benefits outside the workhouse – the sort of harshness of which Mail readers would approve. And once in workhouses women were separated from their children within nine months.

Webb was one of the first to identify the need for women to be treated as individuals, instead of merely as appendages to their husbands, and to argue for a welfare state where every British adult should receive access to the welfare state, whatever their marital state.

One hundred years after the Minority Report, the Mail is still publishing articles suggesting those who live in poverty have no-one but themselves to blame.

So some things change, but others never do. Over the last century, in the 100 years since the Poor Law Minority Report was published, the Mail has continued in a water-dripping-on-rock way to suggest that poverty is often the fault of those that live in it.

Comments From You

Mary Tracy // Posted 25 February 2009 at 11:39 pm

Very interesting post. It’s always good to know what we can expect to change and what we have to give for lost.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 25 February 2009 at 11:42 pm

This needs to be widely publicised because even before the early 20th century victorian male politicians (since there were no female politicians elected) commonly proclaimed poor women and men were degenerates and deviants who caused their own poverty!

The reason why poor houses were created was because it was widely believed so-called ‘idle poor’ needed to be disciplined and made to work in order to qualify for minute amounts of charity. Poor women were often treated far worse than poor men because poor women were seen as being solely responsible for having illegitimate children. Men who fathered these children were not considered financially responsible for the welfare of such children. Fact that marriage was way beyond the means of many poor women and men due to high cost of marrying and paying for such necessities as a marriage license was ignored.

Well-known male philanthropists such as Charles Dickens and Jack London did raise the social issue of the poor but there were many 19th century women who lived privileged lives but engaged in philanthropic work and sought to publicise the realities of what it means to be poor. Slum Travellers: Lades and London Poverty 1860-1920 edited by Ellen Ross is a timely book showing the realities of the poor in victorian England.

So Daily Male was in effect continuing dominant beliefs that poor women and men were and are solely responsible for supposedly not ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and cease being a burden on male taxpayers.

New Labour now invokes the same excuses and denials since unemployed women and men are supposedly ‘deliberately idle and why do not these individuals take up the offer of the supposedly innumberable vacancies listed at various Jobcentres.’ Oh and this will in future apply to all women with children over the age of one and who are claiming income support.

As regards Daily Male – they have an extreme right political agenda and it has not changed one iota. Women are to blame for all of society’s ills according to Daily Male.

Shea // Posted 26 February 2009 at 9:20 pm

A very interesting post and so timely as we see the recession hitting and affecting the poor, (who have had nothing to do with making the current crisis), worst of all. Those who have benefited the least from the economic boom in the late 90s & early noughties will be those who feel the chill winds the credit crisis brings, the hardest.

There are still families up and down the country making do and trying to get by on meagre benefits, and sadly, tragically, there are still families “playing Russian roulette” deciding whether to buy food or heat their homes. It just shouldn’t be this way– not then, during the Industrial Revolution, not now, in a first world country.

It makes me so damn sad & angry.

(Its also not just the poor either- the Mail have a shameful record on asylum seekers and refugees too, lambasting those Eastern European & German Jews who fled pogroms in Russia and Europe during the early parts of the 20th century. The Daily Mail were a cowardly, spineless, incendiary rag then and now.)

How things don’t change.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds