Talk: Simon Fowler on Poverty and Philanthropy in Victorian Richmond

Date(s) - Monday 9 October 2017
8:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Duke Street Church

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Simon FowlerSimon Fowler is Vice-Chair of the Richmond Local History Society and edits its annual journal, Richmond History.

Prosperous as Richmond may seem, there have always been pockets of poverty. Simon’s talk looked at how ordinary people in difficulties in Victorian times were helped by the Poor Law and by the numerous charitable institutions in the town. His talk linked to the Poverty exhibition which opened on 23 September at the Museum of Richmond and to Simon’s new book, Poverty and Philanthropy in Victorian Richmond, published by the Richmond Local History Society.

He told the story of Richmond’s workhouse, built by King George III in 1786, and the lives of the paupers who resided there. He will also look at Richmond’s almshouses, which have been helping small numbers of older people since 1600, and how charities tried to encourage habits of thrift and self-help among the working classes in the mid-19th century.


John Foley reports on Simon Fowler’s talk

One of Richmond’s more unexpected surprises is the survival of the original workhouse building and gatehouse, now incorporated into an exclusive modern development just between Queen’s Road and Richmond Park.

The current residents may be aware that their homes are built on the site of the last Richmond Workhouse, constructed in 1786, in the reign of King George III; indeed it was King George himself, convalescing from one of his bouts of illness, who one morning in 1799 took a walk around Richmond, deciding to drop in to have a look for himself at the inside! He is also said to have eaten a slice of workhouse bread for lunch.

One hopes the King was satisfied with what he saw on his visit. For as Simon Fowler explained in his excellent talk on 9 October 2017, Richmond had a rather good record in caring for its very poor and destitute – partly perhaps because 18th- and 19th-century Richmond was comparatively wealthy, as today, and whilst there were pockets of poverty in slums around parts of Kew Road and Red Lion Street, these were limited in extent.

As Simon explained, since late Tudor times care of the poor was entrusted to individualparishes, and help was given and paid for out of taxes raised from local rates. The local parish vestries administered Poor Law relief and decided who should be admitted to the workhouse, or, alternatively, be paid very small sums of subsistence.

A big change in administration was brought in by the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act. This was an attempt to reduce the numbers requiring the sanctuary of the workhouse, or otherwise claiming poor relief. Simon described the policies the Victorians followed when administering relief and the distinction then made between those regarded as the ‘deserving’, as opposed to the ‘undeserving‘ poor. Admission to the workhouse became a real social stigma, and conditions were toughened so as to discourage people from wanting to stay for long! There was very dull basic food (bread, cheese and broth), hard beds and mandatory hours of physical work – breaking stones for men, and, for women, picking oakum (unravelling rope). The sexes were strictly segregated and families broken up. Drunkenness was castigated, and vagrant children (often abandoned), of whom there were many, were boarded out to families for care and education.

The full story of the struggle to help Richmond’s poor, together with much interesting detail, is set out in Simon’s excellent updated Poverty and Philanthropy in Victorian Richmond, published by the Society. Not least, on the front cover there appears an arresting photograph of the 1786 workhouse building complete with inscribed plaque, clock and belltower.