The duty to provide: fathers, families and the workhouse in England, 1880-1914

Doolittle, Megan (2014). The duty to provide: fathers, families and the workhouse in England, 1880-1914. In: Althammer, Beate; Gestrich, Andreas and Gründler, Jens eds. The Welfare State and the 'Deviant Poor' in Europe, 1870-1933. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 58–77.




This chapter explores the ways that the poor laws in England were designed around the norms and ideals of the provider role in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and how in practice the resulting structures rarely matched the more fluid realities of the lives of the poor. In the decades around 1900, critiques of the excluding side effects of the poor law accompanied debates about how to bring the male working class into the nation state by reconceptualizing citizenship around long-standing social-moral norms of obligation to provide for women, children and the elderly within families. The provider role was thus highly gendered with husbands and fathers normally required to support their dependents, but the relationship between providing and masculinity was a complex one, particularly amongst the very poorest who availed themselves of poor law relief. However, relationships between welfare institutions and families were not totally determined by the state and philanthropic agencies, but were actively used and contested at the individual level by those seeking relief and by collective working-class struggles.
The social and political framing of welfare around the poor law is explored, followed by a discussion of how this relates to the family lives of the poor. The final section explores the perspective of the poor themselves, through an examination of three autobiographical accounts of family life touched by poor law provision – accounts by George Meek , Emma Smith and Percy Wall . To put these individual accounts into context and to understand some aspects of the workings of the poor law, evidence is drawn from the administrative structures of one Poor Law Union: Lambeth in South London.

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