From the perspective of our time Louisa Twining (1820-1912) is a dull subject – a pious philanthropist, worthy but no longer relevant, and not a scientist of any kind. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Neither of her memoirs, the first published in 1880 and the second in 1893, reflect the passionate concern and outrage on behalf of individuals which colour her early writings. Most scholarly references to her life and work are based on these. The name of the organisation which she founded – the Workhouse Visiting Society – does not convey today her revolutionary vision. She was a Christian Socialist, for some reason today not given similar credit to the atheist or agnostic varieties. The few visual images we have of her show a severe, unsmiling lady growing stout in retirement – enough said!
However, the issues she addressed so incisively in the 1850’s are still with us today in the social care scandals of the last twenty years. Let’s travel back 159 years, and meet the women in question:
Aged thirty-nine, Louisa is a woman on fire. Over the last five years she has published a series of pamphlets containing searing critiques of our approach to housing and feeding those who cannot earn enough to live outside the workhouse – the frail, disabled or demented old, the disabled, unskilled or unsocial younger people, and their children. Last year she established the Workhouse Visiting Society to act as a national network for people engaged in improving the lives of workhouse residents, and has now become a recognised part of a national debate.
When we meet in Bradford she had just delivered her second speech to the recently-formed National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Miss Twining’s comprehensive and incisive grasp of her subject was based, at the beginning of her career, on listening to workhouse residents, particularly women with age-related infirmities and unable to earn their living any longer and now (reluctantly) spending their final years in the infirm wards. She tells me that she was most struck by three aspects of the workhouse regime which together acted to demoralise and reduce the individual.
Firstly, if there is no-one in whom residents can confide, petty abuses of power on the part of the staff can quite quickly become regular and serious abuses. She tells me of one lady who brought with her just one possession – a teapot – but was immediately told by the admissions officer no personal possessions were allowed, and he subsequently destroyed her beloved teapot. Secondly, she says, imagine how people lose their faculties when there is no-one who calls them by their name, or recalls with them the events and celebrations of life outside the workhouse walls. Both of these ills could be ameliorated by even the most amateur and approachable (female) visitor.
Lastly, boredom and lack of purposeful employment demoralise people – women as well as men – who have worked their whole lives in a trade which has kept them, and often a family too, in respectable lodgings. Why is it not possible, she asks, for people to be allowed to work at a bench, with their tools, even if they are no longer able to work sufficiently fast or accurately to earn a living? Or, I suggest, to be useful in some other way such as teaching the workhouse children a useful skill? But such facilities are not provided and the management segregates residents by age, gender and class of resident.
Miss Twining’s ideas concerning workhouse visitors have taken a truly revolutionary turn: visitors, she suggests, should be female because, yes, middle-class women can afford to undertake such activities at no financial cost to the taxpayer. They therefore have time to listen, to befriend and to encourage. But they should be trained, and work in a co-ordinated manner, sharing information amongst themselves about the operation of the institution and its staff. Ideally they should work in partnership with a responsible management, to introduce small changes to the regime which will deter abusive staff and residents, and provide a more humane refuge. When I ask whether such a partnership might be in operation somewhere she says no, nor is she hopeful it will be in her working lifetime. I tell her not in my lifetime either. We agree that the obstacles such as mistrusting reformists, defensiveness, dislike of hearing a woman analyse an issue and reluctance to adjust systems to suit individuals cannot be underestimated.
Once the Workhouse Visiting Society was launched, however, Miss Twining began to hear of the experience and initiatives of other ‘social workers’, mostly women, in her field and has turned her attention from this vision. Her lecture today focused on the work needed to educate and protect children in the workhouse, and to prepare them for working life on the outside. She tells me of predatory employers prospecting the workhouses for female workers who are just about to leave for life outside. The girls, aged between eleven and thirteen, who are especially sought are those who have no friends or family to “give any trouble”. Since the girls have no practical skills or experience of work, they are both vulnerable and liable to fail in these jobs. In a few years they are back in the workhouse, on the adult wards, and at risk. We can do better, she says, and one senses that this is where her energies will be spent in the next few years.
Louisa Twining’s earliest campaigning pamphlets from 1855 and 1857, published anonymously, have now been identified and accredited. Pamphlets by other women are still unattributed, to which Twining referred to in her 1859 speech to the NAPSS.
Johanna Holmes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Royal Holloway. She has a previous career advising government and the voluntary sector on social housing and youth homelessness.