Illuminated initial D

uring the 1859 NAPSS [National Association for the Promotion of Social Science] conference, the Workhouse Visiting Society held its first annual meeting. Louisa Twining took Cobbe with her to several London workhouses, as well as a hospital for incurables in Putney. Twining had struggled long and hard to get permission for women with no official connection to enter workhouses for any purpose whatever. Under the 1834 Poor Law, the workhouse was intended not only to provide food and lodging for those who had no other means of support but also to enforce conditions so punitive that people would fall back on public assistance only as a very last resort. Visitors who came to offer some cheer even to the most helpless inmares—orphaned children, people with no one to care for them in a terminal illness, frail elderly women—were looked on with suspicion.

Of course, in a sense rhe workhouse bureaucrats were right; few public officials willingly submit to outside inspection. Workhouse visitors immediately documented mismanagement and made a nuisance of themselves getting regulations changed. Cobbe would explain in "Workhouse Sketches" that the Poor Law should have three aims: (i) to "repress pauperism," (2) to educate orphans and "fit them to earn rheir bread honestly," and (3) to provide for the sick, disabled, aged, helpless, and suffering "a shelter which should partake of none of the penal elements which belong to the treatment of the idle and vicious pauper." And as she showed through vivid examples, it failed at all three. For able-bodied men and women there were punitive conditions but no assistance toward self-support. Orphan children were undernourished, unloved, and given little vocational training. And workhouse infirmaries were badly constructed, badly managed, devoid even of proper arrangements for cleanliness, attended by the only medical men who would do the work—that is, either rank beginners or those who had failed at private practice—and nursed by "male or female paupers who are placed in such office without having had the smallest preparatory instruction or experience" and paid with "allowances of beer or gin." Like Louisa Twining, she be enlisted the assumption that women were narurally good at caring for infant children, and the elderly to justify female supervision in workhouse management. Guardians of the poor were simply unsuited: "there never yet lived a man whom the matron of an institution could not perfectly deceive respecting every department of her work." If this was a class-based argument—the matron was, after all, a working woman—Cobbe recognized that she was borh badly paid and without any influence over the budget; male taxpayers, who elected the guardians, wanted most of all to keep taxes down. And even in the workhouse, Cobbe came to believe, men looked after their own: "wherever there was a choice between large and fairly good wards and others with some terrible defect. . . the good wards were given to rhe sick men, and the defective ones to the sick women! [108-09]


Mitchell, Sally Francis Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Last modified 7 July 2014