“…many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!”
For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Leicester’s Nicola Blacklaws. Nicola is completing a PhD exploring the operation of the poor law in early 20th Century England and is heavily involved with the University of Leicester’s “New History Lab”, a support network for postgraduate researchers.
What is your background?
I’m originally from North Shropshire, although I lived in Germany and Cyprus as a kid (my mum taught in British Forces primary schools). After a gap year where I answered phones at my former secondary school, waitressed and flirted with the idea of joining the Royal Marines Band Service, I came to the University of Leicester to do my BA in History, and have been here ever since. I did an MA at Leicester’s Centre for English Local History, and started my PhD here in 2014, funded by a Midlands3Cities DTP studentship.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
Initially, quite a lot of luck. I happened to be allocated Keith Snell as my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and in our first meeting he showed me an eighteenth-century settlement examination. This is a document that could be created when a person applied for poor relief, and often recorded the key features of a person’s life, including various places they had lived and worked and for how long. I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken, and that poor law sources could act as a window into the lives of individuals and families who otherwise don’t loom very large in the historical record. I’ve since moved into the New Poor Law, focusing in particular the last 30 years of its life, from 1900 to 1930, which grabbed my interest largely because people are often so surprised that the poor law was still operating beyond the First World War!
“I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken…”
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
I aspire to Keith Snell’s rigorous use of both quantitative and qualitative material, and his clear, engaging writing. I return to the chapter in his book Parish and Belonging on outdoor relief over and over again. I also think of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death: An Intimate History often. It was the first micro-history I ever read, and I dream of bringing the places I study to life as vividly.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
“The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond…”
That the poor law isn’t quite as ancient history as we’re often led to believe, and there is no clear line separating it and the beginning of our modern welfare state. The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond, overlapping with reforms we often see today as the beginnings of state-provided welfare. I’d also like it to fly the flag for the importance of local context. Finally (and perhaps most ambitiously), I’d hope that it invites readers to consider current debates about poverty and welfare in their historical contexts. To paraphrase something I heard Simon Szreter say in an interview, welfare systems are not historically a luxury that we give ourselves when we’re doing particularly well, something that we can cut back when the going gets tougher – they’re an integral ingredient of successful advanced societies.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
I’ve definitely become more flexible in terms of the sources I feel like I need to do a decent case study. When I first started my PhD I had very high standards regarding the kinds of sources that had to survive before I would consider a union for case study status – my supervisors eventually had to talk me down from that! I think I’ve also become more interested in the actual ending of the poor law – what did its ending, and the transfer of authority to Public Assistance Committees, actually look like on the ground? Did guardians and paupers feel like they were coming to the ‘end of an era’? How did the approaching termination of the system impact on day-to-day operations? I haven’t fully answered these questions yet, but I’m going to get there eventually!
What factors do you think principally influenced the differing ways in which the 20th Century poor law was administered in various locales?
“The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked…”
Oh, there are so many potential factors! Perhaps most obviously, the economic conditions in a region could be hugely influential. Downturns in key regional industries could put enormous strain on local poor law resources, as in places like Staffordshire in the 1920s. Density of population could also play a role – how well did the poor law officers know the poor they were dealing with? It’s been argued, and I think I agree, that if a relieving officer had more of an established relationship with a pauper, they might be less likely to offer them ‘harsher’ relief options like entry into the workhouse. Local politics could be impactful as well, as could individual unions’ relationship with the central authorities – the Local Government Board at the beginning of the period, and the Ministry of Health from 1919. The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Was there much local campaigning to influence the decisions made by poor law guardians during your period?
The local press were often very interested in poor law goings-on – there were often reporters at guardians’ board meetings, and guardians were usually keen to avoid public controversy. For instance, one Leicestershire board of guardians had a very fractious relationship with one of their vaccination officers in the early 1900s – he actually took the board to court multiple times over non-payment of expenses – and both the guardians and the LGB were conscious that the conflict reflected poorly on the union. Another example that comes to mind is from a Staffordshire board who were obliged during the First World War to investigate claims that the bodies of paupers who had died in the workhouse were not being properly shrouded. There are explicit references in the minutes to the coverage the issue had attracted in the press. So many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!
Postgraduate study (especially in the humanities) can be lonely. How do you think that having a forum like New History Lab benefits researchers?
“Building a support network of other postgrads is… crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing.”
You’re absolutely right that MAs and PhDs in the humanities have the potential to be SO isolating, especially if you don’t have an office or workspace to go to every day. Building a support network of other postgrads is, I think, crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing. New History Lab gives our researchers a guaranteed space every fortnight where you can turn up, eat some cake (in itself therapeutic) and meet other people going through the same processes as you. I started going along to Lab events when I was doing my MA, and some of the people I met there became really good friends, who are often the first people to hear about my PhD-related triumphs and tribulations. I see the connections you can make in forums like the Lab as, in a lot of ways, more valuable than the ‘networking’ we’re often encouraged to attempt in more formal settings with more senior academics, which can feel cold, manipulative and stressful. As the Lab is run almost entirely by postgraduate students (we do have a staff representative on our committee as well), we can also design programmes of events that cater explicitly to postgraduates. We can both expose people to interesting corners of history other than their own field of study (it can be easy to forget there are other people working on other things out there!), and organise events that speak to specific concerns of postgraduate life. The last two terms, for instance, have included Clare Anderson on getting your first article published and Matt Houlbrook on blogging as a historian, as well as talks about Star Wars and medieval culture, the Rolling Stones Redlands scandal, palaeontology and the Easter Rising. All postgraduates should have a New History Lab in their lives.
How do you think that postgraduates can become better at working collaboratively with each other?
I think practice is key, as with anything – taking opportunities to be part of an organising committee of some kind can be really helpful in getting experience of planning and problem-solving as a team. Having the infrastructure in place to support collaborative projects is also important, such as funding, so that if researchers have an idea that they want to try out (like the New History Lab!) then the provision is there to enable them to have a go. Having said that, in my experience, postgrads are mostly pretty good at working collaboratively; I think sometimes humanities researchers can be stereotyped as being solitary beasts who aren’t able to work in teams, but I haven’t so far found that to be the case!
If you would like to contact Nicola about her research she is on Twitter and can be reached via the University of Leicester’s School of History. Her academia.edu profile can be read here. For more urban historian profiles follow this link.