Paternalistic, Parsimonious Pragmatists: The Wigan Board of Guardians and the Administration of the Poor Laws 1880-1900

Pratt, Jonathan K (2011) Paternalistic, Parsimonious Pragmatists: The Wigan Board of Guardians and the Administration of the Poor Laws 1880-1900. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis analyses poor law administration in Wigan Union from 1880-1900. The late-nineteenth century is fertile territory for poor law historians, and this study intends to further enhance our understanding of the period. Local studies are vital given that the weakness of central authority ensured a wide variety of practice amongst unions, and are essential to the development of a better informed national picture. With that purpose, the thesis focuses on the important Lancashire industrial town of Wigan. Analysis addresses selected themes that require greater attention from historians in order to facilitate a more developed understanding of the poor law. Chapter one analyses politics in relation to guardians’ elections before and after the democratisation of the boards in 1894. Chapter two explores the role of boards of guardians, both individually and collaboratively, as active political agencies and defenders of the public interest in relation to removal of Irish paupers and in battles over rating with canal and railway companies. Chapters three and four focus on what was arguably the greatest poor law controversy of the period – the ‘Crusade’ against outdoor relief, initiated nationally in 1870. Wigan Union was an apparent supporter of this ‘reform’ movement, but appearances were deceptive. Chapter five addresses the problem of the ‘casual poor’, another major national concern of the period. Analysis illustrates the detail of local practice and the nature of central-local relations between the guardians and the LGB. Chapter six examines the themes of dismissal of union officers and superannuation for those deemed to have given good public service, further illustrating conceptions of professionalism and central-local relations. From this analysis, the Wigan board emerges as a politically engaged institution; financially cautious but with a paternalistic sense of obligation to the poor and pragmatic rather than ideologically driven in its policy and practice. Strong local conceptions of identity, professionalism and public service are evident within a nuanced context of central-local relations.

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