A Mr Bowen had written a pamphlet that was highly critical of the workings of the
new Poor Law Act, the Act under which the Poor Law Unions
and associated workhouses had been set up, and had used the case of Robert and Elizabeth Kidner as an example of systemic failure. The House
of Lords Select Committee were keen to discover if his criticisms were justified. The events took place in 1837.
The Times, Thursday October 25th, 1838
July 9th. Evidence of Mr Bowen.
Lord Wharncliffe in the Chair
In Page 78 of the papers submitted to this Committee you mention the case of "a wretched man, who escaped from the Bridgewater pesthouse without taking with him his wife and children, for whom he had no shelter of any description whatever, and was by the chairman and deputy-chairman of the board of guardians, in their magisterial capacity, consigned to prison and a treadmill." Who was that man? - His name was Robert Kidner.
Do you know anything of the man? - No; I never saw him except after his imprisonment, when he came to the board. He was then in a wretched condition; he said that the governor had refused him permission to see his wife and children; that she was in the workhouse, and his children were ill.
When was that?- I have not the date.
It was during the time you attended the board? -Yes.
The man was not committed when I attended the board, but before.
It appears that he was received at Wilton gaol on the 9th of March, there to be kept to hard labour for the space of one calendar month?- Then, perhaps, it was about the 12th, 13th or 14th April I saw him at the Board.
Did you know anything of this man before?- I neither knew the man before of afterwards; I never saw him at any time, except on his appearance before the board. My observations go to the fact of this man and his wife and five children having been sent to the house while the diarrhoea raged there.
When was he sent in?-I think by reference to the books it will appear that he was sent in in December.
Did you enquire into the circumstances of the case? - I know from a gentleman who employed him that he was not a man of good character.
Do you know that he never carried a shilling of his earnings home to his wife, and that he left her starving?-I asked his employer respecting that; he said that the man was half a fool, but that as to his carrying home none of his wages that was nonsense; he must have carried part home; he had but 6s. a-week.
Do you know of the woman having said, " I have been working as long as I can to sustain my children; as long as I had health I did all I could do, but not a single farthing can I get from my husband; I am starving, and he has for some time been earning wages of a farmer in the parish, and has never brought me a single shilling since I have been in this state?" - I have read the affidavits, and I beg to state that I have not a word to urge in favour of any idle drunken man; but, whatever the conduct of any idle man might be, that which I wish to bring before the public, and also before your Lordships, is, that this man's wife and five children were sent into the workhouse at a time there were not beds enough to put them into; the diarrhoea was then raging. The case is an awful one. I have no objection to an idle drunken man being sent to the treadmill for a month, or for seven years, if he will not reform.
You complain of his being sent to the treadmill for running away from the pesthouse, where you say this disorder was raging?-Yes.
Do you know of the offers made to the man?- I have read the affidavits.
Do you mean that you have read the evidence which was given before this committee?- I have read the evidence given at the inquiry instituted by the Poor Law Commissioners at Bridgewater. I have not read a single line of evidence given before this committee, neither have I heard one word of it.
Are you aware that before he was committed three proposals were made to him - first of all, that he should go back to the workhouse and there remain with his wife and family. If he did not like that, that he should go to the workhouse and fetch out his wife and children, and bring them home to Petherton, and that if it was found he was using his best endeavours to maintain them by his labour, and could not wholly maintain them by his labour, Mr King would himself make application to the board of guardians for his relief, and that a strong hope was held out that this application would be acceded to; then, that if he adopted neither of these offers, he was to go to gaol?-It was impossible for me to know that at the time I wrote; the pamphlet your Lordship refers to for that evidence came out upon the inquiry that was made into my statement.
Therefore you did not enquire into those circumstances when you stated this in your pamphlet, that he "escaped from the Bridgewater pesthouse without taking with him his wife and children, for whom he had no shelter of any description whatever, and was by the chairman" and so forth, "in the magisterial capacity, consigned to prison and a treadmill," and then, by a note at the bottom of that page, that "he left this den of disease to endeavour to support himself by his labour, and to assist his family as far as he could: for this crime he was condemned to a prison and the torture of the treadmill" ?- No I did not.
Did you know that this man was an idle dissolute fellow; that, instead of working and bringing wages home to his family, he never brought home a single shilling to his wife, but let her starve? Did you know that such offers were made to him before he was committed? and if so, do you think you was justified writing those paragraphs?- I could not know the one or the other, for they came out in consequence of my writing this.
Before you wrote such strong paragraphs as to persons, did you not think it was your business to make further inquiry into the matter?- I was fully in possession of all I intended to complain of - that the man and his wife and five children ought not to have been sent into that house at all.
For what reason?- Because the house was in a state of disease; the house was said to be at that time in a state of the most awful disease. I think there will be no offence in my saying I have never been an advocate for idleness or extravagance.
Do you believe it to be true that the man escaped from the house in consequence of its being a pesthouse?-It was a pesthouse at the time.
You say he left this den of disease to endeavour to support himself and his family by his labour; did he do so?- Yes; I believe he was at work at the time he was apprehended.
Was he not offered relief out of the workhouse if he would support his wife and his family properly?-I made some inquiry respecting that man, and perhaps it will be more satisfactory for me to state the result. I asked his wife to state quietly and coolly what was her condition previously to this matter; she said that under the old Poor Law they had received 1s. 6d. a-week from the parish, which they had regularly allotted to the payment of their rent; that her husband received 6s a-week, a part of which he spent in a beer-house. When the new law came into operation the 1s 6d a-week was stopped; that she had no means of paying her rent, which got into arrear, and her goods were seized and sold; that she did apply for some relief before the goods were seized and sold. Afterwards, the man and woman were utterly destitute. The man became, I dare say, as such persons usually do, impertinent and desperate, and would not receive what was offered him; but nothing was offered to him, as will be found by the relieving officer, until his goods were sold, and then the man was utterly destitute; he had no place to which to take his wife and children.
Do you know that relief was ordered by the guardians in the first instance, and that his wages should be attached?-Unless the relief had determined the debt for which the man's goods were sold - I believe his goods were sold - no practical result can be drawn from the fact.
Do you know that to be the fact?-I do not.
Do you know that the landlord turned them out of the house for not paying the rent?-Yes; I know it on the woman's statement, but not otherwise.
Do you know that the woman had said, "Will you take us into the workhouse?" and that she went in at her own request?-I do not know that fact, but if the woman asserts that, I should believe her; I would as soon believe her as I would believe any person.
Do you know of the woman having said lately, "For God's sake do not ever let me go out of the workhouse; I am quite happy here, but if I go home to my husband he will starve me, as he did before!"?- Very likely she might say so.
Do you know that?-I do not.
Do you not think it would have been worth while to have ascertained how far such a state of things existed before you made those violent accusations against parties?-No, my accusations went to the fact of the man and wife and five children being sent into such a place under any circumstances.
Does it not go to accuse those gentlemen, Mr. Warry and Mr. King, who were the magistrates who committed this person, of cruelty, for committing the man, for running away from his wife and children? - I think it does.
Do you think there was any cruelty in their committing such a man, supposing the circumstances referred to be true? - Yes; those circumstances do not at all alter my opinion upon it.
Is your mode of writing to take those strong things for granted against men? - I have taken nothing for granted in this case. What operated upon my mind was sending this man and wife and children into the house. If he was a bad man, they were not bad. I think any man justified under such circumstances in running away.
Did he state that he ran away because the place was unwholesome? - I do not know that he did.
Was there anything beyond his intending to run away, and intending to leave his wife and children to the parish? - I do not know what he stated.
Then was there anything to render it improper to commit the man to prison? - I referred to the sending the man into the workhouse at all under those circumstances.
You make two accusations: the first is sending the man into the workhouse at all in that state; the other is of the conduct of the magistrates in committing him for running away from his wife and family; and you state that he did so because it was a pesthouse at the time. Can you state that, at the time of the man having been offered the alternative instead of remaining in the workhouse, the man ever complained that he was put into the workhouse on account of its being unwholesome, or that he gave that reason for running away? - I never knew that he made such a complaint; but his wife, in the course of a few days afterwards, was returned, as will be found in the book, among a long list of diarrhoea patients.
Or that he had any excuse for his own conduct? - I do not know that he offered any. I never saw the man but at the board.
Do you know whether he offered to give any assistance to his wife and children while they remained in the house? - I do not, and think it probable he could not, from the mean employment of the man, and his small earnings; after he came from the treadmill he was so weak and feeble.
What was he weak from? - He was an undersized man.
Was he given to temperance and drinking? -- He had been I dare say previously, but it is not likely that he suffered from that at the treadmill.
You complained that he was sent into the workhouse, into which workhouse no man should have been sent at that time? - Yes, that is the case; but I would go further: It is specifically provided by the law that a man should not be sent to prison in such circumstances; and if a mean could not be sent to a prison where there was an infectious disease, it is not a strained inference that a poor family should not be sent into the workhouse under such circumstances.
Do you think it proper that magistrates that sent him to the treadmill should be two magistrates who sit at the board of guardians? - That is the state of the law; it is a delicate thing for me to give you an opinion upon.
What is your objection to those magistrates acting in that case? - They were the persons who had determined the man's case as chairman and deputy-chairman of the board of guardians; and I think it was not decent for men to turn their books round, and in another capacity, as magistrates, to sign a warrant to commit him.
Determined what case? - The man's case, as brought before the board by the relieving officer.
Do you mean the fact of his having run away from the workhouse? - The fact of his having been sent to the workhouse at all. What has the fact of his being sent into the workhouse to do with his being committed by the magistrates for having run away from his wife and children? - The one is connected with the other.
What has that to do with the accusation against those magistrates for punishing him for running away from his wife and leaving her chargeable to the parish? - A man who has been before the board, and under such circumstances sent to the workhouse, comes before the magistrates with a very bad chance.
Do you apprehend that no magistrate within the district, all of whom are ex-officio guardians, ought to perform the duty of magistrates in any matter with respect to the poor in your union? - If I were to answer that directly, it would be merely a speculative answer, and might throw a considerable degree of discredit on my evidence, If I were disposed to go to that extent; but I think that two persons so immediately connected with the sending this family to the workhouse ought not to be the persons to send him to a prison.
What has sending him to the workhouse to do with his running away, and leaving his wife and children? - He could not have run away unless he had been sent there. I have no doubt 1s. 6d. a week, offered in proper time, would have prevented it.
Suppose the man was a person who brought home none of his wages to his family and left them to starve, do you think that it would have been a good discretion to have given that man 1s. 6d. a-week for his rent? - No.
Supposing the poorhouse to be in a proper state? - That is the whole question, whether it was so or not.
Supposing the house to be in a proper state, would not that be the proper case for taking a man into the workhouse instead of relieving him out? - If the house had been in a proper state. I have not the slightest objection to say that; for such a person the workhouse was the proper discipline.
You cannot point out the precise time at which this man was admitted? - Perhaps I may just refer to Mr. Baker's entry upon the subject: - "About the middle of December seven or eight children were removed to the Petherton workhouse, in consequence of the crowded state and diseased state of the Bridgewater house, while on the same day a man, his wife, and five children came late into the house, already so crowded, by order of the board. The re was not one bed unoccupied at the time, every bed and bedstead that could be spared having been sent to Petherton with the children. On that occasion I attended the matron at 8 o'clock at night; she wished me to provide for this family out of the house for a few days at least. This I endeavoured to do, but could not immediately succeed, and accommodation was made for a part of them by removing the body of a female pauper from the bed on which she had just expired." It is only by such means I could know anything of the circumstances, not being a guardian.
Are you aware that he was relieved some time out of the workhouse before he was received into the workhouse? - I do not know how long, but I know he had relief before he was received.
Do you know that on the 20th of December he attended before the board, and requested that he and his family might be allowed to quit the workhouse, and be put on the out-relief list; that the board ordered him six loaves of bread and other necessaries, which he did not accept? - I have no knowledge of those facts.
And that he remained in the house till the 15th of January? - I know nothing of those facts.
How much did he earn? - He said in the presence of the board that he earned 6s.; he appeared to be an undersized decrepit man.
He maintained his wife and children on that 6s. a week? - No.
Do you know that the wife had said that she maintained the family on 7s. a week, together with her own earnings? - The man stated to the board, and I enquired in the neighbourhood whether it was true, that he had only 6s. a week; it was Mr. Danger I applied to, who was then from charitable motives giving him 7s.
Do you know that the woman has said that with his earnings, which were 7s., and her earnings, she could have maintained her family? - The woman has told a very different story to me; your Lordships have not the relieving officer before you.
Do you know that he had deserted his wife three several times? - I had heard so.
And that he had been committed to Taunton gaol previously for that offence? - I know it now; I did not know it then.
Supposing this man to be, as stated by his wife, a drunken man who never brought 1s. home, is it not easily accounted for that he could not have a home of his own? - He might be an idle, drunken, worthless man, but it is not likely to be true that he spent all his wages.
Previous to the New Poor Law the parish paid the rent for this dissolute man, he not applying any part of his wages to the maintenance of his family or the payment of his rent? - I do not think it will be found that he did not apply any part of his wages to that, but that I cannot speak to. The wife told me the man was not so bad as he was represented to be; and his employer, who was not likely to be very favourable to him, said that he was a poor half-witted man.
You say you would not send any man to this workhouse in its then state; did the woman catch the disorder? - Yes, she caught the diarrhoea, and is returned upon the medical return as being affected with the diarrhoea, in a long list of others.
Did several of the children also catch it? - I was desirous of seeing what the consequences had been of sending this poor woman into the house, and I have taken out from the medical weekly return this meorandum:- "January 3d, she is included in a long list of patients in the prevailing disease, the diarrhoea". On reference to the medical book, it appears that Elizabeth Kidner was entered as affected with diarrhoea in the week ending the 3d of January, and the following week as affected by constipation.
Was constipation common after an attack of diarrhoea? - After these patients had been affected with the diarrhoea their bowels sometimes got into a very torpid state; then the diarrhoea sometimes returned. "January 5, diarrhoea. January 10, constipation. February 7, constipation. February 14, constipation. February 21, tumour in the head or neck. March 10, itch. March 17, itch. March 23, itch. March 24, fever. March 31, fever. April 7, fever". I extracted no further; what became of her afterwards I do not know.
Last updated on 14th January 2014