Poor Relief

Boght, boght dy bragh,
"poor, poor for ever."

Historical Introduction

The Island had not needed to introduce an English-like scheme of Parish Relief for the poor (introduced in England from late 16th century) but relied on the moral requirement that families look after their own (backed up by edicts from the ecclesiastical court) and on voluntary contributions collected each Sunday at the Parish Church. Money was also left in wills to the Poor of the Parish - any capital sums were generally lent out at interest which interest was then devoted to the poor (see the various lists of benefactors in IoM Charities, 1831).

From the 1790's Friendly Societies began to be established in various parishes or around certain workplaces - although these did some charitable work their main function was as a self-help for the better off section of the working class and self-employed tradesmen.

Moore's opinion was that the condition of the labouring poor declined during the Napoleonic wars, 1793-1816, but after this period it went into indisputable decline, reaching its nadir in 1824, as men were released from the services and agriculture declined. Wages declined and beggars abounded throughout the Island but especially in the streets of Douglas. Without any formal system of poor relief, the older church-based poor fund mechanisms were inadequate to meet the demands. In 1814 an Institution for the Relief of the Poor of Douglas and the Suppression of Mendicity was established based on voluntary subscriptions whose aim was to help the needy poor - it allocated different areas of Douglas to special visitors who were to look out for deserving cases and to report to a weekly meeting of the committee. It soon found that funds were inadequate for the demands and was forced to ration its cash payments to those in the worse need. It also apparently had to contend with sniping from critics over its allocation of funds, which it partly attempted to counteract by publishing lists of those supported; from these lists it is clear that it attempted to keep most of its clientele in their own homes; any receipient found begging was removed from its pension list. In 1818 a committee was established to report on current demands and finances - its report was ordered to be inserted in the newspapers from which it appears that expenditure was already exceeding income. A second report was published in 1822.

Benjamin Philpot was appointed curate at St George's in 1827 - his diary includes:

" There was a great deal of poverty in Douglas, and there were no poor laws in the island. In the country districts the family considered it a point of honour, and the neighbours an obligation of charity to help their more unfortunate brethren. But here it was different. There was a half alien population, too, in the low parts of the town, Irish and others, besides the fishing people, who were often in trouble from the accidents and misfortunes incidental to the sea. There was a household of Campbells from Scotland, of the Oban family living in the town, and a Miss G-- who helped my wife and myself nobly in this early work. We opened a weekly soup kitchen, and laboured to relieve the destitution. The congregations at St. George's greatly increased, and the collections for the poor grew in proportion. I soon opened a room for receiving applications and distributing relief. Dear old Mr. H-- stood bravely by me every Tuesday. Indeed, we were after a time compelled to lock the door and open communications through the window! Drink was the curse of the place, and indeed of most of the island, for there were no excise duties, and it was dirt cheap."

In 1869 a questionaire was addressed, via the High Bailiffs, to all clergymen (established church and others) enquiring about those persons subsisting on charity - from the returns it is obvious that much needed to be done, however the returns appeared to have been shelved and apparently had no effect. In 1868 the Committee running the House of Industry stated that the amount received was insufficient and that possibly the time had come to instigate a poor rate but as both Moore and Brown report a large majority were against any change. It is possible that these acrimonious discussions prompted the Governor's questionnaire.

Rate Supported Poor Relief

By the 1870's it was obvious that the voluntary system had to be changed - in 1878 the Governor organised a committee of enquiry to report on the current situation which reported in 1879. However nothing happened until Governor Walpole in 1887 stated that the system of poor relief had:

" drifted on, not because its resources have been adequate to its requirements, but because its expenditure has been reduced to the lowest possible sum consistent with decency,"

An Act of Tynwald was passed in 1889 that, inter alia, established a Home for the Poor open to all - payment was by the district from which the applicant came. This was established on the opposite side of road to the new Lunatic Asylum at Ballamona (Strang in Braddan) and managed by the same committee. Initially known as Braddan Poor Home or House for the Poor - it was later changed into Mannin Infirmary then Mannin House (Old Folk's Home) which was demolished in the 1980's though its perimeter wall still stands.

Opposition to rate-supported poor-relief still remained - the Rev W. T. Radcliffe made critical comments in his Ellan Vannin, possibly looking back with the rose-tinted spectacles of old age to a less urbanized development, describing the poor rate as "a costly alternative which the other sections of the island have avoided by the old method which provided as well or better for the poor".

The MacDonnell inquiry was quite scathing about the situation in 1911

63. We also note that the evidence discloses an unsatisfactory state of things with regard to the Poor Law in the Island. It would appear that a rate for the relief of the poor is not universally levied throughout the Island, but that in some parishes, including the town of Peel and the flourishing and important parish of Onchan, a suburb of Douglas, the only relief given is the dispensing of local charities by the vicar and churchwardens, supplemented by voluntary gifts. It is obvious that this cannot secure either the proper evidence of the need of relief, or its impartial and adequate distribution. It places, moreover, the Ecclesiastical Authorities in an invidious position.

We recommend that a Central Authority for the administration of the Poor Law Acts should be created for the Island, and its operation brought under the administrative control of Tynwald.

The belated introduction of old-age pensions finally lifted many out of the total dependence on public charity - this scheme based on the English model and funded by an estate duty was opposed by the Lt Governor Lord Raglan who was quoted as saying "Some people think they have a right to a pension. No one comes into this world with a pension label attached to him." The first old-age pension were paid (to over 1000 persons) in March 1920.

Poor Houses

From the end of the 18th century two houses were left to the Poor of Douglas - the first being Lasnon's Charity which consisted of the newly built house of French émigré Francis Lasnon, a shopkeeper and dyer, who died at an early age in 1788; the second, in Strand Street, was in 1802 left by John Wanton and became known as the Old Poor House. It would appear that Lasnon's house was initially let out and the rent used as for earlier bequests as requested in his will - Wanton's house however (possibly being less desirable to rent) seems to have housed poor widows. In 1811 a house was rented in Wellington Square, Douglas, to act as a Poor House but by 1818 Lasnon's House 'has been appropriated for the residence of several aged and infirm paupers'.

However both the funds to support this poor house and the accommodation were insufficient to meet the growing demand during the 1820's and 1830's. It was the arrival of the Rev Dr William Carpenter to the curacy of newly built church of St Barnabas in Douglas that saw a change in provision. He campaigned for what was effectively an English-style workhouse to be called the House of Industry (a name that may already have been associated with the re-activated Lasnon's Charity House judging from Deborah Doxon's will of 1822). By using some of the money in the hands of the wardens of St Matthew's (the older established chapel in Douglas) and additional subscriptions and bequests a new building was constructed on what was then a green field site, which opened in 1837 - it had room for some 80 inmates. Management effectively remained in the hand of church trustees, which would cause problems in the future with the increasing political power of the Methodist Chapels.

Lasnon's House was then used to provide a dispensary (a Dr Spence being appointed in 1840) before this was transferred, in 1850, to the first hospital to be built in Douglas at the other end of Fort Street. A committee of Ladies had been established to run a Soup Kitchen (possibly continuing that started by Philpott ?) - The Ladies Soup Dispensary whose reports are available and they continued to use Lasnon's House during the winter months.

Widows' House

This was at Cambrian Place.

Castletown

Organised voluntary contributions for Relief of the Poor were first noted in the Castletown Poor Man's Friend Society of the 1830's - this does not appear to have survived as apparently when the Rev E Ferrier arrived in 1855 to take up the Government Chaplaincy post one of his first acts was to form the Castletown Poor Relief Society. By 1857 two almshouses (Quayle's and Parson's) were reported in Queen street, accommodating 12 women.

Ramsey

Rev George Paton, curate of St Paul's Ramsey, with his own money established a Home for the Poor in Ramsey in the 1870's at No. 13 Church Street. at the rear of St Paul's, known as St Paul's Home - this was also used as a soup kitchen and free breakfast room for children. He left it to the church on his death.

References

Ann Harrison Associational Culture, 1830-1914 in A New History of the Isle of Man, vol 5 (ISBN 0-85323-726-3) Liverpool:University Press, 2000 pp393/406

Ann McHardy Francis Lasnon and the Story of the Poor House IoMFam Hist Soc Newsletter vol 4 #4 pp64-66 Oct 1982


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2006