top of page

1835: Outrage over hypocrisy in Cuckfield poor house administration

The New Poor Law of 1834 aimed to provide relief for the poorest members of society. It was introduced to reform a system that had been largely unchanged since the 1600s. It was intended to reduce the cost of supporting the poor and ensure the whole country was using the same system. But this new, draconian law, actually saw desperate men, women and children admitted to workhouses to live in appalling conditions. At this time, poverty was often blamed on the ‘bad character’ of the victim, assuming it their own fault if they were poor. As a result of this, many approved of the new law. Others, however, strongly opposed it, campaigning and even rioting in protest.

Brighton Patriot - Tuesday 15 December 1835

To the editor of the Brighton Patriot.

A nightmarish vision of imprisonment, forced labour and corporal punishment in the workhouse

Sir, – in your paper of the week before last, some person, who dates from this place, has thought proper to attack the character of the Chairman of the Board of Guardians for this Union, and to insinuate that the two poor creatures who died lately in this workhouse had not received proper treatment.

As to the chairman, although I entertain very different, and indeed opposite opinions from him as to the Poor Laws and their operation, yet I must do him justice to say that, as a private individual and a gentleman, his character is without stain; and I am sorry he should become the subject of a personal attack, in a case when his name as a private person ought not to be introduced.

With respect to the poor idiots (for such they were), I know that their health has been declining for years, and their death had nothing whatsoever to do with the new system.

Such charges do great mischief to our cause, and I cannot but regret that any person should so far lose sight of consistency as to make them. The operation of these infernal laws is bad enough without any over colouring, – witness the late designs of the Board.

When a poor man cannot find employment they order him into the workhouse without his family, there to be separated from them, and incarcerated in a prison (for it is nothing else) for being guilty of the (to them) horrid crime of poverty. Several of our good labourers have had this injustice dealt out to them, there being now no parish work allowed to be undertaken; and so contrary is it felt to natural right, that one of the relieving officers has actually given in his resignation to the Board, being no longer able to dissemble his disgust at the cruelty of the system, falling as it does on the good and the evildoer with equal severity.

But the most heartless piece of hypocrisy practiced by the unfeeling administrators of this Algerine act (1) is that of introducing into the poor a newly manufactured prayer, in which the poor wretches are made to thank God for his goodness in gathering them together into that house, et cetera; and this they are to be insulted with night and morning.

For my own part I cannot see how the interests of religion are to be advanced among these destitute creatures, by forcing them to act the hypocrite in this manner and by making them arise from and go to their pillows, – in the very presence of, as it were, their creator, with a gross and palpable lie in their mouth. Are the feelings of a pauper who is religiously inclined less acute, or less alive to the duty he owes his God, than those of a poor law commissioner? Is he not aware that, on rising from his miserable and scanty meal, or in ascending the steps of a treadmill, in thanking him for his goodness in subjecting him to such treatment, he is in fact mocking his all-wise and provident mercy? Surely he does.

Happy, happy England! What will the world say when it sees thy bold peasantry – once thy pride, thy boast, and thy glory, the terror of the despot and the tyrant, – sunk, degraded so low – so despicably low – both in moral and physical estimation, by the heartless and fawning sycophants of a debased and timeserving ministry.

I do not speak of the treadmill as a figurative expression – for if I am rightly informed on this subject (and I believe my information to be correct), such an "infernal machine" is actually in preparation for the use of the blessed inmates of the Cuckfield Bastille, – a fact which appears in the Brighton Guardian, and which has been whispered here for some weeks.

The correspondent of that paper also alludes to a little job now in process respecting the selling and carrying away the mould from the garden of the poor house; but as I am no lawyer, I shall abstain from any remarks on that subject, further than to observe that it may perhaps be necessary for the ratepayers to ascertain to what purpose the proceeds are applied. It must be clear that the property of the priest of Cuckfield cannot be applied towards expenses of the whole union.

(1) obscure reference to a Irish Catholic Relief Bill which was passed the House of Commons, but was thrown out in the Lords, and all that Ireland got from Parliament was an act suppressing the Catholic Association, often called the Algerine Act

Credit for poster: British Library National Archives



bottom of page