Benefits Street, 1800


Part of Hogarth's Gin Lane

Part of Hogarth’s Gin Lane

Benefits Street is where – if you believe certain sections of the media – scroungers live. They are the long-term unemployed with a sense of entitlement, who think that there is no point working when they can get benefits to keep them in fags, booze and flat-screen TVs.

This perception of the unemployed poor as feckless and undeserving is nothing new. In 1800, the Somerset parson William holland wrote a blistering attack on the ‘idle poor’ in his diary.

His complaints centred around the poor’s awareness of the legal system, and how they could complain about the poor relief they had been granted – or not been granted.

If they had a request for relief rejected by the local overseer of the poor, or were given less than they felt they needed, they were able to visit the local magistrate in his justicing room to complain.

The magistrate would then call the overseer before him to justify his decisions, and could order him to pay relief, or pay more.

Although the magistrate could also reject a complaint and side with the overseer, a look at several magistrates’ justicing notebooks over the eighteenth century suggests that the magistrates tended to side with the poor more than with the overseers.

William Holland, though, thought the poor were trying it on. On 23 February 1800, he stated that the law was ‘too lenient’ towards the poor, enabling them to call the overseers before the magistrates for ‘not complying’ with their ‘unreasonable demands’.

On 13 October the same year, he wrote:

‘The Overseers are harassed [sic] to death and summoned every day before a Justice, this will never do… The Justices attend to every complaint, right or wrong, and every scoundrel in the Parish crowd [sic] to make their complaints.’

He was clearly not on the side of the overseers, seeing the poor’s complaints as unnecessary and caused by their own extravagances:

‘They expect to be kept in idleness or to be supported in extravagance and drunkenness. They do not trust to their own industry for support. They grow insolent. Subordination is lost and [they] make their demands on other people’s purses as if they were their own.’

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

James Turner Street, location of Channel 4's Benefits Street: photo by Peter Whatley on Geograph

James Turner Street, location of Channel 4’s Benefits Street: photo by Peter Whatley on Geograph

In 1800, the more comfortably off in society were complaining about the idle, extravagant poor relief claimants, because it was the former’s poor rates that were being used to pay for poor relief – so more claimants meant more pressure on the rates.

There was also a belief that the poor only needed money because they wanted to fund extravagant lifestyles; that perhaps they sought to emulate the better-off and that instead, needed to live more modestly and less ambitiously.

What constituted a modest lifestyle was decided by the more affluent, who criticised the natural human desire to want more, to aspire to a better life.

William Holland disliked the fact that the poor had a forum whereby they could challenge the decisions of the parish officials; that they did not simply accept their lot in life, or the amount of relief they had been given, and keep quiet.

To him, and many like him, the poor were insubordinate, extravagant, scoundrels who demanded too much and cost rate-payers money.

William Holland would have made a good Daily Mail opinion writer; but he might have been apoplectic after watching an episode of Benefits Street.

Quotes from Jack Ayres (ed), ‘Paupers and Pig Killers: The Diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1799-1818‘ (Alan Sutton, Gloucester, 1984)