In this guest post, Rachael Jolley from the Fabian blog Next Left explores the history of the Daily Mail of blaming poor people for being poor, and poor mothers in particular
You might imagine that the Daily Mail suggesting that the country is full of benefit “freeloaders” who are living a life of luxury on benefits is something new. But it isn’t.
Back in the first decade of the 20th century when social reformers such as Beatrice Webb and Maud Pember Reeves were out in the poorer boroughs of London doing research about the living conditions of the poor, the Mail was up to the same tricks as it does today; Filling the heads of its readers with ideas that the poor had caused their own poverty and poor health by deliberately taking their wrong path in life.
While another favourite theme is that life on benefits is and has always been easier and more comfortable than working.
In 1905, the Mail ran an article headlined “The Workhouse De Luxe”, suggesting that workhouse was a palace where residents luxuriated with music, drama, hot and cold baths, while wearing tweed suits.
They called it the “Poor Law Elysium” and suggested it was a restful haven from the real world, where others toiled to keep themselves alive.
On another page, it ran a story about how a boy loved his life at the workhouse so much he walked twenty miles to return to it, rather than go back to living with his family.
In a scene which sounds like it might have been plucked straight out a novel, the Mail story records a conversation between the Workhouse Master, the Workhouse Chairman and the 12-year-old boy.
“The Chairman; ‘Have you not sufficient food at home, my boy?’” Answers Jim (the boy); “Yes , but I like the workhouse food better. Please sir, let me come back.”
This relentless theme is pursued in another article of 1909, where a Mail article which argues: “We are only now beginning to cause of this infant mortality is the lack of proper care and nourishment – the mother is the key of the situation.”
It adds: “Over 100,000 babies doomed every year through the ignorance of their mothers; are these mothers whom the State has hitherto neglected to educate, entirely to blame?”
But when Pember Reeves carried out her research on poverty in Lambeth, published in 1912, she found that it was not that mothers didn’t understand their children would be healthier if they were fed milk, rather than water, but they were unable to afford the milk. And families on tiny budgets were doing a sort of Russian roulette when deciding whether to live in a smaller home with better light and cleaner air for a higher rent, or save money by living in a basement flat with poor air and light, leaving them more money for food.
Those children who lived in a home on an upper floor invariably had better health results, Pember Reeves and her Fabian women found during their researches, later published as Family Life on a Pound A Week.
Meanwhile, refer to Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report on the Poor Law to discover the appalling conditions that poor women were living under at the time. Women, of course, were hardly acknowledged as separate beings at the time, acknowledgement of their existence came via their status as married, unmarried or widowed.
Unmarried women with children were not allowed any kind of benefits outside the workhouse – the sort of harshness of which Mail readers would approve. And once in workhouses women were separated from their children within nine months.
Webb was one of the first to identify the need for women to be treated as individuals, instead of merely as appendages to their husbands, and to argue for a welfare state where every British adult should receive access to the welfare state, whatever their marital state.
One hundred years after the Minority Report, the Mail is still publishing articles suggesting those who live in poverty have no-one but themselves to blame.
So some things change, but others never do. Over the last century, in the 100 years since the Poor Law Minority Report was published, the Mail has continued in a water-dripping-on-rock way to suggest that poverty is often the fault of those that live in it.