1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany, Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.
Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.
So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.
‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.
One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.
The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.
The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.
Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.
I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).
Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.
That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]