No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

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