10. The rich becoming the poor: from riches to rags in the Georgian workhouse

Jeremy Boulton (University of Newcastle)
2 July 2009

Contemporary men and women, as Michael Mascuch reminded us in a pioneering article in Social History more than a decade ago, were much more likely to fear downward social mobility than expect social advancement. The principal aim of his middling autobiographers was to make ‘the family secure in an unstable physical environment’. Fears that wives and children would not be provided for adequately after death were commonplace, many writers celebrated their efforts to get adult children suitable careers and situations. Even when material prosperity was achieved ‘fear of poverty mitigated the enjoyment of attained domestic comforts’.  This ‘middle class’ sought and prized security over material acquisition or social advancement, and were always conscious of the possibility of failure and decline. To quote Mascuch ‘in the early modern view, where the abyss below was closer than the escape hatch above, a desire to avoid seeing the family’s impendent tumble into social disgrace defined the parameters of social mobility’.
This paper examines the reality of such downward social mobility as experienced by those who became paupers in St Martin in the Fields. It uncovers the life courses of paupers relieved in the parish workhouse between 1725 and 1824. It focuses on questions of inter- and intra-generational social mobility. How many of these ‘paupers’ had experience of better times, of renting substantial houses or living in fashionable streets? How many had been respectable, rate-paying ‘householders’ before age, death or sickness brought social ruin? Such questions are clearly important. Downward social mobility distorts attempts to measure the extent of material accumulation over the life-cycle (since outright losers will be omitted from calculations). Again, without such contextualisation, how can one comprehend claims for ‘pauper agency’? Paupers who had been former rate payers and householders would have been more skilled at negotiating with parish officers than those who had never risen beyond an unskilled trade and cheap lodgings.

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