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The manor and the workhouse in modern Australia

Andrew Hamilton |  04 July 2017


A regular feature in Australian politics is the attempt to save money by penalising people who are struggling with life. It clearly plays well with groups of voters, although recently its effects have often been ameliorated by a recalcitrant Senate. It is usually accompanied by disparagement of the groups who are targeted.

Etching of the poor in Dickensian EnglandThis was true of the 2017 Budget which has been making its tortuous path through the Senate. In it young people face delay in collecting support, face testing for drugs and penalties if they are carrying. Unmarried mothers also face restrictions.

The strategy has a long history that provides a context. In England, as elsewhere, care for the poor was considered a duty of society. In England it fell on local parishes. After the Napoleonic Wars England faced widespread unemployment, with a consequent heavy burden falling on the local bodies.

An enquiry found evidence of mismanagement and called for a new system that would encourage people to seek work by deterring them from seeking help. It was predicated on the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and the Benthamite principle that no one would work if they could find a labour-free way of living.

Central to the reform was the establishment of workhouses where the conditions would be more unpleasant than in any form of work. Families overcome by poverty could expect to find father separated from mother and both from their children.

The system was defended for its rigour and for upholding and embodying the moral distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. It was only partially implemented, however, because it turned out to cost more than expected and delivered little of the moral improvement promised. It was also mercilessly criticised by such reformers as Cobbett and Dickens.

But it established an abidingly attractive division of society between the prudent, severe, highly moral, parsimonious and abstemious politicians with the imagined people who voted for them, and the feckless, dirty, profligate and immoral people in workhouses or illegally begging.

And it drew attention away from the employment crisis and the changes in the early Industrial Revolution that disrupted local communities and employment. It made those whose lives were devastated by these changes morally responsible for their own fate.


"In the Australian version, the reprobate, whether they be single parents, or unemployed young people with mental illness or addiction, is visited with financial doom to general opprobrium, and the government wins respect for its condign severity and adult-like demeanour."


The poor law was less a reasoned policy than a morality play in which ethical principles were embodied in the plot, and the righteous were clearly distinguished from the unrighteous whose sufferings excited pity and awe at the working of God's providence on display in the contrast between manor house and workhouse. That, with duly secular changes to costume, is still the drama staged today. It plays to a particular audience for whom poverty is not a daily reality, gives an impression of paternal sternness to government, and conceals the calculus used in deciding who will lose and who benefit by government legislation.

As policy the reform of the poor laws was ineffective. To build and administer the workhouses cost more money than it saved; to make them unpleasant enough for the purposes of deterrence left costs to public health and to child rearing for the next generation to pay. The reform also corrupted public life. It blinded people from recognising the world in which they lived, and it made human beings expendable, their worth measured by their economic success.

The same flaws are repeated in the Australian version. In it the reprobate, whether they be single parents, or unemployed young people with mental illness or addiction, is visited with financial doom to general opprobrium, and the government wins respect for its condign severity and adult-like demeanour.

That, at least, is what we read in the blurb for the play. The problem is that it is but a play that distracts both government and people away from the serious adult business in which they ought to be engaged. The reality to which the play alludes is that in Australia there are too many people unemployed and underemployed, too many young people with problems associated with mental health or addiction, too many Indigenous people incarcerated, too many people homeless.

The serious business of government is to ask why so many people suffer in these ways and what might be done to help them make firm connections with society. And then to give leadership in reshaping a society in which the economy serves all people, especially the most disadvantaged. That is a spectacle we would all like to see.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

Thank you Andrew for an update of a problem caused by the introduction of technology, of who benefited, and who were the victims. Today's super technology has increased the problem.

Reg Wlding 05 July 2017

Well said Andy! You have neatly packaged all the injustices of our society and shown the need for a new vision for restructuring the economy to work towards to the flourishing of all. But we'll need some common ground of agreement. How do we achieve that? There is always need for compromise based on compassion and understanding.

Anne Doyle 05 July 2017

A succinct analysis. The application to Australia is seen most starkly in orphanages brimful of children of the "undeserving" poor. The vast majority of inmates of children's Homes were not orphans but taken by the state from parents deemed to be unworthy - with the Stolen Generation adding a racial overtone. The appalling treatment of children in institutions is not only a function of their utter powerlessness but of the utter disrespect and contempt they were held in as children of the poor. A shameful chapter in Australian history that is being rewritten today as record numbers of Australian children are in out-of-home "care" - a third of them Indigenous children.

Frank Golding 05 July 2017

Gets right to the heart of the matter.

Carol 05 July 2017

A masterful snapshot of historical poverty/servitude and contemporary Australia. Many thanks, Andrew, for describing both so clearly

john murphy 05 July 2017

A brilliant summation of what life was like for the poor in Victorian England with its relevance for modern Australian society. It would be worthwhile to watch Michael Mosley's 'The Victorian Slum' and the recent SBS program 'Filthy Rich and Homeless' to get a picture of how the other half lived and do live. I cannot but help looking at the approach of the Scandinavian countries towards poverty and ours. Denmark is constantly rated the most egalitarian country on earth with real opportunities for the poorer and less advantaged members of society to change their lives for the better. We are steadily slipping down the same ladder. There seems to be a particularly Australian 'Culture of Entitlement' amongst our politicians who are amongst the highest paid in the world. They have become a New Class, and, with the odd honourable exception, amongst the most covetous and grasping members of our society. The fall of Susan Ley and the entitlements for family holidays claimed by the likes of Chris Bowen make me very dubious that they are able to view things objectively and change them for the better. We badly need a Jeremy Corbyn in this country.

Edward Fido 05 July 2017

Thank you for an important article. Your last chapter...government leadership on decent treatment of fellow human beings who suffer...needing a hand up is urgent. We need to demand it!

Maureen Searson 05 July 2017

Agreed. Perhaps young people who have only known affluence can't imagine how bad inequality can become. I have the memory of my grandmother who came out of an East-end of London Victorian era orphanage (mother couldn't look after children when father died) where girls were only trained to be servants (cooking & sewing) and boys readied for the army. That was the preparation for life they got. They then had the Great Depression to cope with. These days, when we boast of an ever-richer Australia that hasn't seen a recession in 25 years, we cut and cut our foreign aid contribution. It's obscene.

Russell 05 July 2017

With respect, Fr Andrew, comparison of modern day Australian welfare with 18th, 19th and twentieth century England, Europe or America is like comparing apples with oranges. In Australia you don't have to be the suffering poor to receive welfare. The abuse of the system by the schemer, and there is plenty of it, is what the government is trying to eradicate and since they are using the taxpayer's money to provide welfare have a moral obligation to eradicate abuse of the system..

john frawley 05 July 2017

This wicked rhetoric divides dependent groups, blames one for the other, and searches for more ways to oppress. If you are old, you deprive others of houses, or stockpile $100 notes! "Where there are no leaders, the people perish", indeed. This is wicked.

Rosemary Lynch 05 July 2017

We need to try a Minimum Guaranteed Wage set at a level for a decent life. May price good for everyone.

Eugene 06 July 2017

Spot on, Andrew. Thank you so much. You're absolutely right to argue that the main challenge we face "is to ask why so many people suffer in these ways and what might be done to help them make firm connections with society." Thousands of children and young people are currently disengaged from mainstream education. They are invisible until they start committing crime or become aggressive and then they are blamed for their boredom and lack of purpose. Something that has been almost forced upon them by lack of compassion and action by those in authority.

robert van zetten 06 July 2017

I have loved this country since I came here in 1960. It was a place of hope for all, a place to grow. Now it is a place of misery, The feudal Lords and serfs mentality has taken over. So much for Advance Australia Fair. Its advance the rich!!!!!

Carol Paull 06 July 2017

"a moral obligation to eradicate abuse of the system". Surely there's a greater moral point? It is worth recalling conditions in the 19th C. because we are heading back to those levels of inequality and what that means for your chances in life - depending whether you are born into wealth or not. Remember that there are hundreds of thousands more people who are looking for jobs than there are jobs. I always liked Chris Patten who was chairman of the Tory Party in the U.K. and I saw a clip of him on British TV several weeks ago; he was asked about 'austerity' and replied that he believed in balancing the books but that "it should be done by raising taxes on people like me, not by cutting services"

Russell 06 July 2017

Exactly, Andrew! We need to make compulsory in becoming a politician the requisite that the person has a heart. That their sworn commitment is to our society - not simply vested interests. That the only ideology is: "Protection and advancement - education and health and employment - for all"!!!! It was in a history of foundation of New South Wales by Cassandra PYBUS (I think) in which she examined the US-born African sent with the First Fleet - and later arrivals too (Billy BLUE for example) having fallen foul of the law in England. All were former slaves it would seem - guaranteed their freedom if they fought for the British against the colonists in their 1776 uprising. In England they had no parish to fall back on when unemployed - forcing them into petty crime in order to survive. As for those with rights to Poorhouse accommodation eschewing the insults to human dignity they represented - being sent "Hurrah!" to "Botany Bay" in New South Wales! In my opinion the entire CentreLink superstructure requires demolition - and a truer system incorporating dignity and respect built in its place! With Ministers/H.O.D personally/salary deduction-linked responsible and accountable!

Jim KABLE 06 July 2017

Bravo Andrew. In my final employment prior to my retirement last year I worked for a decade with the ABS as a Field Interviewer. I interacted with all sides of society, from the "filthy rich" to the absolutely struggling poor , all this in a very affluent city. One thing I found was that I never came across a so called "dole bludger" in my work. I must have interviewed thousands of households during that period. I was saddened by the problems, single mums faced yet appalled by the selfishness of some of the "well off" and buoyed by others generosity . I find very distressing, the attacks on the so called welfare cheats by the conservative side of politics .I wonder if they watched the SBS programme last week. Andrew , You hit the nail on the head again with your insightful writing.

Gavin 06 July 2017

Me too. I'd love to see that spectacle. But there's an essential opening act, and that's the conversation which reaches an agreement about the proper business of government. There are still too many powerful people who believe governments are there to manage foreign relations and grow the economy, not as means to human flourishing, but as ends in themselves. Frank's version sounds more like the government of a society that leads a flourishing Eucharistic life. We need to choose what we believe about the purpose of government.

Joan Seymour 07 July 2017

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