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How Volunteers Respond to Disasters #WATWB

watwic-bright-tuqblkThis month I’m linking to a post from a blogger in her seventies who participates in a voluntary project rebuilding homes for people who lost everything as a consequence of wild fires. I’m also linking to regional newspaper coverage of the project.

https://shatara46.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/williams-lake-volunteer-project-update/

https://www.wltribune.com/news/mennonite-volunteers-help-wildfire-victims-rebuild-homes/

It is heartening to know that there are people of all ages and all religions (and none) working to help people whose lives have been devastated by natural disasters. With that in mind, I think it worth pointing out that Irish men and women have been helping in Haiti since the earthquake there several years ago whilst others make annual trips to South Africa to build homes and schools for families in that country’s poorest townships.

Have you got a good news story to share with the world? Here’s how to join in:

1. Keep your post to Below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. Link to a human news story on your blog, one that shows love, humanity, and brotherhood. Paste in an excerpt and tell us why it touched you. The Link is important, because it actually makes us look through news to find the positive ones to post.

3. No story is too big or small, as long as it Goes Beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

Place the WE ARE THE WORLD badge or banner on your Post and your Sidebar. Some of you have already done so, this is just a gentle reminder for the others.

5. Help us spread the word on social media. Feel free to tweet, share using the #WATWB hashtag to help us trend!

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Simon Falk, Andrea Michaels, Shilpa Garg, Sylvia Stein, Belinda Witzenhausen.

The Poor Law Inspector – Update.

I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.

First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.

I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.

Why ‘Purgatory’?

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax. Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Great Irish Famine. Image from wikipedia

Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.

Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.

I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?

Saturday Sound-off: The False God of Nostalgia

I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.

“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]

Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.

All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.

Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.

Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.

The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.

Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.

The Poor Law in Ireland

The third of my series of posts on poverty examines the transfer of poor laws from the British mainland to Ireland.

The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress, the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.

In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government’s attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.

According to James Kelly (Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62. www.jstor.org/stable/30008004.), “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. … In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations…. while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.”

Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century, the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.

(Astute readers will note a similarity between English attitudes to Irish immigrants 200 years ago and present day resentment towards migrants from Eastern Europe in England and from Mexico in the USA.)

Education

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Part of a letter from the Chief Secretary for Ireland to His Grace the Duke of Leinster on the formation of a Board of Commissioners for Education in Ireland, October 1831. (See in full here).

Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.

Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Arch Bishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent George Nicholls, one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England, to look at the situation in Ireland.

In an earlier post I described how the English regarded themselves as superior to the native populations of the lands they conquered. However well justified this attitude might have seemed given the evident successes achieved by English Soldiers, Seamen and Scientists, it looks today like extreme arrogance. The modern liberal view is that a person’s ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.

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George Nicholls portrait by Ramsey Richard Reinagle. Image from Wikipedia

The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not … strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency … If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty …’Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ … whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”

(I have offered a possible explanation for the apparent indolence of Irish paupers based on recent studies in Neuroscience.)

His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.

This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, the majority did their best with the limited resources available to them.

Evolution of Poor Laws

The second of my series of posts on poverty examines the evolution of poor laws in the British mainland.

Prior to the reformation – the switch, over large parts of Europe, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism – the poor were looked after by the monasteries. The funding for this came from the patronage the monasteries received from the land owners and from the tythes paid by farmers. Whilst the old, the sick and the disabled were provided with food, shelter and healing, the able bodied were provided with work, either in farms that formed an important part of the religious community or on building construction and maintenance.

For the able bodied individual who could not find work near his place of abode the only alternative was to travel to a place where there was work available. Others might travel from place to place plying a particular trade, or offering a service, moving on when the demand for the service in a that area had been satisfied.

Throughout this period there were years when crops failed causing famine. Epidemics of disease occurred from time to time. The ‘Black Death’, the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, for example, reduced the population by 30%. Wars, too, took their toll on populations, although they also provided a source of income for those who chose, or were forced, to join one or other of the many armies that took part. With the men away fighting the bulk of the labour necessary to grow food fell to the women. Wars were often responsible for the failure of crops. This was sometimes a deliberate act of destruction, perpetrated as part of the campaign. At other times it was the consequence of the absence of farm labourers meaning that insufficient crops were sown.

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View of Fountains Abbey ruins in Yorkshire, found at www.4gress.com

The destruction of the monasteries that followed the Reformation meant they were no longer able to carry on the work of alleviating poverty. In Britain, it now fell to the Parishes to administer poor relief under the first of a string of ‘poor laws’ that were introduced and amended throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

In order to qualify for relief you had to be able to prove a connection to the parish from which you were claiming. If you were a stranger, you would need to travel to the parish where you were born or where you could demonstrate a long term affinity. Such relief, when applied to individuals deemed capable of work, was conditional upon the individual undertaking some form of work in return. It was funded by levying a rate (property tax based on the notional value of the property) on the landowners of the parish.

By the 18th century this idea, that assistance must be earned by performing work, had become well established. After all, someone else’s labour had created the food, clothing and shelter with which you were being provided. It was only right that you should perform some service in return.

For those not completely indigent, survival depended on payment received in return for their labour, whether as agricultural labourers or in the factories appearing in the growing industrial centres. The balance between wages and the price of food and other necessities became an important factor influencing the extent of poverty.

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The workhouse at West Derby, from www.workhouses.org.uk

The practical manifestation of the principle of work in return for relief for the indigent was the workhouse. The first of these was established in Bristol at the end of the 17th century. The movement grew throughout the 18th century as the larger parishes, and groups of small parishes set up similar institutions. By 1776 there were over 1900 such institutions in England and Wales, housing an estimated 100,000 individuals, most of them children, sick or elderly.

Coming next: The Poor Law as Applied in Ireland

To see my post about Victorian Britain’s sense of superiority click here.

Better than all the Rest

I’ve been studying – and attempting to write a book about – the famine that devastated Ireland in the years 1845-52. No such study is complete without an analysis of the attitudes of the British towards Irish and English paupers. This is the first of a series of posts the overarching title of which is “Dealing with Poverty – a Historical Perspective”. This one deals with the evolution of the feeling of superiority that characterised the elites in Victorian Britain.

Exploration

By the nineteenth century British explorers and traders had for more than two hundred years traveled the world, discovering new lands bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They developed trade links with the indigenous populations of these lands and profited enormously from that trade. They were not alone. Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese merchants and adventurers were doing the same. Conflicts often ensued, engendering frequent wars. Britain usually came out on top and, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, large parts of Africa as well as the Indian sub-continent, all of Australia, New Zealand, Many Pacific Islands, Southern China and most of North America were governed by the British monarchy or its authorised agents.

The oldest of these colonies, those on the Eastern seaboard of North America, had formed themselves into the United States of America, fought for and won independence. But there were many other lands that offered opportunities for those seeking adventure.

Scientific advances

At the same time it could be said that Britain was leading the way in scientific

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Capt. James Cook – painting by Nathaniel Dance. Found at http://www.Alchetron.com

advancement. Some of those early explorers, such as James Cook, had pioneered techniques of surveying and map making as well as bringing back numerous geological and botanical specimens to add to the world’s fund of knowledge. Others had developed, and conducted experiments to prove, scientific theories that formed the basis of our modern understanding of chemistry, physics, astronomy and medicine.

Little wonder, then, that they regarded themselves, their beliefs and their systems of government to be superior to any others. In particular, the old ideas embodied by the Roman Catholic Church were deemed to be barely superior to the paganistic practices and idolatry of the natives of Africa, the far East and North America who had proved so easy to exploit. If certain among the Irish chose to cling to such outdated notions, if those same people were also poor and ignorant, then must there not be a causal link between the two? All that was necessary for the Irish to escape from their fate was for them to acquire the enlightened Protestant education that had produced the scholars, sailors and merchants that had made the acquisition of such an empire possible.

It was certainly the case that many of these colonies needed labour. They especially needed people who were capable of taking undeveloped land and turning it into productive farmland. Successful farmers from across the British Isles were, therefore, encouraged to emigrate to the colonies. And individuals who chose to defy the law by stealing could be sent as punishment to work as slave labour.

Philosophical and social studies

Educated Britons did not stop at developing and testing scientific theories. They concerned themselves with philosophical and social problems, especially those associated with the increasing population and the poverty that seemed inevitably to accompany it. How was it possible to ensure that the production of food kept pace with the growing number of mouths to feed? As the industrial revolution progressed and more people left the countryside for over-crowded cities, the old pattern of living, in which food was transported over relatively short distances to markets close to where people lived, was superceded by new modes of transport. Canals, railways and metaled roads made it possible to transport food from the fields to markets in the burgeoning centres of manufacturing.

A new field of study opened up as scholars attempted to understand the increasingly complex relationship between production and consumption and the problem of ensuring that workers, who no longer had access to the possibility of growing even some of their own food, were able to earn enough from their new activities, operating machinery, to provide the basic necessities of life.

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Adam Smith from a painting by an unknown artist in the National Gallery

How to share the wealth produced by the activities of merchant explorers and, later, by machines, among the whole population, instead of enriching a few whilst the majority struggled in conditions of abject poverty? Men like Adam Smith pointed out that rent placed an added, unfair, burden on wealth creators. Others speculated about the relationship between increases in food production and the growth in population.

Population vs agricultural capacity

On the one hand the greater the number of people employed in all kinds of production, the more of everything that could be produced. On the other, the more food that was available, the longer people tended to live, especially young people. Whereas it was, in the past, not uncommon for children to die from any of a variety of diseases before reaching puberty, the more well fed they were the more likely they were to survive into adulthood and become parents themselves. Was there a limit on the ability of the available land to produce sufficient food?

One of the thinkers of the period, Thomas Malthus, examined the evidence and concluded that there was, indeed, a limit to the food production capacity of the land. The population had consistently grown at a faster rate than had the volume of food production. It was, he insisted, necessary to take steps to limit the growth of population, especially among the very poor. If they produced fewer children it would be easier to ensure that those children were well fed and housed to an acceptable standard. It might even be possible to end the practice of sending children out to work at a very young age. They could be sent, instead, to school where education would fit them for a better life.

Coming next: Evolution of Poor Laws and Their Application to Ireland.

 

 

Malnutrition and Indolence – Lessons for Today

In my previous post I postulated that poor diet in expectant mothers and infants had, in the past, a role in preventing the poor in Ireland from improving their conditions. But can it also explain the lack of aspiration evident among the poor in modern developed economies?

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Concentrated orange juice was provided free of charge to pregnant women and infants in Britain during and after World War II.

The British government during World War II was concerned to ensure that expectant and nursing mothers and infants received proper nutrition despite the food shortages and rationing that characterised the war years and those immediately following. They would have been ignorant of the relationship between diet and brain growth. But they were certainly concerned to prevent diseases, like scurvy, associated with vitamin deficiencies. Concentrated orange juice, cod liver oil, and free school milk all served to ensure that my generation, and our mothers, had access to nutritious foods.

The same wellfare foods were also available to the ‘baby boomer’ generation that followed. And concern for diet informed the decision to provide free meals to school children who met the criteria of a simple means test, and continues to do so throughout the UK.

The first 3 decades after that war were characterised by full employment and the rapid expansion of educational opportunities. The causes of the rise in unemployment in the 1980s were undoubtedly economic. But, whereas in the 1950s & ’60s young people were not only willing, but eager, to seek opportunities for self improvement, through education, training and migration to regions at home and abroad where well rewarded work was available, subsequent generations of the poor seem less inclined to show such initiative. Schemes intended to help are all too often either abused or viewed with resentment.

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Does poor nutrition mean some children’s brains aren’t able to assimilate information?

A woman residing in North America, commenting on my previous post, suggests that similar problems of apathy and even hostility towards formal education exist there, too. The ‘dumming down’ of the school curriculum there, she argues, is not “that students don’t care about education, but that their brains aren’t functioning enough to be able to assimilate the material.”

The effect of non-nutritious additives, fats and sugars in causing such comparatively recent phenomena as ADHD, obesity and diabetes is well understood. Are we missing a trick in not ensuring that expecting and nursing mothers and infants receive the kind of foods that will maximise the ability of those infants to develop their full potential as human beings?

Some politicians and commentators still hold to the view that the poor are to blame for their own conditions. They make a distinction between those they refer to as the ‘deserving poor’ and those they regard as ‘undeserving‘. Could it be that people who fall into this latter group are suffering from the kind of dietary deficiencies that have been shown to be responsible for an apathetic attitude, low IQ and an inability to take action to lift themselves out of poverty?