On the price of life

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A few days ago, my 100 Days Project word was “price.

I’m learning from this project that if I have enough bouncing around in my head, connections will come. I’d recently photographed an old cash register in a junk shop and was pleased with the result. Around the same time, I’d been working on the Ramsay branch of my tree, and in particular my 3x great grandmother Helen Low – prompted in part by a wholly accidental find in the online catalogue of the Fife Council Archive.

From the Dysart Combination Poorhouse records, Fife Council Archive.

From the Dysart Combination Poorhouse records, 1886-87. Held at Fife Council Archive.

Helen Low was 70 years old when she was “removed” to the Poorhouse in 1886. I know from the 1881 census that Helen, a widow, was then living at 298 Rossyln Street, Gallatown, Fife with two of her adult children Elizabeth, 40 and Peter, 20 as well as two grandchildren; James, 15 and Robina aged 8. All but Robina were working, including 67 year old Helen whose occupation was listed in the census as Outdoor Worker. She had been widowed ten years earlier when my 3x great grandfather, David Skinner Ramsay died of typhoid fever, aged 54.

From the record it looks as though Helen’s children may have been struggling financially to pay the Poorhouse, and presumably would have been unable to keep her themselves until November when James – the eldest son – appears to have been in a position to take her home with him. The question is though, why didn’t this happen? Why did Helen Low stay in the Poorhouse for another six months before dying there?

Helen Low; death record, 1887. From Scotland's People.

Helen Low; death record, 1887. From Scotland’s People.

Helen’s cause of death was given as paralysis and senile decay, so it is possible that she was too ill to travel to her son’s home in Perth.

Helen Low is the fourth of my ancestors I’ve found to have died in a Poorhouse in the late 19th century, and I suppose it reinforces the vulnerability of those who relied on selling their physical labour to earn a living. Old age, sickness or accidents could so easily destroy a family’s ability to survive.

The introduction of social reforms like the National Health Service, state pensions and labour law reforms like sick leave and unemployment benefits meant that Helen’s grandchildren and great grandchildren – along with millions of other working-class people – have largely been spared the indignity of a poorhouse death. It’s such a shame that our current governments seem to have learned nothing from history and are busy dismantling these institutions, supported by the mainstream media which seems to have wholeheartedly adopted the Victorian rhetoric of blaming poverty on moral weakness, laziness, fecundity — in short, on the supposed personal failings of those who experience poverty.

Or, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.




25 thoughts on “On the price of life

  1. A dismal tale indeed, Su. My own gt grandfather hanged himself because he appeared to have nowhere to live and no relatives could take him in. I gather, too, from accounts by a local Shropshire diarist who recorded such events, that this was not an uncommon response for anyone who was faced with the poorhouse. The juxtaposition of your cash register and the family account is very poignant.

    • That is awful Tish. Most of my poorhouse relatives were elderly and appeared (from their census returns, etc) to have worked most of their lives. It must have been terrible to end up in such terrible circumstances, so alone and helpless. I do fear that our societies are adopting so many Victorian values, and we could end up with poorhouses again.

      • True; I wonder if there will be anything left for the boy-child in his old age, or his children.

        New Zealand has horrendous rates of child poverty, and the public discourse has become so viscous and victim-blaming. A friend was creating a huge public artwork based on the number of children who regularly go to school without breakfast, and instead of embracing the concept, people were haggling about the validity of the numbers and suggesting that hungry children were just a consequence of indolent parents. I can never decide whether to cry or scream 😦

  2. A very poignant post. And don’t get me started on your last paragraph. The nonsensical stance of Governments on this subject makes my blood boil. Politicians, even the ones who started out poor, seem to forget from whence they came once they make it in to Parliament.

      • Indeed; it often happens that way. I had a very political/social justice angle come out of my ‘Enough’s as good as a feast’ post but I decided to delete that portion. I had a valid point but I just couldn’t find the statistics I was after to back up my point.

  3. What a great thought provoking post. Poorhouses were numerous and everywhere which gives us an idea of how common a problem poverty and debt were. We have lived through the golden age of post war care….who knows what will be there to help those of us still of working age now…..after all we are expected to work till 67 at the last count….I’m certain this will rise and before we know it pensions and retirement will be a thing of the past. How many of us will still be fit enough to work full time at the age of 67?

    • I agree Seonaid; it has definitely been a golden age. I worry about my child and what his future will hold. I’m the generation of free education, free healthcare, plentiful jobs. I’m uncertain about my own future, but more concerned for him and his generation.

      • Indeed, it looks bleak for them….but it’s funny when you get talking to them about these issues they just don’t have the expectation of being looked after! That in itself is sad….

      • Yeah, you’re right. My son and his friends are really concerned with making money and being independent. I guess part of it is that they still feel indestructible.

    • That is true, and a sadness that so many babies and young children died and did not carry on their line. The thing that comes through so much in my research is how resilient our ancestors were. They didn’t expect comfort and material wealth; they just got on with doing what they had to do to preserve life and family. 🙂

  4. Wonderful post, and I agree 100% with your point about the responsibility of government to care for those in need. If we can’t do that as a society, are we really civilized? I did not realize that this was a problem elsewhere as it has been recently in the US. How very sad.

    • Thank you Amy. The dismantling of the welfare state is almost complete in New Zealand, and probably not far behind in the UK. It is said that “we can’t afford it” but somehow, governments find the cash to fail out failing finance companies and banks! The ideology underpinning so much of modern politics makes me so angry.

      • I am embarrassed to be so uninformed (typically American). I have always been so impressed by and envious of the National Health Service. How awful that services are being curtailed.

      • Don’t worry about it; it’s impossible to keep up with everything that is happening in the world. I just happen to have an interest in social medical care. I read recently that it’s expected that the National Health Service will disappear totally within 20 or so years. I find it particularly scary as my mother lives in England and could not afford private care.

  5. Oh, Su, this is heartbreaking. I am violent agreement with you on that last paragraph–here in the US we are seeing a terrible upsurge in blaming and shaming the poor for their plight, all while the income gap continues to widen and the game becomes ever more rigged. It’s infuriating.

    • Hi Pancho. Thank you; it is the same here, and as you say the game becomes ever more rigged. I wonder what sort of society we are leaving our children? But I am heartened by the number of clever, compassionate young people and I hope they continue to be so.

  6. A very powerful post, Su.

    I read and listen to what is happening in my country (U.S.) of “us vs. them” and blaming the disadvantaged for their circumstances, while living in a country that enacts laws to help all people (Norway) … it’s wonderful to live in such a country, but so discouraging to know the country that has my heart (my adult daughters) is going down that wretched path. Reading of real-life example of your ancestors is humbling and educational. Truly, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    • Hi Cindi. How do the Scandinavian countries manage to remain such bastions of fairness and social justice? New Zealand used to be regarded as one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and now it is one of the most divided. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment; it is so heartening to know that there are so many people who feel as I do.

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