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.
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’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.“