"Just deserts": Public and private institutional responses to poverty in Victorian London. Space, gender, and agency

Jessica Ann Sheetz, Marquette University


The social construction of public and private assistance to the poor in Victorian London had its origins in the Reformation when the government appropriated the right to distribute alms from the medieval church. This dissertation investigates the consequences of England's rejection of "indiscriminate almsgiving" in favor of politically expedient provisions for the poor. What the poor deserved within the construct of the powerful British empire is revealed by tracing legal developments legislated by the New Poor Laws, by analyzing social values illustrated in private institutional mission statements and policies, and by comparing social attitudes towards the poor within the larger society with those of Roman Catholic religious women. While Roman Catholic women provided childcare services without questioning the respectability of the needy mother, poor law administrators and private charities categorized relief recipients by birthplace, legitimacy at birth, and religion to determine eligibility. Although the poor, particularly women, had significant constraints, they acted rationally to meet their needs, frequently transcending spatial barriers, appearing in the wrong places and times, confronting or complying with requirements set for assistance. This study relies on space, gender, and agency as analytical tools to demonstrate how and why poor women and children, were excluded, included, or detained by those providing social services. It contributes to the larger debate on the question of historical agency as conceived by E. P. Thompson because it seeks to uncover the values of the working poor by observing and analyzing their public and private actions over an extended period of time in a particular social space, Victorian London. This study departs from earlier social histories of Victorian London because it maps and measures the actions and pathways taken by destitute women through quantitative analyses of primary sources including the London Foundling Hospital petitions, Roman Catholic orphanage registers, London dock company, poor law, maternity and medical registers. Articles from the press and testimonies from the parliamentary papers supplement the quantitative findings. In sum, this study integrates analyses of social welfare policies and the actions of the poor to determine how society decided what social benefits the poor deserved in Victorian London.

Recommended Citation

Sheetz, Jessica Ann, ""Just deserts": Public and private institutional responses to poverty in Victorian London. Space, gender, and agency" (1999). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9929168.