On The House

By Helen Maskew

A tale of murder, suicide and the treatment of inmates in a small Suffolk workhouse in 1838

‘Edgar, you know there’s nothing sentimental about me. As a practical man I’ve always tried to live out my morality in actions not words.’

I sat by my father’s bed and watched as the man of whom I was fondest in all the world peered at me over his spectacles as he lay propped up by numerous pillows. His face was grey, although his breathing was regular and still strong enough for him to form his words coherently. But the doctor had already told me it would only be a matter of days before there would be no more conversations.

‘I’ve been privileged to live in an age of wise men – the new prophets who aren’t frightened to express enlightened ideas – even against established and embedded prejudices. Men like the Scotsman David Hume who was convinced that our knowledge of existence can only come from our experiences, something with which I fully agree – any man of logic must.’

‘I know you do, father, but why don’t you rest and take your ease for a while. Besides, perhaps it’s not the time for philosophical debate. There’ll be plenty of opportunity later for that when you’re well.’

‘You and I both know that’s not the case – I’ve spoken to the doctor and he’s been mercifully frank with me – no placatory bedside nonsense. No, there are things I want you to know. What better time for a man to be reflective than on his deathbed? I want to be certain you understand the precepts on which I’ve tried to live my life. I’m not necessarily expecting you to adopt them all but I do encourage you to consider some of them as options.’

‘A few minutes, then I insist you sleep for a while.’ He leaned forward and took my hand with his thin pale one.

‘Listen then! Bentham’s principle of ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’ – that’s what I believe myself. The combination of social equality with freedom of the individual. Lately I’ve been wrestling with ways to achieve it but I fear there’s no more time for me, but I might persuade you to follow that principle in your own life.’ I nodded and squeezed his soft, cold hand.

‘Your mother died when you were very young – you and she were both too young. But I chose not to marry again; I never found anyone else to match her. So you and I’ve been soul-mates ever since and I’ve tried to be a good protector and counsellor. It’s always been my view that children should be taught by example not exhortation. I’ve always hoped I’ve given you good guidance, but always tried to do it through my own behaviour.’

‘Father, you have been – are still – the wisest and kindest counsellor any son could have. There’s no one else I would ever seek out for advice.’

‘I’m glad but never be afraid of listening to others, Edgar, although you must always keep a discerning mind– and most important, a loving heart. For myself I face the end with equanimity, since I believe there’s nothing beyond it. But I’ll tell you this – even as a non-believer in the afterlife, if I’m wrong, Edgar, I’ll surely have questions to answer; unfortunately if I’m right I’ll never know. How frustrating for a man who prides himself on his logic!’


His only child, my father’s death radically altered my way of life since I became the inheritor of an estate of some size, with a position in local society to match it; indeed, I was just lately appointed as its Justice of the Peace. As he determined, it’s deeds not wordswhich fuel progress and so I began to cast around for ways in which I might be part of the spread of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘greatest good’. I considered entering politics, but the member of parliament for this shire was firmly established. In any case we shared certain Whiggish political ideas, besides the fact that he was a distant relative. With a minor aristocratic background and correspondingly useful connections, I was now what was understood as a man of standing and had that ultimate benefit of independent means – time. I was also unencumbered by domestic considerations since the bonds of matrimony had as yet escaped me, although as a young man in my late twenties and a full-blooded bachelor I’d not lost hope in that direction. The estate was well-managed having had regular and sustained supervision from my father’s bailiff, Samuel Saunby who’d been with the family since I was a small boy. His intimate knowledge of all aspects of its running, at all times conscious of my father’s wishes as to how tenants and workers were to be treated, required no substantial oversight on my part and so I decided to continue as my father had and leave him to it. I also ran a racing stud on a very small scale but with good quality animals. For this I relied on the expertise of my stable man and groom Harry Valentine whose knowledge of horses exceeded anyone’s in the county. With such expertise in both land and equine matters my presence was sometimes more of a hindrance to them than a help. With all this in mind my instincts told me it was an appropriate time to take stock of how the ‘greater good’ can be achieved and what I might contribute to it personally.

My father was a voracious reader with a substantial library, mostly devoted to works of philosophy and science. Once I’d put away my law books from Cambridge I took full advantage of the contents of its shelves. My father’s last conversation drew me back to Jeremy Bentham whom I had read but forgotten. The philosopher had been dead for six years but his utilitarian morality and ethics were undiminished. In the same year that Bentham died, the Great Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised more men than ever before. Last year, for the first time for over a hundred years, a woman became queen; between the reign of Queen Ann and the newly-crowned Victoria we’d had been five kings of varying quality.

Times are certainly changing and increasingly there are those who strive to propel the country into more enlightened thinking. Questions of conscience are arising over the enthusiasm with which industrial progress is being achieved, and at what cost to the individual well-being of the workers who service the great engine of technology. Social change is surely accelerating. New ideas and processes are accepted by some but, for the critical mass, I suspect there are many questions they would like to have answered about their futures, as do those of us encouraged to think for ourselves who ponder over the wider social effects of mechanisation.

But at this time these national concerns, crucial as they were, didn’t answer my immediate problem: how to put this luxury of time to profitable use in the search ‘for the greater good’? There was one area which sprang to mind, and on my own doorstep. I was as aware as my neighbours that there had been significant changes to the ways the problems of the poor were now addressed. The new Poor Law Act had been in operation for four years and our local reconditioned union workhouse was up and running under the new regulations. As the local Justice I’d been sent a copy of the Act, which was freely available for anyone to read; indeed the Act itself contained an order that its details must be made public. However a majority of the poor of the parish on whom it had most impact were illiterate and, for those that could read, it was the most indigestible document; pages of obscure parliamentary legal text difficult enough for a lawyer such as myself to absorb whose duty it was to read and understand it.

The gist of it was that, instead of single parishes running poor houses of their own where the destitute could receive relief and shelter, each small institution should amalgamate into a regional union, sized according to geographic location; but no union workhouse was to have a radius of more than ten miles from each parish, which is considered a day’s walking distance. The parishes were now responsible for the election of one or more ‘guardians’ to a board whose task it was to oversee the running of the institution. Those eligible to stand had to be men who fulfilled the qualifications of property ownership and were also recognised as men of good character and local standing. As a magistrate I wouldn’t have to put myself through the election process; I could simply be an ex officio member of the board with exactly the same rights and duties as those elected, plus some extended rights appropriate to my official status.

It was the result of a discussion with an acquaintance after a magistrate’s session in our local market town that I became interested in joining our union board. Crossing Seddon’s main street I encountered the farmer Edward Lake of Rushie Farm, a man I respected for his openness and fair-dealing who owned a large holding in the adjacent parish. After exchanging neighbourly pleasantries he suggested we might take a drink together at the Fleece. My father was particularly careful to keep his circle of acquaintances as wide as custom allowed, and I followed his practice, making a point of moving socially among all my neighbours and keeping my ear to the ground.

Besides the magistrates’ court business it was also market day and the town was crowded with local farmers and dealers, their mothers, wives and daughters, as well as pedlars, tinkers and providers of sundry services who are always attracted to the town on such a busy day. As it was now well into the afternoon the inn had started to empty and we easily found seats in a corner where we settled with our drinks. On enquiring what he was recently about it transpired he’d put himself up as a candidate for a place on the board of guardians for the union workhouse.

‘I’ll be honest, if I’m elected it won’t do me any harm. There are two places in my parish going and I’ve been tipped the wink that I’ll be certain to get in. My reputation’s pretty solid; I’m a good employer and pay bills on the nail. I don’t think there’ll be a problem.’

‘When you say ‘It won’t do you any harm’, will it do you any good? Why do you want to involve yourself?’

‘It puts me among the more powerful in the district which, apart from being good for business, moves me more obviously into local politics. As for my motives – I’m being honest here – I did have mixed feelings about the poor – aren’t they always with us? Sometimes I thought ‘it’s all of their own making’. If I can make a go of things – feed my family, pay my way – why can’t they? But recently I’ve had second thoughts. Deep down I know it’s impossible for many of them to get out of poverty. What’s true is that no money means no hope. If a man can no longer feed his family, whether it’s his own fault or not, what becomes of his wife and children? I only pay lip-service to Christianity – attendance at church is a means to an end for me – but I don’t like the idea of ‘suffering little children’.’

I was by now genuinely interested and asked, ‘So you’ve had a change of heart – what prompted it?’

‘Last year Jake Gray, a tenant on a neighbour’s land, lost an arm in a ploughing accident. He’s a hard worker, with a wife and three children, paying a few shillings a week rent. When the accident happened they were just about managing, no debts but no savings either. Neither had they any security in their tied cottage; consequently they were almost immediately put out by the landlord so he could get another worker in. Within three weeks the whole family was in the union workhouse with no hope of discharge. This was a man who’d worked for the same farmer for twenty-three years. Although this is certainly not unusual, I know the family – he’s a decent man.’

I took a sip of brandy as I digested this story. It occurred to me there was a touch of the radical about Ted which I felt didn’t sit comfortably with a yeoman farmer. I became interested enough to throw him a challenge, so I asked what he would have done in the same situation.

‘Firstly I wouldn’t have turned them out immediately, I’d have given them time to approach any family they had, or get help from the neighbours. I would also have given him a few weeks’ wages to tide him over. My wife could have found work for his wife in the house and I’d have employed both his young boys on my land. Between them there would have been enough to pay rent on a small cottage I could offer them. I could keep him going until there were better times on the land – as there always are.’

‘I admire your altruism. But presumably these actions weren’t open to your neighbour and so, as you infer, he callously abandoned five people to the workhouse. In his defence one could argue that he needed the cottage to house a worker who would be employed on the same terms and who most certainly was himself in need of a house and labour. The classic horns of a dilemma. Your condemnation of your neighbour is, I suspect, as much about the indecent haste of the eviction, as the act itself.’

‘Maybe so, but I was stirred by the level of unconcern shown by the farmer who, when he heard of the family’s destination, simply shrugged and commented: ‘Well, that’s all right; at least they’ll be out of the weather’. It was about that time that candidates for the board of guardians were being sought, so I thought it the right time to throw in my hat. As I say, it won’t do my reputation any harm, and I may end up doing some good. Besides I’ve other concerns.’ Although I gave him time he seemed reluctant to expand and I didn’t follow it up but moved on to practical details. ‘So tell me, how much of your time will it take up?’

‘It’s not onerous; fortnightly meetings at fixed times – generally in the morning. They’re also supposed to visit the inmates regularly and inspect the buildings and facilities. So really it’s not going to interfere greatly with my running of the farm. Besides, I think they need people on the board who might start asking some hard questions. As far as I understand it, at the moment discussions are brief and decisions mostly go through on the nod. The current chairman, Colonel Jack Shepherd – I suppose you know him – has the thing nicely organised to suit his own arrangements, especially around his hunting and shooting schedule – another drink?’ Nodding, I made way as he squeezed passed me to get to the bar.

The inn was now beginning to fill up again as people completed their business and sought refreshment and the warmth of a good fire. Reflecting on his comments I confess I was surprised, not only at what he proposed to do, but at his candour. But why should I be nonplussed? Back-scratching was universal; indeed it oiled the wheels not only of commerce, but all aspects of our social interaction. The criss-crossing of inter-connected relationships formed a secure mesh around each of our small communities. For someone like Ted Lake, to safeguard his position in the world he needed to tap into that web in the same manner as I might utilise my aristocratic connections, not only to maintain my standing, but to propel myself forward. But it also seemed to me that he had other undisclosed motives. Something prevented me from wanting to pursue them in that place. Perhaps it was the public environment we were in, or maybe as a magistrate I didn’t want him to expose himself to the risk of accusations of sedition. We may have recently had reform of the franchise, but it was only four years previously that six Dorset labourers were sentenced to seven years of transportation to the penal colony in New South Wales for administering illegal oaths. Loose talk, from whatever quarter was risky and taverns in small towns were not good places for radical conversation. When he returned I pursued a safer and again more practical line.

‘So tell me, what do the guardians actually do?’

‘First and most important they set the poor rate – you know, that annual tax we all pay according the value of our property. At the moment in this union it’s 2/6d in the pound. The money raised pays for the upkeep of the workhouse, payment of outdoor relief and all the wages of the officials. Then they supervise how the place is run – does it give value for money? Part of the job also is visiting the inmates. I think this is the tricky bit. Surprisingly the guardians don’t have an automatic right of entry and why that is I don’t know; also the master of the place can refuse to let them in and it has been known – I presume because they’ve got something to hide. Anyway, as far as the Seddon workhouse is concerned, from what I’ve heard Jack Shepherd turns up and conducts the meeting in the boardroom, then has a short social exchange with the master and leaves. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think anyone on the board has actually spoken to any of the inmates, although there’s supposed to be a visiting committee which can report any of their complaints to the guardians. As I say, at these meetings nobody ask questions, other than how much can be shaved off the running expenses to keep the rate down. It’s politics.’

‘So, do you intend to be the grit in the oyster? That’s hardly going to endear you to the great and the good.’

‘Look, Edgar, I’ll be straight with you. You know as well as I there are great changes under way. Since the Reform Act many people are seeing opportunities for progress. Myself, I think it’s been going on since ’89 but, as I’ve heard, you’re a reader and follower of ideas and must know what current thinking is on these things. I don’t give a fig for Shepherd and his ilk; I’d like to see their power diminished. It’s all built on false premises of land, money and custom. There’s nothing about Shepherd that shows any real personal integrity, his motives are self-seeking and I’d go so far as to say dubious.’

My mental antennae were swivelling as I caught these signals of what many would see as radicalism. Probably because of the drink he was becoming reckless. Expounding views like this to anyone, let alone a magistrate, was risky. But he had gauged me correctly. My leanings were such as I recognised an element of truth in his observations. I knew Shepherd as a boorish, self-satisfied man who got himself installed onto every committee in the district, ran the Seddon Hunt as if it was a military campaign and treated his servants and tenants with equal distain. He dined out on his war stories, but whether he’d really fought alongside Wellington (always using his sobriquet ‘Nosey’) no one had ever dared to challenge him publicly.

In the course of the next hour and several more brandies I learned much more about the composition and politics of the Seddon guardians. Ted Lake was standing with a local corn merchant Will Faulkner. Will had apparently been persuaded to stand by Colonel Shepherd’s land agent, George Stenning who was himself a guardian. Faulkner was ambivalent about holding any public office and had done very little in the way of canvassing for votes. But it was of no account since both Ted and Faulkner were standing unopposed. There was certainly not a rush in their parish of civically-minded candidates for the positions available. It was at this point that he suggested I might consider using my position as magistrate to join the board and bring some enlightened views to its management. I wasn’t certain whether this was a spur of the moment suggestion, or one which he’d come ready to propose. In other words, had he sought me out deliberately to canvass my help in some way?

Lake became more voluble as his consumption of liquor increased and I was hard pressed to rein in his near-seditious expressions of social radicalism. It was fortunate that we were in a very secluded booth, mostly in shadow and well away from the crowded bar area. Eventually he reached that stage of steady drinking when the zenith of eloquence begins a rapid descent to the nadir of unstructured ramblings. But we left on good terms and I told him that he’d stirred my interest.

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