the black hole


In the 19th century the population of St. Pancras rose from about 31,000 to 240,000. The State was totally unprepared for this massive increase and it must count as one of the greater ironies of the 19th century that the same people, who placed such great reliance upon the notions of 'self help' in the best spirit of Samuel Smiles, should have been so instrumental in establishing one of the first departments of state with great central powers - that was the Poor Law Board.

Until the 19th century the Poor Law was based upon the great Tudor Statutes of 1597 and 1603, with some attempts at reform being made in the late 18th century. Basically, it was intended to provide relief for the deserving poor, whilst the 'undeserving' "be stripped naked from the middle upwards and shall be openly whipped until his or her body be bloody".

Over the course of the 18th century the Tudor Poor Law decayed, and the need for more general reform was anticipated by a number of parish administrations, by the passing of private bills. In St. Pancras, a body called the Directors of the Poor were entrusted with the running the Parish by means of a Select Vestry, which was virtually autonomous and beyond the control of the Open Vestry, that is a meeting of the parishioners.

Select Vestrymen numbered 40 and included leading landowners such as the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Mansfield, the Earl of Dartmouth and Lord Somers. The degree of disrepute which their idiosyncratic government of the parish enjoyed is well documented. In 1809 a Workhouse was built to accommodate 500 people. It was intended that "the luxurious entertainment of paupers" should cease. The building endured until the 1880s - amid scenes of increasing horror and misery.

A visitor in 1809 commented "in an adjoining burial ground, a great number of burials take place. The solid refuse matters are used for manure in the garden -- portions of the body apparently quite fresh, were extracted with a hooked fork -- and thrown into a barrow -- the pall of smoke and smell which huung over the area, was unlike any other that I have ever smelt -- there was also pigsty, which became so revolting that even the Directors of the Poor called it 'a most abominable nuisance' -- sanitary conditions were dreadful, at one side there was a stagnant ditch into which the cesspools emptied, and contiguous the Workhouse were privies, pig styes, and various dung heaps -- a thorough bog of the blackest filth that could be imagined, and the interior of the building was not much better.

Until the coming of the Welfare State in the first two decades of this century, the most pressing of social problems concerned the very young. The Apprenticeship ledgers of the time record that scores of children were committed to slave labour in factories and as servants in private households. The Times of 11th september 1846 reported : No precaution is taken that the pauper shall at least be provided with sufficient food in return for the labour required -- it is calculated that the terrors of "the shed" will prevent all desire for re-admittance.

The Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 was intended to bring to an end the giving of relief to paupers in their own homes. Instead, paupers were to brought to the Workhouse where conditions would be "suitable severe and unibviting" -- sufficient "to inspire a renewed enthusiasm for work and self improvement&quote;. The Relieving Officer in the 1850s was "a sadistic thief" -- ruling what was known as the "Black Hole of St Pancras".

As late as 1903 the Guardians stated once more their three major principles upon which they based their administration:

1. that the good of the Community at large, not the rights of individuals, is the proper reason for making legal provision for the destitute;

2. the conditions of the pauper shall not be, or seem to be more desirable than that of the lowest class of independent labourer;

3. that the Poor Law should improve the condition of the poor by teaching and training the young for work and self dependence, by teaching morality, and by promoting industry, cleanliness and temperance.