The Victorian origins of workfare

Where did the government get the idea of subsidising free labour for big companies like Tesco?

The ruling class has a long history of obtaining free labour for itself under the guise of ‘charity’ or ‘training’.

On 21 October 1869 a pretty piece appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, (a liberal evening paper long since absorbed into the Evening Standard).

For those who are a little hazy on Victorian social history, the Board of Guardians were in charge of the welfare system (called the Poor Law) and among other tasks the Board of Guardians operated as a combo job centre and carehome for kids without families. To further help understanding, for ‘Miss Annette Preusser’ read ‘Tesco’s’.

The PMG article ran: “At a meeting of the Bethnal Green Board of Guardians yesterday, the Rev Septimus Hansard, the rector of the parish, stated that he was authorised by Miss Annette Preusser, of Annesdale, Cumberland, to express her willingness to take charge of a number of destitute girls belonging to the parish of Bethnal Green and to train them up as servants.

“She was willing either that the board should remain the guardians of the girls, and pay a small sum weekly for their maintenance, or that she should adopt half-a-dozen of the girls, or take them for a limited time.

“In the parish in which Miss Preusser lives there are, it appears, no poor, and she and her friends are desirous of doing what they can to benefit the poor of London. Mr Hansard was authorised to inform Miss Preusser that the board was willing to place a number of children in her charge and to contribute towards their maintenance.”

In a nutshell, Miss Preusser (who the censuses record as living off “interest on dividends”) ended up being paid by the Board of Guardians to take a ‘number of children’ and use them as free labour under the guise of ‘training’ them.

Well, at least now we know where the present government got the clever idea of giving favoured companies like Tesco free labour while the silly old state (like the silly old Bethnal Board of Guardians) actually maintains that labour itself (albeit with a mere pittance of dole).

However, obscure Victorians apart, one thing we can all be sure of: like Tesco et al, Miss Annette Pruesser was laughing all the way to the stock exchange.