Matthew Newsome Kerr – Pauperised by the Public Health?: Taste and Citizenship in London’s Infectious Disease Asylums, 1871-1891

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)


Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950

Living in Instiutions

Material Cultures

Matthew Newsome Kerr (Santa Clara University ):
Pauperised by the Public Health?: Taste and Citizenship in London’s Infectious Disease Asylums, 1871-1891

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, nearly 300,000 Londoners passed through a period of hospitalization as a consequence of contracting an infectious disease. The Metropolitan Asylums Board (founded 1867) possessed thousands of beds for the isolation of smallpox and fevers. Periods of detention lasted from a few weeks to a few months. As a Poor Law body, the MAB hospitals were ostensibly for paupers only; but, as no other public hospitals existed for isolating infectious persons, during epidemic periods they tended to contain patients from a variety of classes. In a legal sense, every hospitalized sufferer was automatically pauperized by virtue of being an inmate, with all the social stigma and political disenfranchisement implied in that term. The pauper regime notoriously valorized deprivation and parsimony in the name of vigilantly protecting the interests of ratepayers. Principles of the New Poor Law stipulated that distributions of parochial relief be subject to the “workhouse test” to deter the undeserving poor from seeking assistance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, patients from the very beginning voiced objections to being treated like paupers. But specifically they complained most vociferously and repeatedly about the quality and quantity of the hospitals’ food. I argue that it was upon this register of “taste” that criticism of the institutions’ Poor Law governance crystallized. Taste – both physical sense and social distinction – became the almost universal gauge of institutional living. Indeed, by this time, food had been for decades a key measure by which the pauper was abjected. Distastefulness had sensorially and morally haunted the pauper since Dickens’s screed against the workhouse system in Oliver Twist. MAB patients who grumbled bitterly about the monotonous and unappetizing menu demonstrated that refined tastes could not be accommodated within the Poor Law. In a real sense, disliking the food and complaining about it was one way of refuting the pauper label and asserting claims to untainted citizenship.

What is most surprising is that these criticisms did not remain merely instances of internal disgruntlement. Allegations of mistreatment and insufficient nourishment sparked a series of explosive public scandals between 1871 and 1891, each of which were widely remarked in the public press and prompted official investigations that were also widely reported. These inquiries provide a rare glimpse into the everyday routines of hospital life from the patients’ perspectives. Further, they emphasize the contentious nature of poor relief at this time, especially in its relationship to public health reform. Protests over hospital food were an unmistakable measure of the essentially non-pauper composition of these pauper hospitals. The right to decent food whilst in isolation eventually combined with the notion that hospitalization for sickness was a right held by any ratepayer. Taste became a fault line in the negotiation between pauperism and sanitary citizenship, a cultural component in the genealogy of the welfare state.





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