Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteUnmarried Mothers


Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteUnmarried Mothers


Ignominious Dress for Unchaste Women in Workhouses

Minute of the Poor Law Commissioners 5th March 1839 
pp 098-100. No. 4.

The Poor Law Commissioners are informed that in several Union workhouses single women, mothers of children or pregnant, are compelled to wear a dress of a peculiar colour as a mark of disgrace.
The Commissioners are aware that such a regulation has originated solely in a desire on the part of the Guardians to repress vice, and it is only because they are convinced that principles of considerable importance are involved in this practice that they feel called on to express an opinion on the subject. The following are the principal grounds on which they have arrived at the conclusion that such distinction in dress, or any equivalent mark of disgrace, is inexpedient.
It was the obvious intention of the Legislation in the Poor Law Amendment Act to carry into effect the views of the Commissioners of Inquiry "that a bastard should be what Providence appears to have ordained that it should be - a burthen to its mother" The woman by her imprudence has become charged with the maintenance of a child, without having previously secured for herself and her offspring the protection of a husband and father. The amended law,
most properly as the Commissioners conceive, removed the punishment which by the Statutes of 7 James I c 4 and 50 Geo III c 51, placed such conduct in the class of crimes, and simply left the mother to bear the natural consequences of vice. These consequences are, the burthen of supporting the child, and she becomes an inmate of the workhouse, because she is destitute of means to bear this
burthen. Whatever the cause of her destitution may be, it ought not, as the Commissioners think, to affect her treatment there.

Any attempt to inflict disgrace or punishment on the mother of a bastard, as such, appears to be in opposition to the principles which guided the legislature in the alteration of the law on this subject.
Even if the penal provision against mothers of bastards contained in 50 Geo III c51 had not been repealed, it would not, in the opinion of the Commissioners, be expedient to inflict any  punishment on unchaste women, as such, in workhouses. The statute in question empowered 2 justices to commit the mother of a bastard child to a house of correction for any time not exceeding 12 months, nor less than 6 weeks, but did not direct that mothers of bastards, when inmates of workhouses, should be subject to any punishment. The sole object of the workhouse is to give relief to the destitute poor in such a manner as shall satisfy their necessary wants, without making pauperism attractive, or otherwise injuring the industrious classes.
The workhouse is not intended to serve any penal or remuneratory purpose; and it ought not to be used for punishing the dissolute, or rewarding the well-conducted pauper. If it is attempted by means of the workhouse to attain comparatively unimportant ends for which it is not fitted, there is a danger of not attaining the important end for which it is fitted. Many, probably a majority, of the inmates of a workhouse, have become such by want of prudence on their own part; but it is manifestly impossible to distinguish in the mode of relief the various shades of character which have led to pauperism. In administering relief through a workhouse, necessary food, raiment,  and lodging, are all that can be safely offered in any case; and  less than such necessaries can be afforded in none. The following objections may be raised in reply to these arguments.

1st - That the Commissioners have repeatedly pressed on Boards of Guardiians the expediency of relieving women with bastard children in the workhouse only.

2nd - That it is sometimes necessary in towns to separate the women of infamous and thoroughly abandoned character from the  other female inmates.

The Commissioners feel convinced that relief to able-bodied women of any class should, as far as possible, be given in a workhouse; not only because of the evils which would result from relief in aid of wages, but because in the case of an able-bodied woman, her means of support are uncertain, and far more difficult to determine with precision than those of other paupers. The Commissioners, however, have forborne from pressing this opinion on Boards of Guardians with regard to widows with families, believing that in general the Boards of Guardians from not thoroughly apprehending the evils of out-door relief, would be disposed to consider as severe any regulation withholding relief of this nature from a clas sof persons whose circumstances justly excite their sympathy. The separation of certain abandoned persons from the other inmates rests not on the consideration of their past conduct, but on that of their present habits and character. Their separation from the other inmates is necessary for the maintenance of order in the workhouse; and it has even been suggested that it would be expedient to form a central receptacle in which the riotous and
abandoned prostitutes from the several London Unions might be  congregated and subjected to peculiar regulations.
It will be evident therefore, that, if on the one hand it is 
inexpedient that the necessary support of the destitute should be converted into an appatent reward of good character, but a real premium on improvidence; so, on the other hand, it was not the intention of the legislature to constitute the Board of Guardians a tribunal for the punishment of past profligacy by any varieties in the mode of administering in-door relief. 
Source: 6th Report of the Poor Law Commissioners 1840
England and Wales plus Ireland pp 1-486
Appendix A pp 081-117
Submitted by Alan Longbottom

Link to an Extract from an account of the mode of supplying a country parish with a midwife. by Rev Mr Dolling, late Vicar of Aldenham, Herts. pp 126-128 Dated 6th Aug 1797.

Link to an Extract from an account of a charity for assisting the female poor, at the period of their lying-in


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