In times when there is enormous political and social pressure to reduce or remove welfare benefits, the fourth episode of BBC 2’s Secret History of my Family was compelling viewing. It managed to achieve a balanced survey of some of the arguments without moralising about families in the past or the present. In that regard, this was probably the best episode.
Social welfare has been a contentious subject politically since the Elizabethan Poor Laws at the end of the 16th century. It was a moral problem long before that, when benefits were charitable foundations attached to churches and monasteries. The rights and wrongs of handouts and who ‘deserved’ them or not was only briefly taken out of the hands of the moralisers with the introduction of State pensions and the family allowance during the 20th century.
The programme centred on Susan Nelson, a mother of three children in 1903 who had lost her husband in the South African Wars. She tried her best to avoid going into the workhouse but when all means ran out turned to the Charitable Organisation Society (COS) for help. She was placed under the supervision of Margaret Martin, one of the lady volunteers, who was the daughter of a well-to-do solicitor. The COS and Margaret were motivated by a desire to help, subject to the avoidance of ‘pauperism’, what we now hear described as welfare dependency. Interpretations of who was deserving were heavily dependent on moral behaviour. When it was discovered that Susan had shacked up with her brother in law, the three children were taken away and farmed out to distant relatives along with any charitable assistance.
The programme restricted itself to the fate of one child out of the three, Charlotte, and what happened to her and her own descendants. She was eventually rehoused from Deptford to Kent and remained estranged from her mother, as was her son. He himself suffered from a divorce and became estranged from his son and daughter, until reunited by this programme.
Susan meanwhile had three more children with her brother in law Nathaniel, out of wedlock. There were no more benefits from the COS and, after a dreadful incident between Susan and a drunken Nathaniel in which the youngest child ended up in the river before being rescued, she deserted her children to fend for themselves. The programme followed two of the sons and their descendants.
Nathaniel junior found a trade, but life remained hard with a mouth to mouth existence at the mercy of the ‘tally man’. Alfred, who had almost drowned, worked as a ferryman and labourer. During WW2 the children were evacuated to Durham where one son, Alec, acquired a strong local accent. He was teased about that, he passed the 11 plus for grammar school where he was teased mercilessly for lacking a decent uniform. He left to work as a carpenter on parental demands, but worked at night school and eventually also moved out of the area and encouraged his own children to progress through education. Meanwhile another of Alfred’s sons, Alex, deserted his wife leaving her to bring up 5 children on benefits, two of whom carried on that tradition as unmarried mothers with five children apiece.
The sole descendant of the charitable lady Margaret Martin to appear, a great-great niece, might have been expected to moralise about the unmarried mothers, but she was intensely understanding and had herself worked in birth control charities in America. She was the end of her own family line, while the descendants of Susan Nelson had created a massive extended family network, largely characterised by a rough and ready working class culture.
There was much sympathy for Susan Nelson and it is sad that we did not hear much about what happened to her – though she had been known to older members of the family. Yes, there is a working-class argument against welfare dependency, but it is based on the knowledge that it is generally better for all to have the limited independence of wages and that surviving on benefits is just that – survival. We may not be totally prisoners of our circumstances, as stories in this episode showed, but when horizons are lowered and ambitions discouraged by the surrounding culture, choices are less free than the well-off folk might imagine, particularly for women. In those instances, ‘welfare dependency’ is just another way of ‘getting by’ and ‘making shift’ – what those dependent on their labour have done since time immemorial.