Proper Poor Law

A glimpse into the past of wartime Brighton, before the introduction of the Welfare State.

By Pam Piercey

Before the National Insurance and the National Health came into being, the Borough Treasurer of the County Borough of Brighton, was responsible for the collection of revenue and payments relating to poor relief. Non-financial administration was carried out by the Public Assistance Department.

The town was divided into four districts and each one had one RELIEVING OFFICER (the equivalent of to-days Social Worker). They were responsible for all social problems, including mental health, which sometimes involved night call-outs for the legal sectioning of patients.

They were employed at the Public Offices, Princes Street, not in the front of the building amid the splendour of the marble pillars, the mosaic flooring, the sweeping stone staircase and stained glass windows, but, tucked away at the back with its own two rear entrances from Steine Gardens.

In this poorer part of the building was a small locked office, allocated to the two Pay Clerks. They were responsible for the once-weekly payments to those entitled to Public Assistance. They worked in a Dickensian atmosphere, on high stools, at equally high wall mounted desks, recording every payment in huge leather bound ledgers. Payments were made from a little window, to the ever-lengthening queue of eager clients in the passageway outside, a queue of such length that it stretched all along the passageway and out of the rear door and into the street beyond, regardless of weather conditions.

Probably the only glimpse the poor people had of the better part of the building was when they were summoned before the BOARD OF GUARDIANS in the impressive court-like boardroom. This was either to plead their case or  be severely reprimanded for being caught doing part-time work while drawing Public Assistance. Access for them was through a narrow door from the payment passage, which leads directly into the DOCK of the boardroom. This must have been a humiliating experience - BUT THUS WAS SEGREGATION MAINTAINED. Mind you, there may well have been a reason for this "them and us" arrangement.

At the end of the corridor was the Case Paper Room, which was stuffed with records from floor to ceiling. We were told never to push our way through the payments queue when fetching a case paper but instead to go out of the South door, onto the street an in the North door, or we could get covered in fleas.

The more palatial part of the building was occupied on the ground floor by The National Registration Office, responsible for our issue of our wartime Identity Cards and the Public Assistance Department, dealing with non-financial relief of the poor. The upper floor was shared by the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths (including the wedding room) and the Borough Treasurer's Public Assistance Department responsible for the financial side. This included:

The collection of money for children evacuated to Yorkshire.
Collection of maintenance charges for those in hospital or residential homes.
Receivership responsibility for those with no-one to act legally on their behalf.
Responsibility for the payment of funeral expenses for those with no means of payment.
Collection of midwifery charges for home confinements.
The entire financial administration of the Municipal Hospital (now the Brighton General Hospital).

It was in this monetary wonderland that I found myself employed at th age of 18 in my very first job, not as a secretary for which I had been trained, but as a Junior Clerk and general dog's body, at everyones beck and call. This lasted for three months until I was promoted to better things, but this was the best cure for shyness anyone could have and it introduced me to the sleazy side of Brighton I never knew existed.

Hitherto my mechanical encounters had been confined to typewriters. I had never seen an adding machine, let alone one that divided, subtracted and multiplied. To me the office machine room was astonishing, with it's huge, noisy Brough's machines constantly up-dating records and stock control cards. How different from today when a man can repair a mobile phone mast on top of a Welsh mountain and immediately key in the update information into his lap-top for instant transfer and stock adjustment at his Headquarters in Birmingham.

I soon learned that I was in a world of balancing books and checking and re-checking to the last penny, yet, in spite of this there was a huge fraud going on right under my nose, for I sat opposite the Collections Officer. He was a retired First World War Army Captain, very much a law unto himself and one not to be trifled with. His job was to collect and cash the pension books of those admitted to hospital. In those days not everyone had a pension and he alone obtained the information as to wether or not patients could pay for their keep. The Old Age Pension was only 10/- per week, 9/- was retained for maintenance and 1/- paid to the patient for pocket money. He would bring the Pension books back from the hospital, store them in his safe until he cashed them once a fortnight at Post Offices in various parts of the town in which they were registered. He never took his holiday during Pensions Week nor did he ever seem to be off sick during that week either. It was only when he was run over outside the Black Lion Pub at Patcham and carted off to hospital, that the surrender of his safe-keys revealed a pack of pension books nobody knew existed. He always paid the patients their 1/- pocket money, so there were no complaints from them, but the balance went into his pocket. He lost his job and his pension rights but was never prosecuted. Eventually we heard he had a job in the Bursar's Office of one of the very well-known public schools. I wonder if he was teaching the pupils to cook the books!

As a result of this fraud his duties were split up and several were given to me, thus I became involved with the Municipal Hospital, which was a real eye-opener. It was like a self-contained small town within those flint walls, for as well as the huge medical blocks, including the heavily locked H block housing mental patients, there was:

The enormous Kitchen and Bakery.
The Medical Superintendent's Office
The Nurses Home
The Laundry
The Tailoring Department
The Boot Making Department
The Pharmacy
And of course, The Mortuary.

To make room for Air Raid casualties the Workhouse Block had already been evacuated to 25 Sussex Square. This came as bit of a shock for the neighbourhood who expected the house to be occupied as an RAF Officers mess.

Tramps, or to give them their posh names, vagrants, were housed in the two entrance Gate Lodges and slept on straw palliasses. They were restricted to a stay of three nights, and expected to work for their keep, before being moved on. The accommodation was very popular on Race Days.

I now had the job of getting the pension books signed, which involved visiting the huge overcrowded geriatric wards that were the end of the road for so many, and were considered  far too depressing for the employment of the very young nurses. They were packed with what to me looked like lines of corpses in cot beds. A very few patients were well enough to sign their own pension books, mostly it was a case of literally seeing that they were breathing before putting a cross on the book and witnessing it. The next day I had to take all these books to be cashed to a back room of the Ship Street Post Office. I was then given a cheque, which I banked on the way to the office, so no longer was there a risk of handling cash.

I also had to pay the pocket money, known as "The Bobs". The first time I did this I was warned "Look out for old Virgo". This I failed to understand. Poor old Virgo looked too ill to be capable of anything. It was when I was bending over the next bed that I spied, out of the corner of my eye, old Virgo's stiff, arthritic fingers emerging from beneath his bedclothes in an attempt to pinch my bottom.

Another of my jobs was to pay the Hospital Day and Night Staff wages. This involved my analysing the pay-sheets, to find out how much copper, silver and notes would be needed, and with an escort, collecting this vast sum of money from Barclays Bank in North Street. To prevent congestion in the bank, it was agreed that we took the money back to our office for checking, and had a good arrangement that anything over or under would be adjusted. On one occasion the usually friendly Counter Clerk was replaced by a sour-faced pompous old man, probably brought out of retirement as a holiday stand-in. I returned to the Bank informing him that there was a discrepancy of £5 in the wages, he looked down his nose and said "The Bank doesn't make mistakes Madam". So Madam replied with a cheerful smile, producing the £5 bag of silver from her pocket, "Oh good, I can hang onto it then". His attitude changed very quickly.

My job involved checking and passing all the Hospital Invoices. Orders were typed in triplicate, the top copy went to the firm, the second was retained by the Hospital, and the third came to me for checking against the submitted invoices. These I then summarised and prepared for submission to the monthly Committee to be passed for payment. I was faced with items I had never heard of, for instance "Leather Bends". These I believe were the great hunks of leather used to make the old men's boots.

Chits issued to the poor for food and clothing also had to be checked and prepared for payment. In the case of large firms like the Co-op they were in great numbers but little out-lying shops only had a few. Anything under £5 was paid in cash and known as "Sundry Smalls", so with the help of Kelly's Directory and a map of Brighton I plotted my way round the town's small shops. This was one of the nicer jobs as  shopkeepers were always very pleased to see me.

What was not a very nice job for me was the collection of bad debts. We were lucky enough to have a new (but stuttering) very nice boss. New brooms sweep clean, and he certainly lived up to the saying when he discovered five year old debts still owing. Knocking on strange doors of slum houses was bad enough, but knocking on doors and asking for money from those who could ill afford to pay was awful. A five year old debt for midwifery charges often meant that the baby concerned would open the door to you. There was one debt of 7/6d that an old grandmother at 6d per week. If I missed a week I never got 1/- next time, but when it was finally paid off the old lady was delighted.

I was far too naive to realise the significance of one house were the door was opened each week by a different member of the armed forces. I was just delighted that they always paid up on behalf of the somewhat scruffy, over made up lady of the house. It was on this doorstep that a lady-bird like brown insect ran across the front of my dress. I quickly flicked it off with my pencil, but then , a few moments later, I suddenly realised with horror that it had been a bug. Full of indignation, I dashed back to the office and stormed into my boss, saying "I've just had a BUG on me". He looked up with a sweet smile and replied "Only w- w- w- one?". He told me years later that if he had sympathised with me I would never have gone out debt collecting again. However, I was strongly advised never to stand under the lintel of the front doors. Apparently the old wooden surrounds were the bugs favourite habitat.

Two years later I became the bosses secretary, with a shorthand speed that had suffered considerably through lack of use, so I found his stutter very helpful as it gave me a good chance to catch up when taking dictation.

Originally I had taken that very first job as a temporary measure expecting to be called up into the Forces, but I failed the medical for the WRNS because of a suspected Heart Murmur. As I was working full-time during the day and doing voluntary work in the evenings, which included three evenings a week as Secretary to the Transport Officer in the HOME GUARD, two evenings a week Canteen work and one night a week Fire Watching in Princes Street, the powers that be decided it was better for the War effort to leave me were I was. Thus my temporary job lasted for 38 years.

The introduction of National Assistance and National Health meant, on the 5th July 1948, the closure of the Borough Treasurer's Public Assistance Department. I got a job downstairs in the Social Welfare Department and for many years was the secretary to the Director of Social Services and ultimately became Section Head in charge of Secretarial and Office Services, BUT, those never to be forgotten early years made me realise how lucky we are to have the National Health Service. YES we may grumble, and YES, mistakes are made, often serious ones, because they are dealing with flesh and blood not pen and ink, but how fortunate we are to have so many hard-working, dedicated people giving a FREE SERVICE instead of, as in the old days being frightened to be ill because you could not afford to pay for a Doctor.

This page was added on 26/01/2008.