Deceit, Deservingness, & Destitution: Able-Bodied Widows & the New Poor Law

Please click here to access the final version of this article, published by Oxford University Press in the Journal of Victorian Culture on 10 November 2020. Below you can find a pdf of the the Accepted Manuscript of the article


The death of a husband had adverse economic effects for the majority of Victorian women, but for working-class mothers the threat of destitution was an almost inevitable feature of widowhood. Widows, with some restrictions, were entitled to outdoor relief under the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), and they comprised the largest group of adult paupers outside of the workhouse well into the early twentieth century, outnumbered only and always by their children. Able-bodied widows therefore presented crucial opportunities for poor law officials in the quest to minimise outdoor relief and make significant reductions in welfare spending. Focusing particularly on the 1830s, 1840s, and the 1870s (the first decade of the so-called crusade against out-relief), this article examines the competing discourses of deservingness and deception that dominated the representations and treatment of able-bodied widows in poor law legislation, orders, reports, and parliamentary debates. An uneasy combination of sympathy and suspicion shaped officials’ treatment of these women, rendering them ambiguous figures in the dominant dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor, potential drains on the economic prosperity of the state, threats to the nuclear family, and, by extension, a danger to the nation’s moral core. These discourses, I suggest, reflect a wider ideological unease with and attempts to mitigate and police the widow’s exceptional social status in Victorian Britain as a woman with sexual experience, potential economic independence, yet no male guardian.

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