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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 42


ONE of the most interesting, and, at the same time, probably the most painful chapter in the history of Shetland, is that which relates to the Poor Law.

The old system of managing the poor in this country wrought admirably, and appears to have given universal satisfaction. For a description, I cannot do better than quote the excellent Statistical Account of Unst. The number of poor dependent on alms is generally from twenty-five to thirty. For their support the parish is divided into fourteen parts, called quarters, through which the whole poor are dispersed. To each of these a proportional number i* assigned. In every family within each quarter the poor belonging to it receive their board for as many days as the family occupies merks of land; and, after proceeding in this manner through the whole families in that quarter, return upon the first again. When any person, unable to support himself, applies to be put upon the quarters, as it is called, the minister gives notice of the application from the pulpit'; and, if nothing be urged against his character or circumstances, as rendering him an improper object of the charity, he immediately obtains his request. The weekly contributions made at the church, together with the more liberal one at the celebration of the feacrament, are expended in the purchase of clothes and other necessaries for the poor, who are maintained upon the quarters. None are suffered to go about begging.

Children, if in moderately comfortable circumstances themselves, are obliged to support their aged parents, when they fall into extreme poverty; but are assisted from the funds in the hands of the kirk session with money for the purchase of clothes to them.”1 The system here so graphically described continued until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1845. The working of that law in Shetland has been ably described by George H. B. ‘Hay, Esq. of Hayfield, Lerwick, in his evidence given before the Poor Law Committee of the House of Commons, on the 1st of April 1870. Than this talented gentleman, no one better acquainted with the subject could be found in Shetland. In preparing this short chapter I shall make free use‘of Mr Hay’s evidence. In 1845, the expenditure on the poor in Shetland was £250; in 1846 it had been more than doubled, amounting to £532; in 1869 it had reached £5319—in other words, it increased twenty-one fold in fourteen years.

The following table, taken from the source above-mentioned, will help to illustrate the existing state of matters:—

Thus, about 25 per cent, of the rental goes to the relief of the poor. The amount of assessment in each parish varies. In Tingwall one year, owing to particular circumstances, it reached 10s. per pound rental. In Unst, in 1869, it was 7s. On an average of all the parishes it is from 3s. to 4s. Surely, with all this exorbitant expenditure, the poor are supplied with every comfort. The very opposite state of matters prevails. The really deserving poor form a comparatively small proportion of those who swell the pauper rolls. They receive, generally, from sixpence to eighteenpence a week, or from rather less than a penny to rather more than twopence a day. It is difficult to understand how they can possibly subsist on this wretched pittance. If any portion of their weekly allowance can be spared from their rent, it is generally spent on tea, the paupers trusting to their own exertions, or the charity of their neighbours, for the moderate supply of bread, with sillocks and potatoes, which goes to make up their too scanty diet. It is heartrending to observe the squalor, starvation, and misery of every form that mark their wretched abodes. A very large number of recipients of parochial relief are most undeserving persons, prostitutes, women with illegitimate children, or idle and lazy females who will not put themselves to the trouble of working for their bread. The relief of pauper lunatics is likewise a very heavy burden on the parish funds. When Mr Hay gave his evidence, there were fifty-seven pauper lunatics, the most of them living in asylums, at the expense of not less than £26 a year each. Again, the Shetland parishes suffer a peculiar hardship from the circumstance that many persons leave the islands in their youth, spend the best of their days as sailors or domestic servants, for instance, without acquiring a settlement anywhere, and then when they grow old become burdens on the district which gave them birth, but has never been benefited by their industry. A large proportion of the poor rates, again, never reach the poor, deserving or undeserving, being spent in management, inspectors’ salaries, &c., or in lawsuits to determine the settlement of individual paupers. Ting wall had to pay £200 of law expenses, for one particular case, in one year.

But the -heavy taxation, with the vast and ever increasing expenditure it entails, has probably been the least evil produced by the present poor law. No more effectual means could have been invented for demoralising the community. The small tenants feeling the rates press heavily upon them, think it a pity to lay out all this money without getting some return. Accordingly, as each one has some dependent parent, aunt, child, or other relative whom he is well enough able to assist, he contrives to place that person on the poor-roll, in order to get his assessment back again. The process of demoralisation thus becomes very rapid and wide-spread. Children abandon their parents, parents their children, brothers - their sisters, and even natural affection is destroyed. Many men leave Shetland and become prosperous mariners or colonists, but they very frequently cease air communication with “ the old folks at home,” in order to get quit of their support, knowing very well that the parochial board must take them up. Before the present law was enacted, such men almost invariably did their best for their infirm relatives.

Again, the poor law dries up the sympathies of the charitable. How can a Shetland heritor, however kind-hearted, relieve the necessities of the deserving poor of his acquaintance, when the strong arm of the law puts its hand into his pocket, and forcibly extracts a fourth of his income, to be expended in the support of vice, idleness, and hypocrisy, as well as honest poverty? Amongst the vices promoted by the poor law, illegitimacy holds a prominent place. Before its enactment, the proportion of illegitimacy in Shetland was not one per cent, annually. Now it has reached three or four. A worthless woman knows very well that the more children she has, the greater will be her allowance. Therefore, an unfortunate seldoms stops at one illegitimate child.

In Shetland, it is now considered no shame to be a pauper, but very often an object of ambition, particularly amongst spinsters on the “ shady side ” of forty. In order to attain this laudable obje6t, they spare no effort that hypocrisy and deceit can suggest. In illustration of this, I may relate an incident that lately occurred in my own experience. An unmarried woman, somewhat over forty years of age, having applied for parochial relief in a country parish, was refused until she could produce a medical certificate declaring she was not able-bodied. The inspector of poor accordingly sent her to me for examination. She described some extraordinary nervous disorder, which caused torment from head to foot. I failed to detect this wonderful disease, and inquired if there was anything else the matter with her, whereupon she replied, “Oh yes, sir, I'm lame; I have a very bad ankle.” This joint was immediately laid bare, and carefully examined. I, however, could discover neither disease nor deformity. She was then requested to walk across the room, but her lameness was so great she could scarcely move. I then told her I had made up my mind regarding her case, but requested her to go a message to the foot of the street, while I wrote out the certificate. She poured all sorts of flattery and blessings on my head, and vowed she would do anything to oblige me. The candidate for parochial honours had no sooner left the house than I planted myself in the window, in order to watch her mode of locomotion. She tripped lithely down the street, and all the lameness had suddenly vanished. On her return, I handed her a certificate, declaring her able-bodied and an impostor, duly enclosed in an envelope, addressed to the inspector. Upon receiving it, she again uttered a host of benedictions, evidently thinking the document was favourable to her claims, a delusion which would soon be dispelled when the note was opened by the executive officer of the Parochial Board.

For this dreadful state of matters, there appears to be only one remedy, viz., that suggested by Mr Hay to the Committee, which was the repeal of the existing law, and a gradual return to the good old system. Ex-Bailie Lewis of Edinburgh, a high authority in such matters, in his evidence before the Poor Law Committee, advocates a remedy very similar to that proposed by Mr Hay. Mr Lewis thinks the support of its poor a duty incumbent on each Christian congregation. The old system in Shetland, if reintroduced, would have to be modified to suit the altered circumstances of the times. If the present law continues, there is reason to fear the whole rental will be swallowed up, and extensive eviction, with all its miseries, must be the result Sheep do not come on the Parochial Board, and therefore they will be preferred to men.


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