Pauper-Emancipist Care: A Changing System

This blog post will focus on the changing system of aged and invalid pauper care in Van Diemen’s Land up until the turn of the century. Changing beliefs about this population will be explored in an attempt to understand changing practices. Van Diemen’s Lands had a unique penal history and this affected how the system of dealing with paupers and invalids developed. This discussion will begin by exploring the Tasmanian system in relation to mainland Australian and the British system.

It has been argued that colonists rejected the British Poor Law. The poor laws were a system of poor relief in England and Wales that developed out of the codification of laws from c16th onwards. The system continued until the modern welfare state emerged after the Second World War. Colonial elites thought the poor law stopped the working classes working hard and caused dependence, whereas the working classes viewed the poor law with fear and contempt. Consequently, there was a general belief in Australia that they did not have a poor law. However, this was not entirely the case throughout Australia, but particularly for Tasmania where government subsidies were common (Murphy 2011). There were many similarities in how the colonies dealt with the problem of the poor, but there were some differences too. South Australia was the closest to the poor law model back home, where private charities worked very closely with the government. Similarly, Tasmania also saw the colonial government play a big role in poor relief. This was because there were few charities to take the responsibility on (Garton 1990).


The New 1834 Poor Law, of England & Wales, was met with widespread criticism.

The welfare system which had developed in Tasmania by the mid-c19th was one which was initiated by Governor Arthur in the late-1820s and early-1830s. It was born out of the convict system. Aged care in particular had become almost exclusively a government concern where the main focus was institutional confinement. Tasmanian outdoor relief did not develop to the extent of other Australian States (Hargrave 1993). The limited outdoor relief it had, was mainly reserved for families with children and absentee fathers. Where the aged poor did receive outdoor aid, it was generally in rural areas. Outdoor aid was also primarily aimed at the respectable poor; a category pauper-emancipists did not belong to (Piper 2003). Just as England and Wales had private and church organisations who aided in poor relief, so did Australia. However, as noted, Australian enterprises relied more heavily on state assistance (Garton 1990). Convicts, the aged poor and invalids all relied on the crown because of the slow development of charitable institutions (Bowden 2007). In Tasmania the voluntary sector did not really emerge until the 1850s. That is not to say they did not exist. For example, the Benevolent Society of Hobart ran between 1832-1839, and the Launceston Benevolent Society ran between 1834-1839. However, they were heavily subsidised by the government. Just as there were few charities, there were very few churches to provide support for the poor (Brown 1972). Consequently, government intervention was required (Garton 1990).

In the early days of Van Diemen’s Land, there was a certain amount of tolerance towards pauper-emancipists. Afterall, 46% of the Tasmanian population were convicts and many others were emancipists. And, of the free settlers many were still establishing themselves. As such, ‘there was little difference between destitute and settler’ (Brown 1972, 6). Many relied on government stores because, being immigrants, they did not have an extended social support network to rely on. This provided, in the early days, a commonality of experience (Brown 1972; Garton 1990). Brown argues that it was only as the colony became increasingly stable that ‘objects of charity’ became increasingly visible and decreasingly tolerated (1972).

The 1831 Immigration Committee, was more concerned with the practice of British Poor Law Authorities shipping in poor labours and families, than pauper-emancipists. This was because the latter were viewed as having served the colony through their penal labour (Brown 1972). However, increasingly structural factors, including the effects of the convict system, were ignored in line with middle class ideology of individualism (Piper 2004). The more visible the population became, the more contemporaries wished to control them. Indeed, charitable institutions were not established out of humanitarian concerns but rather as ‘a means to restrict the movement of a particular sub-category of the undeserving poor, and to control their social interaction’ (Piper 2003, 117). Invalid paupers were perceived as a criminal class, and convicts and invalids were associated with one another (Piper 2003).

While the poor law did not strictly operate in the colonies, the ‘principle of “less eligibility”’ did (Garton 1990, 48). The 1871 Royal Commission into Charitable Institutions denounced as ‘…pernicious any attempt to make institutions for the relief of pauperism more attractive than the home which the honest, self-denying workman can hope to secure for himself in old age by the observance of habits of temperance and economy’. Administrators did not want to see ‘respectable’ people in these depots (Hargraves 1993). Australian philanthropists commonly believed the poor became so through drink and immorality (Garton 1990). However, moral judgement was not universal and it changed overtime. For example, in 1839-40 the Hobart Town Society for the Relief of the Distresses Poor appealed for funds for the helpless and suffering poor whose distress was ‘consequent upon the present high price of provisions’ (Brown 1972, 35). However, as anti-transportation sentiment built, pauper-emancipists were brought to the attention of the public. For example, the Launceston Examiner in 1847 stated; poor relief ‘levied upon the colonists to sustain the feeble, decrepit and diseased sent out as probationers to this island’ (Brown 1972, 35). A discussion of charitable relief at this time rarely took place without highlighting the pauper-emancipist burden. This was partly driven by the home governments slow financial weaning of VDL from 1836 (Brown 1972).

The imperial government would only pay for those with a convict status. There were many attempts to extend the population for which imperial authorities would take responsibility. However, despite some concessions they did not go as far as colonial authorities wanted. In response, the colonial government tightened up funds and withdrew almost completely from the provision of out- and indoor relief (Brown 1972). By 1858 a joint committee published a report on ‘Charitable Institutions’ investigated the ‘state and sufficiency’ of government funded aid. The report acknowledged that charity was funded through a variety of means but that infirmaries for the aged and infirm, both in Hobart and Port Arthur, were still vested in the imperial government. The report argued that since they had formed a responsible government that it was now Tasmania’s duty to provide for the destitute, and recommended accommodation for the infirm and aged in north and south Tasmania. Institutionalisation of this particular population was called for because of the persistent ideological belief that helping needy paupers created more paupers (Henty 1858). As such, discrimination in the use of out- and indoor aid was needed. By the 1866 committee, it was acknowledged that no voluntary organisation could operate on a sufficient scale without government aid. Essential voluntary and government aid were tangled together, the government provided the bulk of its of services and funded fifty per cent of the voluntary agency (Brown 1972). As well as economic ramifications, the visibility and disapprobation of pauper-emancipists increased and their treatment reflected that (Hargraves 1993).

The New 1834 Poor Law, of England & Wales, was met with widespread criticism.

The regulations imposed on these inmates reflect those imposed within actual penal establishments. The difference between a convict and an pauper-emancipist was ‘slender if non-existent’ (Piper 2010). The latter were treated as if they were convicts, and the fact that many paupers were former convicts (though not all) only reinforced this connection. This was reflected in the conduct of the government, administrations and benevolent societies throughout the latter half of the nineteenth-century. By the mid-1870s discipline became tighter, and increasing freedoms, such as day passes were restricted (Piper 2003). Such regulations demonstrate a belief that the ‘proper location for the pauper was in supervised institutional environment’ (Brown 1972, 123)

Those placed within the restrictions of the pauper establishments, as opposed to being allowed the freedoms associated with out-door aid, were generally former convicts (Breen 1991). Piper (2010) argues that it was the move from imperial to colonial society that led to a structural change in which self-control and hard work were praised. Not conforming meant the possibility of re-incarceration with the penal or pauper establishments. While the charitable institutions were not technically prisons, they were penal in nature. They also stood as a deterrent and treatment was initially deliberately harsh (Piper 2010). From 1856-1890, the general opinion of the middle classes was that idleness and intemperance was the cause of poverty, not economic and social conditions. As such, giving aid to the aged-poor would discourage the lower class to save for old age (Brown 1972). However, not all middle classes demonised and criminalised invalids. There were opposing views throughout the century. In responding to the invalid crisis of the 1850s/60s, for example, the use of Port Arthur as an invalid depot was described as ‘too harsh an imposition on invalids, particularly given its penal function’ (Piper 2003, 297). Still, the Hobart Society in 1885 stated, ‘although poverty is not a crime, it is certainly not a virtue to be cultivated’ (Brown 1972, 79). By the 1890s the government began to acknowledge that it was responsible for the entirety of the population regardless of ‘moral values’. Meanwhile, the Hobart Benevolent society saw a clear distinction between the deserving and underserving poor and sought to control the behaviour of the poor through such classifications. In working with them the government had to stress ‘the need to exercise a more liberal approach if it was to be given the responsibility for administering public funds’ (Piper 2003, 373). Evidently, views were complex and changeable, but poverty and convictism remained associated with one another and continued to effect decisions.

Beginning with an ad hoc system in the early days of the Van Demonian colony, the welfare system for pauper emancipists then emerged out of the convict system. As the convict system began to close in the 1850s, the pauper system became increasingly penal-like, and the populations further controlled within formerly-convict walls. Even with wider societal views changing, the penal-like institutions, and the control of this population, continued. Deinstitutionalisation was not immediate and real change in the care for the aged did not take place until the implementation of the pension.

Recommended Reading

Brown, J. C. (1972) Poverty is not a Crime: Social Services in Tasmanian 1803-1900, (Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association)

Garton, S. (1990) Out of Luck: Poor Australians and Social Welfare (Sydney: Allen &Unwin)

Piper, A. (2003) Beyond the Convict System: The Aged Poor and Institutionalisation in Colonial Tasmania, (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania)

Reference List

Bolger, P. (1973) Hobart Town (Canberra: Australian National University Press)

Bowden, C. I., (2007) The Blind, The Paralytic, The Aged and The Destitute: The New Norfolk Colonial Hospital in Van Diemen’s Land (BA Thesis: University of Tasmania)

Breen, S. (1991) ‘Outdoor Poor Relief in Launceston 1860-1880’, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 38(1), pp.19-50

Governor in Council (1876) ‘Regulations for the Pauper and Invalid Depot for Males, Port Arthur’ (James Barnard, Government Printer)

Hargrave, J. (1993) ‘A Pauper Establishment is Not a Jail: Old Crawlers in Tasmania 1856-1895’, (Masters of Humanities (History) University of Tasmania)

Henty, W. (1858) Charitable Institutions. Report of Joint Committee, with Evidence

Murphy, J. (2011) A Decent Provision: Australian Welfare Policy, 1870-1949, (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited)

Piper, A. (2010) ‘“Mind-Forged Manacle”: The Mechanics of Control inside Late-Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Charitable Institutions’, Journal of Social History, pp.1045-1063

Piper, A. (2009) ‘A Love of Liberty: The Manipulation of the Colonial Tasmanian Institutional System by Invalids’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 11 pp.73-100

Piper, A. (2003) Beyond the Convict System: The Aged Poor and Institutionalisation in Colonial Tasmania, (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania)

Published by Dr Emma D Watkins

Emma, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Birmingham, was awarded a fully funded PhD at University of Liverpool. This led to the monograph: Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen's Land. Emma is an historical criminologist who uses digital technologies with historical documentation and criminological methodologies.

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