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New research on state intervention into the lives of the poor in late-Victorian London

Dr Rachel Pimm-Smith's latest article ‘District Schools and the erosion of parental rights under the Poor Law: a case study from London (1889-1899)’ was published in Continuity and Change in December 2019. 

The article investigates the empirical backing for the claim that poor law officials needed legal authority to refuse poor parents' rights to custody of their children in order to stabilise children's welfare institutions during the nineteenth century. 

Although workhouses were capable of accommodating children, Victorian lawmakers feared children would model themselves on adult paupers to become permanent burdens on the state. To tackle this problem, a system of children's welfare institutions were introduced called 'district schools', which were intended to train children to become industrious labourers. 

Upon admission to a district school every child was classified as an orphan or deserted so they could be admitted without fear of parental interference. However, children with ambitious parental circumstances were classified as 'other' and considered a deeply problematic class because of the potential risk of on-going contact with their parents. Lawmakers feared 'other' children would undermine reformation efforts by asserting their custody rights, so they passed the first laws to restrict parental rights on this basis.

This article explores the claim of unwanted parental involvement, and in doing so, seeks to contextualise the origins of public law interference in the family within a narrative of imposed citizenship rather than protection.

The full article is available at:

Rachel Pimm-Smith, ‘District Schools and the erosion of parental rights under the Poor Law: a case study from London (1889-1899)’ (2019) 34(3) Continuity and Change 401.