Thursday, 25 October 2012

The poor of Sheen- a tale from 1886

The editorial in the Leek Times of the 15th May 1886 was condemnatory

If we had been asked to name the happiest village in the Leek Division, we should unhesitatedly have selected Sheen. Blessed with prolific soil; ample school provision; blessed with a princely benefactor in Mr Beresford Hope; and with two services in the pretty church every day, - one can scarcely imagine that poverty and misery could exist in or near the place.

The editorial then briefly explains its reasoning in coming to this conclusion. An elderly man named Percival had spent the winter in a calf shed. Damp and rotten straw for a bed and sacks for a covering were all that he had The police officer who arrived on the scene following the death of John Percival described the hovel as smelling worse” than a ferret box”. He shared this squalid accommodation with a brother who had been charged with breaking into the house of the local vicar. His brother had been ill for some months and was dying of consumption and starvation. The authorities had known about the condition of the men yet little had been done to remove the men from the abject state they had been living in for many months.

Later in the month the Chairman of the Board of Guardians John Sheldon responded to the accusation that the Workhouse had done little to assist

The two men had only recently come to live in Sheen and had survived by begging in the locality. John Percival the dead man had worked in the past but he did not have a reputation for industry. Work was available but to the annoyance of people in Sheen John Percival preferred to live the life of a vagrant. He had spent some time in Leek Workhouse before returning to Sheen. Several attempts had been made to try and get Percival to return to the Leek workhouse but he preferred to live in Sheen.

Bought up in vice and idleness, accustomed for more than twenty years to depend upon eleemosynary support, who I would like to know, could have changed the tastes or habits of this poor human waif”

Sheldon’s opinion encapsulates an age-old problem and that is what do we do with people who refuse help. It is a year since the death of Claire Bromley and even though a welfare state and a century divides her death and that of John Percival there are similarities. The willingness and the obligation of authority to intervene will always come up against the desire of people to lead whatever life they wish even if it appears incomprehensible to the rest of us.