Monday, 8 February 2016

The role of the Relieving Officer in the Bromley Kent Poor Law Union

In undertaking transcription of 4 volumes of the Bromley Union Registers of Lunatics and an additional Lunatic register which is distinctly administrative I came to appreciate the work of Relieving Officers. Kent Online Parish Clerks had obtained a written agreement from Bromley Archives to carry out this transcript series and to publish them online. The years 1899-1915 were included in this agreement; the fourth volume was made available to the public on 2 January 2016.
I was unable to locate any writing about the the role of Union Relieving Officers and realised that much of what they did had an important role in the twentieth century development of local services for both children and adults and what came to be called social work. The Lunacy registers describe a broad range of human need; both constables, Justices and Relieving Officers had powers to detain an alledged lunatic in the Workhouse under sections of the Lunacy Act for specified periods. The Union Workhouse Medical Officer was responsible for examining on admission and discharge and The Workhouse Master was responsible for ensuring the registers were completed and that orders were reexamined when each period of authority was at an end.
Asylum orders were also issued and the Relieving Officer would have to locate the individual and convey them to the Asylum and in the process would admit them to the Workhouse for examination by the Workhouse Medical Officer.
The Lunatic Registers for Bromley Union contain admissions for individuals from three years four months in age to elderly persons. Originally referred to as "George's House" by locals the workhouse was situated at Locksbottom in Kent and was nicknamed for George Warde Norman who chaired the Board of Guardians in it's early years.
The duty of the Relieving Officer was to receive applications from all persons who sought either medical or poor relief and could either provide emergency poor relief for the maintenance of persons in their own homes or arrange admission to the Workhouse. They had authority equivalent to a police constable  under the Lunacy Acts to authorise detention in the workhouse for children and adults for up to 3 days.
The transcribed Bromley Union registers enable each of the District Relieving Officers workload to be identified and to see their duties to convey people to and from the Workhouse.
The Workhouse had a stables (close to the Chapel) as well as an adjacent building for storing inmates own clothes.Examination of the Guardians minutes identifies that a horse drawn ambulance was available and the Relieving Officers make use of this vehicle. When a replacement vehicle is needed the Guardians authorise purchase from the London Asylums Board of a vehicle surplus to the Board's requirements and this perhaps reflects the needs of Relieving Officers in a large geographical Union and responsible for transfers to the Kent County Asylum at Barming Heath Maidstone.
The Relieving Officer was therefore called to intervene in crisis in families or individuals who could no longer cope with a wide range of human conditions. The Lunacy Acts of the period 1899-1915 were loose in what an "alledged lunatic" might be and the Bromley registers include

  • epileptics some assessed as sane others identified as needing care in the County Asylum
  • those with a wide spectrum of learning difficulties ( the Workhouse had two "imbecile" wards) one for each gender for adults who were permanently detained.
  • suicidal persons
  • those with no speech often characterised as deaf and dumb
  • pre and post natal depression affecting personality and behaviour
  • Police Order detention of those with alcoholism or alcohol related illness later discharged and supported by Relieving Officers
  • the use of belladonna plasters influencing behaviour see my blog the identification of belladonn plaster use in Lunatic Register admissions
It is interesting to observe that The Relieving Officer was on each occasion of transfer to the County Asylum responsible for taking the discharged workhouse inmate there. After some violently behaved inmates of the padded room on both male and female wards it became unwritten practice for the the Relieving Officer to be accompanied by an Attendant and on occasion the Relieving Officer would have as many as three Attendants with him. There is no reference in the Guardians meeting minutes around the time of introduction of this practice and it is not possible to tell whether this was a local decision by the Workhouse Master and four district Relieving Officers or a suggestion arising from inspection which preceded two violent inmates.
It is interesting to note that at no point were physical restraints used on such occasions on a lengthy journey to Maidstone, The Register of mechanical restraints for the Union is still closed to the public but I was able to examine the record of inspection by the Lunacy Commissioners and their recommendation to purchase an asylum restraint jacket otherwise referred to popularly as a straitjacket. The first recorded use of this is not until the 1920's although purchased several years before.
Relieving Officers throughout this period and for some years preceding them give long service. Their districts are over a wide area and the regularity of trips to Maidstone are striking. They work as a team often deputising in each other's absence. Elsewhere in the Bromley Workhouse record series the scale of their work with "outdoor relief" is recorded and they identify lack of suitable provision for children and adults with varying needs for support not available locally such as the need for boarding out children or provision of accommodation specialising in the needs of epileptics.
It is apparent that the Relieving Officers played a historically significant role in the development of what came to be termed social work. In the twentieth century mental health legislation it is the social worker who accompanies the person compulsory detained or "sectioned" to the psychiatric hospital. I wonder whether social workers appreciate that the expectation to do so arose from the Relieving Officer practice.
I will blog further about the Relieving Officers in each district in future.

© Henry Mantell Downe Online Parish Clerk 2013-2016