The abject poverty experienced by those in the mid-19th century unfortunate enough to be trapped within its clutches is almost too much for us to comprehend today. It had a dramatic impact in a vast range of ways: unemployment, hunger, social deprivation, lack of education, oppression, persecution and, perhaps most devastatingly, health and hygiene.
It was such conditions that faced members of the newly formed Society of St Vincent de Paul as they worked to fulfil their Vincentian mission of seeking out those in need of help and offering practical assistance and support. Given this context the SVP was to find it itself invaluable as it became more and more involved in the community. One of its first challenges was to help the sick.
Epidemics left many widows and orphans
Epidemics of cholera swept the country in the 1830s and 1840s, spread through poor sewerage and contaminated drinking water. Of the 71,000 reported cases, 13,000 died. It was not until the 1860s that the epidemics ceased, by which time 80,000 had died of cholera. The total was probably much higher, as the poorest in the city slums were unlikely to appear in official statistics, neither seeking help nor able to afford proper burial.
The 1832 Cholera outbreak in Sheffield was particularly devastating, claiming 402 lives. More lives were lost in subsequent outbreaks over the next few decades.
Cholera was the worst but not the only killer. “Endemic fever” was a term frequently used for diseases spread by the filthy conditions in which the poor lived and worked. In 1838 in England and Wales, the deaths of men under 45 from such causes resulted in 43,000 widows and 112,000 orphans seeking Poor Law relief. The prevailing view, stated in the reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, was that “the elderly should have provided for themselves through thrift in their earlier years,” and that, as far as the children were concerned, “someone should have provided in advance for them”.
It was despite the seemingly callous view of the authorities towards the poor that the SVP felt moved to take action. True to its mission to seek out those in need and provide practical assistance the St Vincent de Paul Society soon got involved in providing funding for nurses and for the purchase of medicines – and coffins. Infant mortality was high, and ultimately death a constant threat to the poor because of the conditions they lived in and the apparent belief of those in charge that the poor only had themselves to blame!
No Welfare State
Such were the conditions which existed generally at the time the SVP was founded in England and Wales. The poor lived in extreme poverty, with no welfare state such as we have today. The Poor Law provided relief to some, and the workhouse for others, but neither was welcomed by the poor, in general. There were of course degrees of poverty, and Irish immigrants largely Catholics, were amongst the poorest of all.
The poorest of the poor – Irish Immigrants
Many Irish poor had travelled across the sea to escape the desperate conditions the potato famine had caused. Having arrived at ports such as Liverpool, many walked across the Pennines arriving in Sheffield looking for work in the burgeoning steel industry. Many ended up in an area known as ‘The Crofts’ which quickly developed as a slum area with each house a shelter for several families. The Census of 1851 indicated the Irish making up 3.3% of the population, mainly centred in this part of Sheffield.
True to their mission and keen to put their faith into action, the SVP became actively involved in a series of initiatives and projects to help alleviate the distress and suffering of the poor. What they did will be explained in further ‘chapters’.