Crowd-sourced insights into the Victorian workhouse

The UK National Archives have just released the 19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records. The history of workhouses in the UK is a typically Victorian approach to social problems. From the archive introduction:

The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834, centralising the poor relief administrative system. Previously, poor relief had been largely the responsibility of the parish. Expenditure had risen during the Napoleonic Wars and local rate payers and authorities decided that looking after paupers was too costly. […] The new system was expected to reduce expenditure, using a harsh workhouse test. Claimants would be ‘offered the house’, but if they turned it down then the legal obligation to offer relief was considered to have been met.

The workhouse was partly social ‘support’, but also a deterrent. People would refuse the workhouse because they were so afraid of it and instead starved to death outside. It’s an unusual archive because normally history only records the activities of the wealthy and privileged, but this gives and insight into the lives of those who were at the bottom of the pile:

Apart from the fascinating stories (see video below), the whole project relied heavily on crowd-sourcing it to volunteers, without which the National Archive wouldn’t have had the resources to complete the project, according to Paul Carter the Archives’ principal modern domestic record’s specialist. Volunteers – local history and family groups, academics and historians – were given access to the archive in order catalogue the material and send this back to the archive.

Here is Paul Carter with an introduction to some of the stories from the archive:

From the Archives: Interview with Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown – Flower Power

(In an earlier unpublished draft of this I so wanted to title it “Dan Brown – The Da Vinci Coder”, but good taste prevailed. Now I get the chance to share the awful pun with the world. I still prefer it to ‘Flower Power’ though. – AP)

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Some of the most successful people seem to thrive between the cracks of definition. The lack of a clear pigeonhole allows for interesting combinations of skills that pique the interest of those in overlapping disciplines. Daniel Brown, winner of the London Design Museum’s coveted Designer of the Year Award in 2004 is one such chameleon. He won the award for his web design when, by his own admission, he’s not really a web designer and would be considered more of an artist by many.

There is a mix of genetics and good fortune at play in Brown’s past. His father, Paul Brown, produced Europe’s first piece of computer animation for television way back in 1981. Like many of us that have ended up experimenting with interactive media, he had a home computer (a Commodore Vic 20 with 3k of memory) when he was very young. Early Hypermedia pioneer and family friend, Roy Stringer, invited Brown to experiment on his office’s Apple Macintosh in 1991 (it was worth $10,000 back then).

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From the Archives: Jonathan Harris – Man of the Hour

I have been promising that I would like to upload all of the articles I have written over the years so that they might be of use for people rather than them languishing on my hard drive, but I’ve been a bit slack at actually doing so because converting them to decent HTML and fixing it all up takes a bit of time.

But Regine’s post on Visualizing: tracing an aesthetics of data inspired me to find the article on Jonathan Harris that I wrote a while back in 2004.

So, the plan from here on in is to upload one article from the archives per week (which would mean about two year’s worth of posts!).

Man of the Hour – Jonathan Harris

If recent world events have taught us anything about the media it must surely be that it is relentless organism. We have seen live videophone feeds from the frontline in Iraq, the explosion of blogging and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds and recently mobile phone camera images on the front pages of newspapers. Use any RSS news reader and you will see stories being updated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With all this information flying around the Web, how can we make sense of it all and what would an hourly snapshot look like? That is exactly the question Jonathan Harris set out to answer with his 10×10 project. In an ironic twist the site held the number one slot on Blogdex for several days as news of its representation of news spread around the Web.

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