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“Dine on Ontario’s Doorstep,” Ottawa Citizen. July 23, 1938. Page 12

These men are Toronto’s single unemployed. They snatch at the chance for a meal whatever the time and wherever the location. On July 21, they dumped tea into a bucket of hot water to drink with their meal. Under the leadership of Roy Thorn and Red Gurr, the men have formed their own association. They present a typed request at stores. From 90 to 100 men sat down to dinner (top left) in Queen’s Park, near the Ontario Parliament Buildings. They ate from cans and consumed lettuce, cucumbers, and anything else their leaders could collect from store owners. They drank tea from fish cans. Roy Thorn, leader of the group, is the one responsible for a large part of the collections. He solicits food for the men and notifies them when there is enough for a meal. One of his aides, the camp cook (top right), is shown here opening a tin of salmon to pass out to a hungry member of the group. Two of the members (bottom) smile broadly while they ‘wolf’ their meal, the second of the day.

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“Bailiff Is Hanged In Effigy In Etobicoke,” Toronto Globe. July 21, 1933. Page 10.

Scene in front of the home of Fred Braithwaite, Albany Avenue, Etobicoke, yesterday afternoon, when a crowd of over 400 sympathizers were on hand, with the avowed intention of upsetting the proceedings. Although he had announced that sufficient police would be on hand to see the affair properly through, the bailiff failed to put in an appearance. Had he done so, he would have been confronted with an effigy of himself suspended from a noose in front of the house, as pictured above.

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Poor relief, workhouse and forced labour

“One of the key purposes of ‘good police’ in early modern Europe was to clear city streets of intrusive begging, remove the vagrants that invariably appeared in greater numbers during economic recessions, and deal with perceived side-effects such as public health and petty crime. Because of the chronic economic instability that afflicted most of the continent at regular intervals, a frighteningly large proportion of people found themselves, intermittently or permanently, near the margins of society, liable to become an issue of public authority either because of the demands they made on the administration of poor relief and economic management, or as a result of concerns about public order and security. Copenhagen, as the capital and the only big city in the Danish-speaking part of the kingdom, was particularly prone to the kinds of difficulties characteristic of most of urban Europe: recurrent waves of vagrancy, poorly managed and inadequate poor relief, and the consequent persistence of begging. Major legislation, such as that of 1587, 1663 and 1683, replicated attempts in other European cities to identify beggars visibly so that unlicensed begging by individuals who had not been screened by the authorities might be reduced. Efforts were also made to ensure that all voluntary and charitable donations from individuals were channelled into the official system, in order that resources could be managed through existing permanent institutions such as the Silkehus (an institution consolidated in 1630 to employ the poor to spin and weave silk). Other efforts to exploit the labour potential of able-bodied beggars and vagrants had resulted in the establishment of a workhouse of some kind next to the pesthouse in Copenhagen by 1605. It must have been reasonably large, for an instruction of 1621 ordered the apprehension of 50 individuals who had been temporarily released from the institution during the Plague of 1619 and had failed to return on its re-opening in 1621.7 Typically, this institution was expected also to look after children below the age of 16, who, nominally housed in a separate part of the building, were meant to be provided with practical skills-training to ensure they could develop into self-supporting adults. This unfortunate combination of distinct tasks became a permanent feature: when the old workhouse was replaced in 1662 with a new institution on the recently developed eastern side of Copenhagen harbour, Christianshavn, children were again housed in proximity to both female and male vagrants and petty criminals.

All of this overlapped with the new police remit of 1683: institutions with a long history of dealing with relatively specific work of this kind now had yet another authority with which to liaise, whilst the police staff themselves had to learn to cope with categories of indigent who often required forms of specialized assistance which have only become fully recognized in more recent times. Not surprisingly, the government adopted a pragmatic approach driven by particular emergencies, but open to periodic review. As a result of the economic disasters of the 1690s, for example, a complete overhaul of the Copenhagen poor relief system was undertaken, involving a wide range of prominent individuals and special committees, amongst them of course the Copenhagen police master. The detailed papers that constitute the background to the final legislation of 1708 indicate that much of the thinking remained conventionally judgmental in terms of typecasting those in need, and this ensured that the proposed solutions remained equally predictable. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the innovative thinking of some of those involved in the consultations. The court preacher Peter Jespersøn, for example, urged that the reforms for Copenhagen should be based on a full quantitative assessment of the scale of the problem of poverty, and he argued that if, as he thought likely, it became clear that voluntary charitable donations would not suffice to cover expenditure, a means-related tax should be imposed on all inhabitants, along the lines of the compulsory poor rates already operating in England and the Dutch Republic. Other background papers reveal a level of attention to detail which included such matters as the right of Jewish inhabitants of the city to be assessed like other contributors to the funding scheme, and the penalties (including public naming and shaming) to be imposed on those Copenhagen burghers who did not fulfil their commitments as donors. Once again, there were discussions regarding the provision for children aged below 14 and 16 (for girls and boys respectively), emphasizing the paramount need for total separation from the institutionalized adults, and stressing the importance of adequate training facilities in order to avoid perpetuating dependency. Existing policies had no doubt already generated popular resistance, for the committee papers suggest additional provision for the punishment of anyone resisting the efforts of the overseers of the poor, obstructing the arrest of unauthorized beggars and vagrants, or resisting the enforcement of any other police regulations.

What is also clear, however, is that the whole poor-law system faced significant financial problems. Back in 1670, the Copenhagen workhouse had been given the right to supply the militia and the navy with cloth and finished garments. This policy was designed to provide a guaranteed market for the low-quality products of the workhouse, and hence secure both adequate in-house work for all inmates and greater financial stability for the institution. By 1702 some central government officials even suggested that the workhouse would be able to generate sufficient income to help fund the whole poor relief system for Copenhagen. It is not possible to reconstruct the overall budget for all the Copenhagen institutions – only the spartan out-relief funded from voluntary charitable donations is clearly visible today – but it seems likely that these expectations of financial viability were hopelessly unrealistic, and that the financial problems already identified by the commissioners were in fact systemic and chronic. One entrepreneur had already failed, but in 1699 another of Flemish descent, Anthonius de Pauw, was given a 10-year lease of part of the workhouse building in order to set up a cloth manufactory using the labour of the inmates. It appears that he originally offered to employ up to 1000 individuals: at one stage he actually employed at least 240 of them. However, in so far as his profits could cover only two-thirds of the cost of upkeep for each inmate (2 mark rather than the estimated 3 mark per person per week), he soon fell foul of the overseers, and the institution ran at such a loss that the whole labour scheme was undermined. De Pauw was sued for breach of contract, but the records of the lawsuit have not been found, so the details and the outcome of this dispute are unknown. However, judging from the protracted government deliberations recorded for the period 1707–1708, the funding of the entire system of relief, medical assistance, provision for children, and compulsory labour remained a major problem.

The introduction to the final version of the 1708 poor-laws (one for Copenhagen, another for provincial towns and the countryside) optimistically proclaimed the intention to ‘abolish begging’. In the event, circumstances conspired to thwart even more modest objectives. In 1709 Denmark became involved in the Great Northern War against Sweden, and in 1711 Copenhagen was struck by a severe plague epidemic which led to the suspension of all services. However, the Copenhagen workhouse was revived after the war, and in 1719 its contract to supply the army with cloth was renewed. In the 1730s and 1740s, perhaps in connection with the establishment of comparable institutions in various parts of the kingdom (in Stege 1737, Viborg 1741, Odense 1752, with corresponding efforts in Norway, including Trondheim in 1735 and Christiania in 1741), the Copenhagen workhouse underwent yet another reorganization of its institutional provision for male and female vagrants, with a Rasphus added to punish the more serious offenders.10 As with workhouses in many other parts of Europe, however, there was no sign that those in charge had found a way round the two fundamental structural problems – namely, that no workhouse was likely to be a financial success as long as it merely replicated low-skill sectors which already existed outside in the urban economy, and secondly, that no workhouse was likely to be able to cope effectively with the huge fluctuations in unemployment or under-employment which were so integral a feature of the early modern economy. Attempts, such as that of 1778 to use some of the 519 recorded inmates of the city’s General Hospital as cheap labour to boost the chronically unsatisfactory output of the then 313 regulars in the workhouse, indicate that institutional stability remained elusive.

The Danish crown nevertheless continued to pin its faith on formal commissions of enquiry, and a new one was created in 1787 to review problems of begging both in Copenhagen and in the provinces. Like that of 1707–1708, this commission was fully aware of the need to provide support for those experiencing temporary hardship, in particular the unemployed who risked long-term destitution and begging. Using the results of the comprehensive national census of 1787, the commissioners, with the unshakeable faith in empirical data characteristic of late 18th-century administrators, concluded after much work that ‘extreme poverty’ afflicted 6.25% of the urban population and 4.56% of the rural population. This time, however, the ineffectiveness of the workhouse was openly recognized, and the option of outdoor relief through voluntary parish-based labour schemes was pressed as a better alternative both for Copenhagen itself and for the rest of the country. This option was conceived in terms similar to the ateliers de charite´ created a few years earlier in France: anyone who was fit would be eligible to attend a local work-programme organized by each parish to suit the particular needs of the area, and provided they accepted and completed whatever work was offered, they would be guaranteed a minimum subsistence wage (designed to be lower than wages on the open market). Discipline at work would be enforced by various penalties, whilst those who were able-bodied but refused to report could be prosecuted for begging. Predictably, the scheme was meant to operate without any central funding, and the notion of a compulsory poor rate was once more explicitly rejected. The Commission had taken notice of the reports and recommendations carefully gathered from senior local administrators and other relevant high-ranking individuals, but seemed reluctant to engage in the kind of wider-ranging analysis of contemporary social and economic inter-relationships that contemporary advances in political economy might have allowed. It is not clear from the archival material how effectively the voluntary labour scheme was (or could be) implemented, but circumstantial evidence gives little ground for optimism. In this respect, as in other areas of relief, the Commission report was cautious and traditionalist in its proposals: no doubt the political climate did not encourage radical thinking within the central bureaucracy. More promising, perhaps, were the signs of a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation of the unemployed. A new graded scale of criminal punishment for theft, implemented in 1789, should also have made it easier to distinguish between lesser offenders who might be re-integrated into society, and those regarded as irretrievably criminal. But all these aspirations (and the resulting legislation of 1790–1793 which tried to embody them) were put severely to the test during the economic crises of the 1790s and the disasters of the Napoleonic conflict from 1807. In the longer run, the inmates of the Christianshavn workhouse, at least, appear to have had little confidence in the enterprise as a whole: in 1817 they rioted and burnt down most of the buildings.

For the ‘worthy poor’ in Copenhagen, voluntary donations and the traditional range of complementary institutional support remained in place. These mechanisms seem to have functioned adequately in times of relative economic stability, but were invariably overloaded during economic crises (notably in the years 1695–1708, and again in the 1790s), when unemployment or underemployment became a major threat to social stability. It is worth emphasizing that in both these crisis-periods the options of compulsory fiscal support and of extended voluntary public work schemes were specifically considered, but any thoughts of implementation were thwarted by the wartime emergencies that followed on each occasion, compounded by political hesitation and retrenchment. Not surprisingly, when the indefatigable prison reformer John Howard compiled his final evaluation of all the institutions in Copenhagen, for the 1792 revised edition of his State of the Prisons, the verdict was mixed. Howard listed four hospitals, all of them offering acceptable levels of care: the General Hospital (housing around one thousand poor, some of whom were able to work), the Frederiks Hospital (looking after 227 patients, in reasonable conditions), the Marine Hospital (with 157 patients), and the St. John’s Hospital (formerly the plague house, now housing around 300 patients, also in reasonable conditions). Adjacent to the Christianshavn workhouse he found the Børnehus (for abandoned children), but here Howard was noticeably more critical, and it seems clear that this institution still failed to offer training suitable for the re-integration of its 225 boys into adult life. The workhouse itself, he noted, had some 300–400 inmates, including 66 women detained for life: most of these had been found guilty of infanticide, but had had their death sentence commuted, and were ‘to be whipped annually on the day when, and the spot where, the crime was committed’.

It is no surprise to discover that, just as there were significant overlaps between the various types of officials and the various institutions responsible for ‘good police’, so the ideals of rehabilitation and punishment seemed to have been blurred in contemporary thinking, not just within the workhouse itself but also in those detention centres intended for more hardened criminals. As we have noted, the Copenhagen workhouse, like equivalent institutions elsewhere in Europe, was expected to absorb adults whose behaviour was regarded as non-submissive or socially unacceptable – whether in the form of persistent vagrancy or begging, petty crime, or more disturbing patterns where ordinary police arrest appeared insufficient. But the worst offenders could expect more extreme punishment in institutions designed to ensure complete removal from civil society. True to his real mission, Howard concentrated on this category, and noted two small specialized prisons (the Citadel and the Blue Tower), the less severe municipal detention centre managed by the  Copenhagen police master (Arresthus), and above all the feared Stokhus – the forced labour camp whose long-term inmates were classed as ‘slaves’. It is worth observing that although slavery was not recognized in domestic Danish law (and was not much discussed until the reform initiatives of 1792 to phase out the Danish Caribbean slave trade), the word was nevertheless in common use throughout this period (here and elsewhere in Europe) to denote male offenders who had been spared the death penalty but were convicted of serious offences for which the ordinary workhouse or other local punishment was deemed insufficient. Until 1741 such offenders had been taken to Copenhagen and put in chains to work in the royal ship-yards at Bremerholm, close to the royal palace itself; thereafter, the convict labour scheme was managed primarily from the Copenhagen Stokhus attached to the military barracks in the north-western part of the city (but with prisoners still working at various locations across the city, usually in chains). The earliest surviving admissions protocol (from 1771) is entitled ‘Register of Slaves’, and gives schematic information about the prisoners – typically younger males in the age-band 16 to 40, originating from all over the country and from abroad. Many of them were soldiers and sailors who had deserted or had been found guilty of extreme violence, but there were also some civilians who had committed capital offences and had had the penalty reduced, a fairly small number of individuals guilty of serious fraud or heavy debt, recidivist thieves, a few (presumably very persistent) vagrants, and some serious offenders against sexual morality. Interestingly, the inmates were divided into ‘honourable slaves’ and ‘dishonourable slaves’ – a distinction which appears to be based not directly on the offences committed or the sentence passed, but rather on whether they had been condemned to branding on the forehead or to one of the other additional corporal punishments inflicted by the executioner, contact with whom was widely held to bring irretrievable dishonour and expulsion from civil society. Women were never officially recorded as slaves: even though they might be detained for a time in one of the prisons, they usually ended up in the workhouse – confirming once more the extent to which the workhouse was expected to serve a range of purposes.

During his visit to the Stokhus in Copenhagen, John Howard counted 143 ‘slaves’ living in cramped conditions, all wearing a brown and red prison uniform which was often threadbare because each prisoner was allocated just one set every two years, which he had to wear continuously, even when asleep. Howard also noted that some of the prisoners ‘had light chains on one leg, some heavier chains on both legs; others had iron collars; one was chained by his wrists to a wheel-barrow. These, I understood, were punishments inflicted on those who had attempted to escape’ – perhaps themselves not the most unfortunate, for Howard also noted 11 men who were locked away in an actual dungeon inside the Stokhus, so foul that it gave him a headache. The standard work routine involved heavy physical labour (for example on military fortifications) which during the brighter half of the year would last from 5–11 a.m. in the morning and 1–6 p.m. in the afternoon. Apart from attendance at church services in the Stokhus chapel, the inmates were total outcasts, without any means of access to, or contact with, normal civil society. With the exception of the limited number of ‘honourable slaves’ incarcerated for a fixed period, there was no prospect of rehabilitation or re-integration; a sentence for life meant just that, and annotations in the protocol indicate that, suicide or a rare escape aside, prisoners might be in for decades.”

 – Thomas Munck, “’Keeping the Peace’: ‘Good police’ and civic order in 18th-century Copenhagen.” Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 32, No. 1. March 2007, pp. 42-46

Top image is: 

Wilhelm Bendz, Unfinished painting of Odense workhouse, 1831. The Hirschsprung Collection.  Source. Bottom is Samuel Christoph Gedde, drawing and plan of Stokhuset, Copenhagen, 1754. 

Rigsarkivet (State Archive), Copenhagen. Source.

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“Ticket Array For Voucher Plan,” Toronto Star. April 17, 1933. Page 02.

“The various forms and tickets issued to those on city relief under the new plan of voucher distribution are reproduced ABOVE.  On TOP is shown the grocery order for a family of six (four children) for one week, allowing for 17 loaves of bread, 7 pints and 14 quarts of milk, and 2 pounds of butter.  To the LEFT are the bread tickets and to the RIGHT, milk tickets.  The butter tickets are shown BELOW.  The recipients will take these tickets to one of about 500 stores, and will be given the amount of groceries specified.”

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“I Want To Go to Kingston Penitentiary Where I Can Get Something to Eat,” The Kingston Whig-Standardˆ. February 24, 1933. Page 09.

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“Winnipeg ‘Dumping’ Its Unemployed Here,” Montreal Star, November 3, 1932. Page 03.

“Mayor Fernand Rinfret, who is also member of Parliament for St. James division, has been asked by the city to make a formal protest to the Minister of Labor against the action of the City of Winnipeg in shipping carloads of unemployed to Montreal.  The Executive Committee today wrote to the mayor to this effect and also wrote a letter to the Minister of Labor protesting against the manner in which Winnipeg is allegedly ‘dumping’ its unemployed here.

Toronto Protests.
The city of Toronto, it was learned by the Executive, had registered a similar protest and would also demand that the practice be stopped.

Last night a train arrived in Montreal with a large number of unemployed aboard.  They had been put on the train by the city of Winnipeg, questions elicited with passage paid to Toronto or Montreal, and with 15 pounds of provisions to do them until they reached one or other of these cities.

On arriving here the unemployed flocked to the refuges, 15 going to the Meurling, and 45 being found at the Vitre street hostel.

On seeing this unusual influx of newcomers, Albert Chevalier, superintendent of relief, began an investigation, with the result that the men told their story.

Found Solution.
Winnipeg, it seemed, had found a bright solution to its unemployed problem by advising the men, according to their stories, to board trains for Toronto or Montreal, ‘where they would be looked after,’ the men said.

The city, the men also added, provided free transportation and food.

Winnipeg Explains.
Winnipeg, Nov. 3 – (Star Special) – About 240 stranded eastern Canadian harvesters who were taken off trains here on their way home after ‘riding the rods’ was stopped on Oct. 1, were returned home by the Dominion Government – this is explained by Col. George C. Maclean, director of unemployment relief for Manitoba, that the work was done by his department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  In every case it was established that the men had homes to go to in the east and would not become public charges because they would go to their own people.

Totals sent from here were 70 to Montreal, 80 to Toronto, 11 to Windsor, 3 to Quebec, 11 to Hamilton, 18 to Ottawa, and the rest scattered all over eastern Canada.

‘The shoe is on the other foot,’ stated Mayor Ralph H. Webb. ‘From 30,000 to 60,000 men from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces came west to find harvest work during the summer, and the majority are still in the west,’ he declared.

‘They are still here and we shall have to keep them.’

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