The modern spirit was, however, beginning to dawn in this mid-victorian young lady, and, terrible to relate, she wrote letters to "The Guardian" and "The Times" daring to call public attention to the neglected condition of the sick and aged poor in the workhouses! Interest was gradually aroused in the subject, and the Home Department began to make inquiries.
Miss Twining had been moved to this action by what she had seen when visiting, by great favour of the officials, an old woman in whom she was interested who had been compelled to enter the Strand Union. Amongst other heartrending sights which met her was a poor paralytic who had languished for fourteen years in a wretched basement room of the workhouse with little attention save his scanty rations, and no one to speak a kind word to him or divert his thoughts from his sad misfortune.
Miss Twining followed up her letter to "The Times" by a visit to the head of the Central Poor Law Board in his official residence. One can scarcely realise to-day what a courageous act this was for a woman. The final result of the interview was that permission was obtained for ladies to visit in the workhouses on stated occasions to read to the sick and infirm.
Bumbledom showed bitter opposition, and Miss Twining and her friends had to beard the "lions in their dens," in the form of brutal workhouse masters and coarse, ignorant matrons. By degrees, the worst of the opposition was overcome, visiting committees of ladies were organised, an association for workhouse reform was started, with branches in the country, and a journal for keeping alive the propaganda.
The visiting ladies used their eyes and their woman's knowledge to some purpose, and from time to time suggested remedies for some of the evils which they encountered. They got a better class of matron appointed in some of the unions, and introduced respectable women as paid nurses, in place of the depraved and generally decrepit old women amongst the inmates who had formerly had charge of the sick wards. The children were looked after, situations procured for the young girls, and the aged and infirm received more humane treatment.
Flowers found their way into the bare, dreary wards of the infirmaries, and warm clothes and shawls gladdened the hearts of poor old souls who had known better days. Sunshine gleamed in through every open chink in officialdom which the pioneer reformers could find.
After years of patient propaganda, the sweeping reforms of 1868 were introduced, and the Metropolitan Poor Law Union was formed. The worst of the old abuses in the London workhouses were abolished, and asylums for imbeciles and idiots and well-equipped infirmaries for the sick poor were established.
So far women had been merely advisory workers in Poor Law reform, but in 1875 the election of the first woman guardian, Miss Merrington, for Kensington, placed them in the position of active administrators. The number of women guardians increased rapidly, and by 1893 there had been 169 elected. After that, when the rating qualification was practically abolished in favour of a residential qualification, a greater op-portunity was given to women to stand, and 875 women guardians were speedily elected. There are now (1912) upwards of 400 boards which have women guardians. The number of women thus serving stands at 1,165, to which should be added 146 women rural district councillors, who serve as guardians for the unions in which their districts lie, thus making in all 1,311 women guardians.
Miss Louisa Twining has herself twice served as a Poor Law guardian, and at the age of ninety-one still follows the course of events with something of her old pioneer enthusiasm, and occasionally reminds the Local Government Board of reforms yet needed, especially in country districts.
A further triumph in recognition of women's fitness for this branch of public service was scored when three ladies, Mrs. Bernard Bosanquet, Mrs. Sidney Webb, and Miss Octavia Hill, were appointed members of the Poor Law Commission in 1905. Universal testimony has been borne to the excellence of their work, while the independence of their thought and deductions is shown by the vigour with which Mrs. Sidney Webb stirred the country on behalf of the Minority Report, while her sister commissioners gave their adherence to the Majority Report.
Mrs. Fenwick Miller, who vindicated the right of a woman to retain, if she desired it, her maiden name after marriage
Photo, Denney, Teignmouth
When we come to the work of women in the education department of public service, we find immediate recognition given to their fitness for this work by the Education Act of 1870, which called the old school boards into being. It was an easily won triumph. Women have always been recognised as educators of the young. The most choleric old gentleman would scarcely dispute this, for he possibly may have salutary recollections of the birch rod in some village dame school. "Governessing" was for long the only permissible occupation for the necessitous gentlewoman, and women presided over the select seminaries for young ladies where our grandmothers were educated.