Being creative with conference presentations

I’ve been a bit lost in book writing lately but I have the chance to do something a little different at a forthcoming conference. I will be going to the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference in Newcastle in April.

Incapacity and unemployment

In one presentation I will talk about the link between incapacity benefits and unemployment.  It is well established that claims for incapacity benefits go up in times of high unemployment and people are more likely to claim incapacity benefits in areas where there are fewer jobs.  It is fairly easy to understand why this is: people with health issues or impairments find it more difficult to find jobs at the best of times and struggle when there are fewer jobs to go around.  But legal decision makers have always argued that it is possible to distinguish between ‘unemployment’ and ‘incapacity for work’.  So people who have health issues and can’t find jobs are often described as unemployed rather than unable to work.  This has important consequences for their benefits entitlement, how much they may be entitled to and whether they have to look for work in order to qualify. My paper will show how these legal ideas developed across the twentieth century.

Owls popping up all over the place

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

My second paper will be a little different.  Here I will be taking part in the ‘Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects’.  I will use this innovative session to talk about a little booklet from 1948 which advertised the new post-war National Insurance scheme.  I’ve written about it on the blog before – see here.  When I was in the National Archives a few weeks ago, I found out a bit more about this leaflet so I have more to say. The pop-up museum asks me to make a model of my object so I have a bit of work to do. I’ve been looking in charity shops and getting out the glue….  If this gets too interesting, I might be taking the Blue Peter skills to the other session too.

 

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Choosing names in research

I’m finally writing up the book from my archival project and I have to decide how I am going to deal with names in the archive papers. At an early stage of my project I decided that I would anonymise the people in the archive cases. This comes from my own social science training which is based on an assumption that we should anonymise any personal data derived from research. Writers in other disciplines do not always do this. Historians usually use real names, although not always. There seems to be a cut-off around the twentieth century when social historians sometimes start using pseudonyms. Legal scholars usually use real names because they are usually dealing with legal cases already in the public domain, where people’s names are part of the case name. Some social scientists and oral historians also argue for an ethical position of using real names. But I find this difficult. The information in the archive files is personal and not very far in the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these files is still alive today and that is reflected in the status of the files in the archives. The files are ‘open’ – available to anyone to look at but I don’t believe that this gives me permission to use their real names. All of them may have living relatives and people who knew them who would be concerned about their personal details being made public. Some, of course, might be delighted to find an archive with their grandmother or great grandfather named in it, which would enable them to pursue their family history but I don’t think it is my role to expose people in this way. On top of this, around half of the case papers that I am using are already anonymised as they have been published in collections of anonymised legal cases. I don’t know the people’s names at all. Or at least not all of them. For some of these anonymised cases, I’ve also identified an archive file, which gives me the real names of the people in the anonymised published cases. For a very small number of the cases I am looking at, there is a higher level court case or a newspaper report which carries the name of the protaganists. These are fully in the public domain and traditions of legal writing require that I use the full names for these.
But I have made my decision to anonymise all the other cases and intend to stick with it. The question now is what to do when I discuss the people I’m writing about. Until now, in any published papers or conference presentations, I have referred to people by the case number of their legal case only and have not attempted to bring them to life by giving them names. Now that I am writing the book I feel that it would make for easier reading if the people had names. So how to go about choosing them.

Choosing names the old-fashioned way

When I’ve carried out interview based research in the past I used surnames from a local telephone directory. I knew that this created problems: surnames convey ethnicity, geography and religious associations. All of my interviewees had been white and Scottish or English so I could be fairly confident that names I had chosen would be associated with that identity. First names are even more clearly marked for gender, ethnicity, religion and social class and they are associated with different generations, according to popularity in naming patterns. So I found first names using information from the National Records of Scotland assigning age appropriate first names. I also tried to avoid names of celebrities, fictional characters or well known real people (although this was somewhat dependent on my rather useless knowledge of celebrities). I was happy with the result and my renamed interviewees became real characters, who I felt, began to become alive in my writing.

Wirecaester Barlow or James Bond

So how to go about this process with my archive material? Something else has come along in the way of technical support since I carried out previous research. I’m currently using scrivener software to draft my book and it has a ‘name generator’ built in. This allows writers to select from a very wide range of apparently ethnically and gender appropriate names. I’ve been searching for those of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origins, given the backgrounds of most of the people in my data. This produces some unusual names: Wirecaester Barlow, Sped Hell, Oxnaleah Flax? I don’t know how scrivener generates these names but they seem a little unlikely for England in the early 20th century and there don’t seem to be any date filters on the name generator unless you’re looking for Ancient Egyptian, Anglo Saxon or Shakespearean names. So I’m experimenting with names from the British 1881 census, available electronically, which produces the more likely sounding: Alfred Jones, Thomas Hudson and Annie Norton. Though my most recent search also produced James Bond, so I’ll still have to watch out for the celebrities and well known fictional characters.

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Bringing archives to life

Bureaucratic registers often contain scanty details about the ordinary people they record. Further digging can bring these to life.  The fascinating ‘Seeing our History’ project does this.  The project traced the lives of blind people living in Edinburgh and south east Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century.  Starting with the names and details on a ‘Register of the Outdoor Blind’ between 1903 and 1911, researchers traced the parents, children, lives and deaths of blind and partially sighted people on the Register.  The project’s findings have been published in two books, ‘Feeling our History’ and ‘Hearing our History’ and a series of podcasts. You can find out more about the project, the publications and podcasts on its webpage here:  Insight Radio

The researchers unearthed details about blind people’s work and family lives, which echoed some of the material that I have been finding in my research on early twentieth century sickness benefits.  A recurring theme across my research, and arising also in the ‘Seeing our History’ material is the complex nature of the concept of ‘work’.  Many, although not all, of the blind people in the Seeing our History material were those who were considered ‘unable to work’, because of other impairments or old age.  ‘Able bodied’ blind people at that time were often offered work in the workshops and asylums run by organisations such as the Edinburgh Blind Asylum: making baskets, ropes, mattresses and furniture.  Those who could not find work through the Asylum subsisted on income from a range of occupations and family support networks.  Some of these found work on the street, working as musicians, hawkers and turning mangles to assist with the weekly washing.  But work in the Asylum workshops was dependent not only on physical ability but on willingness to comply with the organisation’s strict moral code.  The Seeing our History project reports on the case of a man and a woman who were evicted from the Asylum because of their unseemly relationship.  They subsequently married and their story is powerfully told in ‘Feeling our History’.  This story is interesting to me because of the way in which access to work was entwined with moral behaviour.  Other workers lost their jobs at the Asylum because of alleged drunkenness or theft.  So a person’s ability to work was dependent not only on their physical and mental abilities but on their willingness or ability to meet strict moral expectations of behaviour*.

In my own research on appeals against refusal of benefits in the 1920s, I have found examples of blind people who had been working but were now trying to claim sickness benefits.  The discussion about their ability to work often focussed on whether or not work which had previously been available to them was still possible.  So we find a man who had been blind since childhood and who had worked for a local charity for blind people.  When he developed other physical health issues he was no longer able to do this job.  The adjudicator in his appeal decided that he was no longer fit for work, although they felt the need to add that he should ‘undergo some form of training for such light work as he can undertake’.  However, in another case, involving a young woman, it was felt that she should not be obliged to enter an institution for blind people to retrain as a basket maker or similar because this ‘would probably cause her nervous upset which would probably retard her recovery if not actually make her worse’

What does this tell us about ‘capacity for work’?  The stories in the Seeing our History project are mainly from a period before the 1911 National Insurance sickness benefit scheme.  They connect with those in my research because they reinforce, again, the appreciation that a person’s capacity for work can only be understood in the social context in which they live.  Two people with apparently similar impairments can be very differently capable of work, depending on what they have done before, their skills and education, their family support networks and, crucially, the work available to them.  Work may be unavailable because of the local labour market but it may also be unavailable because of the moral and other expectations of local employers.  Ideas about how and whether people should retrain for work also depends on ideas about men and women, their age and potential capacity for working in the future.

I am very pleased to have found the Seeing our History project, leading me to these fascinating stories and an insight into a creative use of archives to bring them to life.

* full information about these histories in Hutchison, I (2015) Feeling our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and Hutchison (2015) Hearing our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and on the project website

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Using libraries

We’ve just celebrated national libraries day. I’m all in favour of that. Libraries are great places and many libraries, up and down the country, used creative ways to remind us of that at the weekend. But sometimes it’s easy to say that libraries are great without actually using them. It’s so much easier to get information online and download digitised versions of documents. Libraries can also help us with that by helping us to find things and by subscribing to electronic resources and then making them available to us all. Now and again we should go back into the buildings and remind us what they can do in a more old fashioned way.

One way that they can help is to provide space to write. When you are writing, you are constantly distracted by emails, texts, social media, even just thoughts ‘I need to reread that article’, ‘have I got a copy of that book?’, ‘which conference paper did I mention that in?’ ‘Who was it that told me about that?’ ‘I’m sure I had an example of that in one my documents’ or even ‘Must write a blog piece about this’. For just now I’m trying to avoid that (apart from the write a blog piece bit) by working in the National Library of Scotland. This library provides a quiet, largely distraction free, space, to just get on and work. The atmosphere helps. Surrounded by other people working away, apparently more industriously, it is difficult to avoid getting on with the task at hand.

Libraries also have books! Today I’ve been returning to some old appeal cases relating to sickness benefit in the 1920s. Some of the cases I’m working on are available electronically, digitised by Parliamentary Papers Online.(digital access available through many  libraries). Others are only available in the National Archives, but there is one little collection that was published in a book in 1923, which has not been digitised and I have to come to the library to look at them. I first looked at these a couple of years ago and took detailed notes but there were some things that I realised I’d missed so today I’m reading them again. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the originals but looking at them again reminds me what is so fascinating about them.

When I first looked at these cases I was interested mainly in how the appeal panels defined the idea of ‘incapacity for work’. That is still my main interest and the one that most of the writing from this project will focus on. However I am also interested in the appeal hearings themselves: who was there? What evidence did they think was important? What was the role of lawyers and other representatives? How did claimants find out about their rights? This is at the heart of my writing just now. I’ve made quite detailed notes on most of my cases but it wasn’t at the front of my mind when I last looked at this little collection from 1923. So today’s task was to ask those questions as I read them. I’ve found a few more lawyers, clearly attempting to influence the course of the proceedings but I’ve also found cases where there were no representatives. In these cases we sometimes see comments about the claimants’ lack of education and knowledge and the adjudicators trying to compensate for that. Occasionally the claimants appear to be just a little bit too knowledgeable and that might work against them. Today’s work has given me another glimpse into the past world of appeal hearings and some more examples to help us understand who was there and why and what difference that made.

But the library’s closing and the battery on my laptop is failing – I’ll have to come back another day.

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Festive themes in the archives

I was inspired by a recent blog on burglaries at Christmas to see if there were any Christmas themes in my data. A simple search on my NVIVO files for the term ‘Christmas’ produced two results, one from 1914 and another from 1949. While adding a little Christmas spirit to the blog, both cases bring up interesting points about how eligibility for incapacity benefits concerns more than just the medical assessment of a person’s health.

A Christmas Day Brawl

In the case from 1914, the claimant had been involved in a fight outside a club on Christmas Day, had broken his leg and claimed sickness benefit. His approved society had refused benefit on the grounds that his incapacity arose out of his own ‘serious or wilful misconduct’ because the fall was the result of a drunken fight. The claimant appealed against this refusal and the appeal decision looked at the question of whether or not it was misconduct and whether the claimant was entitled to benefit. The Society also argued that, if the claimant had not started the fight, he ought to have taken his assailant to court to claim damages for the assault. There was no dispute in the case about the medical issues. Here’s what happened:

‘The Appellant was, on the afternoon of the 25th December 1914, in a working men’s club of which he is a member. Early in the afternoon there had been a dispute between the Appellant and a man named X over a game of cards and, at about 6 o’clock, after the two had left the Club the Appellant was found lying outside the door of the Club with his leg broken above the ankle. It was alleged by the Society that he had challenged X to a fight and had pulled him out of the Club for that purpose; that he had been the aggressor outside and had over-balanced himself in aiming a blow at his opponent and, in falling had broken his leg. The Appellant’s story on the other hand, was that he had left the Club first and had been followed by X who had called out to him to stop and had then broken his leg with a violent kick and had afterwards struck him more than once as he lay on the ground’

 

During the appeal hearing the adjudicators heard evidence from three witnesses: the claimant himself, ‘X’ who was the alleged assailant in the case and ‘Y’ who was a witness to the alleged fight. The case contains a long discussion of the dispute over the card game, the actions of the Club in refusing to sell alcohol to the participants and the adjudicators’ musings as to the likelihood of the dispute leading to a further fight outside. The adjudicators felt that it was more likely that X had started the fight since he was the one who had been accused ‘rightly or wrongly’ of cheating in the card game. They also discussed the likelihood of a man breaking his leg just by falling over or whether it was more likely that a leg would be broken as a result of a kick. There are several references to the amount of alcohol that each man had consumed. The claimant had ‘only one glass of beer early in the afternoon’, while X had ‘been drinking in a public house’ before going to the Club. They decided that they believed the claimant’s story, that there was no misconduct. They did not think that it was reasonable to expect him to take his assailant to court. This was irrelevant to the sickness benefit claim and so the claimant was entitled to benefit.

A Christmas Salesman

The other Christmas case comes from 1949 and concerned a man who was a self-employed salesman. He had broken his right hand and had claimed sickness benefit for two months on the grounds that the broken hand prevented him from carrying out his normal work. He was refused benefit on the grounds that he had continued to do some work, keeping his business going, and so flouting the rules which required claimants to ‘do no work’ while claiming benefit. He appealed to a local tribunal against this decision and, when he was refused again, he appealed to the National Insurance Commissioners. The published Commissioners decision gives us the outline of the case, and reveals the relevance of Christmas. In this case it was absolutely crucial. The claimant was a salesman who relied Christmas sales for his business to make a profit. He broke his hand in late October and was claiming benefit from then until mid-December, a period when he would normally be maximising his Christmas sales.

‘It is unreasonable – as in my case- to expect a self-employed man with stocks of Christmas goods laid in for selling to the shops to do absolutely nothing and idly watch the selling season pass by thus having his capital tied up in goods which will not sell the rest of the year.’

The Commissioners accepted his argument. Although he had attended to some book-keeping and tried to sell some of his Christmas stock, he was effectively not working over the relevant period and so he was entitled to sickness benefit. This case is interesting, mainly because it contains a useful discussion of the rules concerning working while claiming and how far a self-employed person could be allowed to keep their business ticking over while still being eligible for benefit. The question that remained for me was what on earth was he selling? The papers tell us that he was selling ‘Christmas goods’ and that he would be unable to sell them at other times of the year, that he was selling them to shops, that he normally drove around in a car carrying ‘heavy bags’ but we don’t know what the bags contained.

Information from:

National Health Insurance Commission (England) (1916) Reports of Decisions on Appeals and Applications under Section 67 of the National Insurance Act 1911 and Section 27 of the National Insurance Act 1913 Part III  Cd. 8239. London: HMSO,case 62
Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1955) Reported Decisions of the Commissioner under the National Insurance Acts Vol 1. London: H.M.S.O, CS 499 KL
Archive material from The National Archives file CT 11/25

Photographs from Getty Images for illustration only

 

 

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Red tape in the archives

I was in Belfast for the Social Policy Association annual conference.  The talk at the conference was all about austerity, poverty, stigma, the decline of the welfare state, the Budget.  There were excellent presentations from researchers at all stages of their academic careers.  There were discussions of ‘impact’, questions about whether or not social policy research makes a difference, how we can do it better.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

But my trip to Belfast also had another purpose: to have a look at some benefits papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, conveniently located next door to the conference, in another magnificent purpose-built building.  As with the National Archives in London and the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, many of those using the Northern Ireland records are ancestor-hunters, looking up long lost family members using official papers of all kinds.  My hunt was for benefit claimants.  Throughout my research on the history of incapacity benefits,  I have often wondered what happened to the people who were refused benefits. Some of them appealed and some of them won their appeals but many didn’t.  In a collection of files in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland I have found out about some of them.  The Public Record Office holds files of correspondence to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister’s office in the 1920s and 30s, and there are about a dozen files concerning people’s problems with sickness benefits.

A Tale of Persistence

Here I found a man who claimed sickness benefit in July 1928 and was told he was fit for light work.  He appealed against that decision and the appeal confirmed the original decision.  He wrote to the Prime Minister asking for advice so that he could ‘procure justice’.  The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that, since he had unsuccessfully used the appeal procedure, there was nothing more that could be done. So then he claimed unemployment benefit.  His unemployment benefit was refused.  He appealed against that decision and the decision was upheld. So he wrote again in March 1929 to the Prime Minister asking for advice.  He was told that all the appeal procedures had been followed correctly.  What to do next?  In November 1930 he wrote to the Prime Minister again about his unemployment benefit and asking whether, if he couldn’t get either sickness benefit or unemployment benefit, perhaps they could give him a job with the labour exchange.  The Prime Minister’s office replied saying that, since he had followed all the appeal procedures, there was nothing they could do about his benefit but that should a suitable vacancy arise, he would be considered for a job.  By August 1931, his persistence seemed to have paid off as his next letter concerned his dismissal from a two month temporary contract at the labour exchange.  Unsurprisingly there was nothing that could be done, since: ‘retrenchments are necessary and that those who can best be spared are the ones who are selected first of all for retrenchment’.

Fast forward to 1938 and we find the same man writing to the Prime Minster again asking for a job.  This time we are told that he worked for a temporary period for the employment exchange in 1934 but had been laid off again.  The file closes with a polite letter from the Prime Minister’s private secretary ‘regretting that there are no vacancies at present for which you could be considered’.  At that point he seems to have given up.

Learning from the letters

What did I learn from this file?  I learned a lot about this particular claimant. Over the course of the correspondence, which amounts to thirty-three letters altogether, I learned that he was married and had seven children, including three who were grown up and unemployed , that he had worked in the ‘shirt and collar trade’ and that he had a war injury of some kind from the First World War and that he was desperate to find work. One thing can be said for him and that is his tenacity.  I also learned a bit about the appeal procedures for sickness and unemployment benefits and how they operated in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, providing further evidence to support what I had found in the archives in London and Edinburgh.  There are a few more files like this in the Northern Ireland archives, though none quite so lengthy, which provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who were claiming sickness benefits in the 1920s and 30s.

Red tape

Even more exciting were some legal papers concerning an appeal to the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  These papers gave me detailed insight into the Dickensian legal procedure, complete with the original ‘red tape’.

These papers describe a young man’s, ultimately unsuccessful, claim for sickness benefit in 1913.  The papers are there by chance, having been deposited by the legal firm which represented him.  This case was particularly interesting because it seemed to be the same one that I had read about in a published version of the appeal decision, but this time with all the letters, backwards and forwards between the legal firm, the Approved Society and the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  There was even a copy of the final decision, still in its envelope with a stamp, addressed to the claimant.  In the short time I had, I made some hurried notes.

The conference, hosted by the University of Ulster, was held in the newly built Belfast Metropolitan College, in Belfast’s ‘Titanic quarter’, in the shadow of the stunning Titanic museum.  There wasn’t time for me to have a look round the museum, so I’ll have to go back another day, see the museum properly and read some more of those papers.

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The sound of breaking glass

In January 1927, Miss O claimed sickness benefit from her local Approved Society. They told her she wasn’t entitled, so she took revenge on them by ‘creating a disturbance’ at their office and ‘maliciously broke the glass of the vestibule door’. Unsurprisingly, she found herself up before the local police court and was ordered to pay a fine of 21 shillings or endure ten days imprisonment. She was also expelled from the Society, thus cutting off any possibility of any further sickness benefit from them. She had been a member of the Society since the beginning of the National Health Insurance scheme in 1912.

Unfortunately I know little more about Miss O. I don’t know what her health issue was or what her usual work was. All I know is that her claim for benefit from January to June 1927 was refused and that, by September 1928, she had acquired a criminal record and her place of residence was described as the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. The Southern General was an old poor house which, by the 1920s, was being used mainly as a long term hospital for people with ‘incurable’ psychiatric conditions. Things didn’t look too good for her. But somewhere between smashing the glass door of the Society’s office and ending up in the hospital eighteen months later, someone had advised her to appeal against the refusal of benefit and the expulsion from the Society. She appealed using the internal society appeal procedure and, when she was unsuccessful, she appealed again to the Scottish Board of Health. The referee at the Scottish Board of Health was pretty clear that the expulsion from the Society was legitimate – creating a disturbance, breaking a glass door and being convicted of breach of the peace was clearly a case of ‘personal misconduct’ and so the Society was entitled to expel her. The problem was how to decide on the date of the expulsion. This was important, because the earlier the date, the less likely there would be a need to consider the claim for sickness benefit, which was no doubt going to be more complicated. The Referee referred the case to the courts to decide on the date of expulsion. The court was pretty clear – the original decision by the Society to expel was the correct date. The decision about the sickness benefit would then have to be looked at again, but now only for a few weeks.

This case is important for several reasons. It provides yet another case of someone being effectively refused benefit because of moral behaviour – breaking glass and making a fuss in a local office is perhaps a criminal offence, but is it really a reason to refuse someone benefit, by expelling from the Society? The fact that she ended up in a psychiatric institution may or may not be evidence of earlier mental health issues which would have entitled her to benefit. One thing is clear and that is that somewhere along the line she got advice about her right to appeal, from someone who understood the law well enough to know how to work through the complicated appeal procedures.

But more importantly for this research, Miss O’s bad behaviour in her local office has provided me with the first conclusive example of an appeal  case being heard by the Scottish Board of Health in the period between the two World Wars. Up until today, all the cases I have been able to find have related to England or Ireland. The procedure in Scotland was a little different and I haven’t been able to find any records before now. Miss O’s case ended up at the Court of Session, so a record was kept. There are a couple of others like hers but perhaps that is all I will find.

Today I have been working in the historical search room in the National Records of Scotland. It’s a small and friendly place, with wood-panelled walls, a balcony with shelves of old books, people working at terminals consulting digitised records and others sitting at big desks with old documents. Some are making handwritten notes. Others, like me, use laptops. One has a ‘Hogwarts’ sticker on her laptop. I hope she likes the atmosphere here, though it’s rather more welcoming than the Hogwarts library. Other than the excitement of finding old documents, there is no magic and no dragons though there is a carved wooden lion and unicorn above the door. There are no malicious wizards or scary teachers in sight, no quills but lots of parchment. Outside there is the archivists’ garden:

Archivists' garden, National Records of Scotland

Archivists’ garden, National Records of Scotland, June 2015

Perhaps a magic place after all.

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Cake in the archives

Heron outside the National Archives, Kew, London

Heron outside the National Archives, Kew, London

I was working my way through another batch of appeals papers in the National Archives this week.  It was slightly tedious work.  The papers had a depressing similarity to ones I’d seen before.  I wanted to stop and have another coffee. But that would involve packing up my things and going downstairs to the lovely coffee shop. Then I found cake in the archives. I was looking at an appeal case by a farmer in 1960.  He had been claiming sickness benefit until a sick visitor came spying around his farm and caught him:

‘Feeding cake to the sheep’

I don’t suppose it was chocolate gateau but it made me smile and kept me from the cafe for a little longer.  Quite apart from the cake, it turned out to be a most interesting case.  The farmer’s benefit was stopped because he was thought to be ‘working’ while claiming and so the whole case concerned whether feeding his sheep and riding a tractor constituted ‘work’.  The National Insurance Commissioners decided that it didn’t and so he was allowed to keep his benefit. But his case was typical of many cases around that time, concerning farmers and other self-employed people.  The dilemma for the decision makers was how much ‘work’ a self-employed person was allowed to do while retaining their right to benefit.  It wasn’t easy.  Most self-employed people cannot let their small businesses run entirely without some supervision, even when they are ill, but does that constitute ‘work’?  And the claimants all felt justified in their claims for benefit because, they argued, they were making considerably less money than usual, and were often losing money by paying supervisors or other assistants to do the work they normally did.  These examples of self-employed people’s claims for benefit provide useful illustrations of how sickness benefit schemes are designed to suit the working lives of people in conventional employment and do not operate well for anyone who doesn’t fit that pattern.

and a dog

My second cake moment came when I was looking through the minutes of an ‘approved society’, responsible for paying sickness benefits between 1911 and 1948.  The National Archives kept some quite detailed records of a couple of societies, for preservation, when the sickness benefit scheme transferred to the state National Insurance scheme in 1948.  The minutes, from 1912-21, mainly contain tedious discussions about staff wages and office supplies, such as how much to spend on new typewriter ribbons, as well as more interesting statistics on the cost of administering the scheme and how to manage the work of the scheme during the First World War. This is all very useful information, if you are interested in how the approved societies managed their business but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.  And then I found a dog in the archives.  In the minutes from October 1918 was this statement:

‘Brother Aubin reported a dog in Office and Brother Thompsett moved that the Secretary be asked to leave the dog at home.’

It wasn’t cake but it had the same effect. This time I really couldn’t make a connection with my research but, again, it kept me going until the next coffee break.  I stayed on till the archives shut, then I came out into the sunshine and spotted the heron in the pond outside.

 

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Owls in the archives

Researchers often talk about serendipity in research: that means coming across something when you didn’t expect to, or as the dictionary defines it: ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’ (Oxford English Dictionary). My last trip to the National Library of Scotland produced such a happy accident. I was trying to find a copy of the ‘model rules’ for approved societies from 1912. These advised societies how to write rules about things like ‘behaviour during sickness’, for example when it would be appropriate to stop someone’s benefit because they had been drinking or fighting. I knew I had read these in the library before and had made some notes but wanted to check them again for further details. So I duly ordered them up through the online library catalogue. Instead of providing me with just one booklet, the librarian produced an entire box of leaflets and pamphlets – it seemed there was more than one copy of the model rules. There were rules for men, rules for women, rules for Scotland, rules for England, rules for Ireland, rules for new societies, rules for old societies. Actually they were all quite similar to each other (at least in relation to things that I was interested in). The most exciting thing for me though was a tiny little leaflet which turned out to be in entirely the wrong place. This leaflet was ‘The Family Guide to National Insurance’*, published in 1948 and, it seems, delivered to every household in the country. In it was an introduction to the scheme and, best of all, cartoons of owls. Owls claiming benefits:

Family Guide 1948 'making a claim'

Family Guide 1948 ‘making a claim’

Owls cashing their benefits

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

I loved it. I couldn’t borrow it from the library but I found a copy online in the Science Museum, an archive film about the guide on the Pathé website and, eventually, a copy available from a second hand bookseller, so I now I have my very own ‘Family Guide’. I told the library that the booklet was wrongly filed so I hope they will now be able to catalogue it and make it available to other enthusiasts (whether interested in National Insurance, public information, mid-century cartoons or owls).

What does this add to my research though? Well the process of looking for the booklet also led me to the Science Museum and the Pathé website and a whole world of archive material on the post-war National Insurance scheme. That probably doesn’t add much to my actual research but it gives me another glimpse into the world when the scheme was first introduced – and an excuse to put owls on my blog (and tweet about them @JackieGulland).

* Ministry of National Insurance (1948) Family Guide to the National Insurance Scheme. London: HMSO.

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Novelists and doodlers

This week I have been back in the National Archives in London, working  my way through case files for appeals against refusals of sickness benefits from the 1950s.  These case files are the main source of data for my research and have provided me with valuable insights into the decision making process for sickness benefits across the twentieth century.  The files from the 1950s show me how the post-war national insurance scheme was beginning to define the important concept of incapacity for work.  Most of the cases that I am looking at from the 1950s were published and can be found (with some difficulty) in libraries but the archive copies include all the background papers relating to the case,  sometimes including letters from claimants, notes from doctors and the off-the-record opinions of the civil servants dealing with the cases. The cases include people who have been considered capable of work and often discuss alternative work that people might have been able to do.

A lost novelist?

Yesterday I came across a man who was claiming sickness benefits in the 1950s.  The Ministry of National Insurance thought he was fit for ’light clerical work’.  The claimant argued that he had tried various things and been unable to do them, including writing a novel.  This set me thinking ‘I wonder if he ever wrote that novel?  Maybe he became famous?’.  Since I had his name I thought I’d just have a quick internet search and see if his name popped up anywhere in the second hand book websites.  Sadly it didn’t.  What would I have done with that information if he had?  I’ve made a commitment to keep the people in the case files anonymous so I would have just kept the information to myself.  But I like to think that maybe he did write that novel after all and maybe published it under a pen-name.  Or maybe he had to find more mundane work after his benefit was stopped and didn’t have the energy left to write the novel in his spare time.

Doodles in the archives

And today I found a file with doodles on it.  Pencil drawings. The creations of some bored civil servant perhaps.  Maybe, like the novelist, this civil servant went on to become a famous artist? Probably not since they weren’t very good.  In the mean time what was she or he doing doodling on a copy of an important legal document?  Fortunately, perhaps for the perpetrator, it is not possible to put a name to these great works of art.

All of these things remind me of the pleasures of archive research.  As well as adding information that just can’t be found in the published material, they add these personal touches that show that the cases concerned real people, with lives and futures.  They also remind me that the people dealing with the paperwork were human too.

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